Most schools have bad strategies. At least, that's what author Richard Rumelt would say. His recently-released volume, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, incorporates multiple examples from organizations (including schools) that highlight the difference between good strategy work and bad strategy work. Rumelt has been engaged in strategy work for over thirty years, and is no-nonsense when it comes to pointing out "strategies" that really aren't strategies. His approach works: readers learn quickly how to spot bad strategy.
I read the tome fully twice, with the critical eye of an independent school person who has been engaged for several months in research on strategic planning in our schools, including an analysis of 50+ recent strategic plans from diverse independent schools. Rumelt's work is insightful, possessing a clarity rarely encountered when it comes to strategy work. My review of Rumelt's work, therefore, contains what I intend to be constructive criticism of strategy work in independent schools. At times, I may be rather blunt; such bluntness is intended only to underscore a point.
Strategy and Strategic Plans in Schools
From the use of "blue-sky objectives" (i.e. wishful thinking) to a permafrost of educational jargon to lists of 100+ "action steps", strategic plans in independent schools fail to be effectively strategic. It would be more accurate to describe them as "comprehensive to-do lists," with the occasional item that has true strategic implications.
In independent schools, "strategic plan" is an ersatz term for what would be otherwise clear nomenclature for other kinds of plans. For what it is worth, I offer my own nomenclature below:
- improvement plan - how a school can improve in specific areas (fundraising, curriculum, etc.) that show some degree of deficiency, relative to "best practices"
- evolution plan - how a school evolves in order to continue to meet its mission
- community-building plan - how a school rallies its community in order to broaden a base of support for its day-to-day work in terms of meeting its mission; acts as an emulsifying agent
- capital campaign plan (or: resources plan) - how a school can gain insight into the feasibility of conducting a capital campaign for bricks-and-mortar, endowment, etc. An early feasibility study, in disguise.
Each plan has its time and place within a school. In most cases, it is easy to make an argument that supports the fashioning of one of these plans; they are, after all, useful in terms of articulating where a school is, institutionally. Unfortunately, schools tend to blend/blur several of the aforementioned genres, calling the result a "strategic plan", reinforcing the (mis)conception that strategy is incredibly dense and complex. In fact, the use of the term "strategic plan" only obfuscates the reality that the various pieces are not linked in an efficacious manner.
A real strategic plan, for example, would not emulate template-based strategic planning, which is what the majority of schools appear to follow: outlining the process and people involved; restating the mission, philosophy, and history of the school; outlining some goals (sometimes mislabeled "strategies"); and listing (or referring to) many 'action steps' to follow. This template has produced a level of comfort over the years...and, I would argue, complacency.
Rumelt is, if anything, clear in what he says about strategy. Permit me to highlight the areas of importance, from his perspective, when it comes to separating bad strategy from good strategy.
Rumelt writes that "bad strategy is not simply the absence of good strategy. It grows out of specific misconceptions and leadership dysfunctions." He identifies four major hallmarks of bad strategy:
- Fluff - "a form of gibberish masquerading as strategic concepts or arguments." In other words, people tend to use "big" words that are unnecessary and refer to esoteric concepts.
- Failure to face the challenge - "when you cannot define the challenge, you cannot evaluate a strategy or improve it."
- Mistaking goals for strategy - "many bad strategies are just statements of desire rather than plans for overcoming obstacles."
- Bad strategic objectives - "objectives are bad when they fail to address critical issues or when they are impracticable."
For schools, bad strategic objectives often arise in the forms of slogans or superficial statements. One example would be, "We will work to identify areas of improvement in school communications." How is that a strategy? It sounds more akin to ongoing improvment work; to elevate it to the status of a "strategy" or "strategic objective" is giving it a status it doesn't merit.
Schools, as academic communites, are also prone to using "fluff" in their plans, given that "fluff has its origins in the academic world" (37). Rumelt insists that it "masquerades as expertise, thought, and analysis" (38). A classic example that we see in schools falls along such lines as: "we are a school with strong, bright faculty members who instill a life-long love of learning." Fluff. No esoteric terms, to be sure, but what does this phrase really say? Answer: that "we're a school." A superficial restatement of the obvious. Mind you, there's nothing wrong with reminding ourselves that we love learning and that we wish to instill a love of learning in our community, but isn't that our mission? How is it strategic? Mission does not equal strategy.
A strategy, after all, is "a way through a difficulty, an approach to overcoming an obstacle, a response to a challenge" (41). The 50+ plans I've studied in detail, in large measure, rarely portray any strategy: they're not showing a clear way through a difficulty, presenting an approach to overcome some obstacle, or responding to a challenge. For example, many recent plans [post-2007] could be reduced to the formula of "increase enrollment [aka market share], control existing costs, and look for additional sources of revenue." There might be all kinds of "texture and detail" (41) in such plans, but the elephant in the room is ignored: 1) enrollment has fallen precipitously, 2) costs are out of control, and 3) additional revenue is needed to keep the doors open. Urgency and the necessity of correcting course is the elephant in the room, but anyone reading the plan won't see it because the plan doesn't mention it! As Rumelt notes, "If you fail to identify and analyze the obstacles, you don't have a strategy. Instead, you have either a stretch goal, a budget, or a list of things you wish would happen" (42-43).
