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5 things that surprised me about strategic planning

By: Miriam Cohen on May 30th, 2023

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5 things that surprised me about strategic planning

Education Elements  |  Organizational Leadership & Change Management  |  Strategic Planning  |  District Leadership

The concept of Strategic Planning can be intimidating at first glance. If you haven’t gone through the process yourself, you may be familiar with the concept but have questions like “What does strategic planning mean? What does it entail? Isn’t that normally done by the CEO or the leadership team?”

If you’ve ever had one of those thoughts and are going to engage in a strategic planning process, I encourage you to read about the 5 essential things I learned about strategic planning during my career in education, policy, and as a consultant for Education Elements. 

Strategic Planning must be a community-driven process

An organization’s leadership team is critical in making decisions throughout the strategic planning process, but it’s not a good idea to make decisions in a silo. A strategic plan should address the district’s particular issues and capitalize on its unique strengths. For the leadership team to have a true picture of the organization or district, it’s essential to engage their community and get input on their views and needs. There is no one “right way” to facilitate community engagement. In strategic planning work with Education Elements, I’ve seen many different types!  From focus groups to empathy interviews, town halls to surveys, what is most important is that the feedback mechanism fosters honest and authentic dialogue that will help the organization or district grow and head in a positive direction.

Students are some of the most insightful of all 

One of my absolute favorite parts of the strategic planning process is hearing from students. After leaving the classroom, it can be easy to forget how insightful, mature, and thoughtful they can be. I’ve heard multiple superintendents describe this same idea, saying how speaking with certain students changed their perspective or illuminated new ways of thinking. I know that students appreciate being involved as well and their input tends to make any strategic plan stronger. In closing a session recently, a student spoke up and said that he used to think that the district didn’t actually consider his or his classmates’ feedback, but by having a seat at the table he now saw firsthand just how much their opinions mattered. In some districts, student feedback is solicited in the community engagement process, but in others, they play a larger decision-making role by sitting on the planning team. If you’re considering a new strategic plan, I highly recommend incorporating student voice as much as possible. Their wisdom will inspire you. 

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Language matters A LOT!

If you read the final version of a strategic plan, it’s easy to overlook the amount of time and effort that it took to create it. I’ve sat with teams as they hash out the details of their strategic plans over many months, and I’ve learned that people are incredibly intentional with their language. I’ve been especially impressed with how districts ensure their language is accessible to all members of their community. For example, you might not think twice about using the word “rich” to describe a district rich with diverse cultures, strengths, and ideas. However, in M.S.D. Wayne Township, they realized the term as translated into other languages would convey a literal meaning. In other districts, I’ve seen administrators comb through their strategic plans and eliminate educational jargon so that the plan is easily digestible for all. So whether it’s a revised mission statement or a new focus area