Probably the greatest example of bad strategy in schools is mistaking goals for strategy. "We will be the school of choice in [name your city/market]." Or "We will delight our community with innovative curricula." Or again, "We will work to support the surrounding community." Or perhaps, "We will research ways to offer increased benefits to our faculty and staff." Is there a point of leverage here? "A strategy is like a lever that magnifies force." Yet, in the aforementioned examples, it is clearly absent. They are not bad things, per se, yet they're not strategies; rather, they are aspirational goals. An actual strategy might read, "We will increase faculty and staff salaries by 10% within two years by increasing Annual Giving by 5%, with the result of increased attraction and retention of faculty."
In other words, don't confuse performance goals with strategy. If schools would benefit from a resource plan (or a progress plan, evolution plan, etc.), then great! Just don't call it a strategic plan. What is more, a real strategic plan is episodic at best: opportunities, challenges, and changes don't occur like clockwork every three years, five years, seven years, or ten years. They occur when they occur, and that is when schools should formulate a strategic plan.
The hard thing for schools, though, is that we must choose, i.e. we must make choices, when focusing on a true strategic plan. By choosing on what to focus, we necessarily must choose to focus on one thing (or perhaps a few), setting aside other things. When we don't do this--when we focus on 10 things--or 25 things--or a to-do list of 130 things, the result is "amorphous strategy" (59). In schools, where we struggle to please many different groups for many different reasons, the notion that we should narrow ourselves runs contrary to our existence. It is perhaps paradoxical that our schools, whose existence is predicated on choice within the market, struggle to make choices themselves. In other words, the essential difficulty in creating strategy is choice.
"Good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favorable outcomes" (53). It is identified by what Rumelt calls a "kernel," which contains three elements:
- diagnosis - "simplifies the overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as critical" (77)
- guiding policy - "overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis" (77)
- coherent actions - "designed to carry out the guiding policy [;] steps that are coordinated with one another to work together in accomplishing the guiding policy" (77)
Rumelt identifies the kernel as "the bare-bones center of a strategy [...]. It leaves out visions, hierarchies of goals and objectives, references to time span or scope, and ideas about adaptation and change. All of these are supporting players" (79).
A good strategic diagnosis can be of the most help in an overall strategic plan. Rumelt points out the following item, which we (educators) can appreciate: "For instance, we know from research that K-12 student performance is better explained by social class and culture than by expenditures per student or class size, but that knowledge does not lead to many useful policy prescriptions" (81). In other words, if a challenge is ill-defined in a diagnosis, then the strategy to deal with the challenge will not be effective.
The guiding policy is a very useful part of one's strategy because it allows for (even encourages) flexibility. Many folks assert that the lack of flexibility is a glaring fault line within a strategic plan -- and they're right. (That's because most plans aren't truly strategic in the first place, if that message hasn't come through yet...). It "channels action in certain directions without defining exactly what shall be done" (84). Such a policy defines "a method of grappling with the situation and ruling out a vast array of possible actions" (84). The problem with vision statements, by contrast, is that they don't spell out clearly how an ambition will be accomplished. As schools, we're big on vision statements; however, have we truly considered the "chatter" within a faculty (and even administration) about how hard it is to accomplish the vision? We tend to chalk it up to internal differences (or something else that poorly defines the real problem: a lack of strategy). Happily, though, "a guiding policy creates advantage by anticipating the actions and reactions of others, by reducing the complexity and ambiguity in the situation, by exploiting the leverage inherent in concentrating effort on a pivotal or decisive aspect of the situation, and by creating policies and actions that are coherent, each building on the other rather than canceling one another out" (85).
Strategy is about action--about doing something, so the kernel of a strategy "must contain action." What is notable is that the coherent action "does not need to point to all the actions that will be taken as events unfold, but there must be enough clarity about action to bring concepts down to earth" (87). These actions focus organizational energy. By focusing on the necessity of acting, schools can retain clarity about what is--and is not--important, and plans can be abbreviated to a more manageable size.
Wrapping It Up: Toward a Future of Strategy Work in Schools
The term "strategic" seems to refer frequently to decisions that are made by top management: boards, heads of school, and, sometimes, senior administrators. I submit that we over-use (abuse?) the term to mean top-level decision-making, and, as a result, the adjective has lost its clarity over time.
Policy and design, generated by strategy, impose coherence on a system; in our case, on schools. Strategic design, therefore, is an "engineering of fit among parts, specifying how actions and resources will be combined" (92). This design benefits from the specification of what Rumelt terms a proximate objective. This objective imposes power (clear, feasible, short-term, and resolving ambiguity) over the natural workings of a system, in order to obtain a desired result. It does not look far ahead; rather, it forces the institution to take a strong position and create options, not conjecture about the unknown, which point can be met by additional strategy work when it occurs.
Rumelt goes on to discuss the importance and relevance of power, leverage, hierarchies of objectives, and the issues with what he calls "chain-link systems" in the remainder of his tome. What he returns to, though, is the importance of design in strategy. I recommend enthusiastically the section on 'the arc of enterprise" (pp. 134-141), in which he discusses how long-successful incumbents tend to decline, and how to look at companies/institutions that invade market space, if one wishes to see effective, design-type strategy.
It is my belief that independent schools would benefit from moving toward design-type strategy, or what I would term strategic design, in order to better craft and integrate our actions and policies--in other words, to become truly strategic.
The next stage of research, I think, lies in exploring what design-type strategy might mean, by linking design-thinking with the corpus of research on which Rumelt draws so eloquently and convincingly. As he writes, "Good strategy is design, and design is about fitting various pieces together so they work as a coherent whole" (141). The threats to schools aren't necessarily "specific new products or competitive moves", but "changes that undermine the logic of [their] design[s]" (141).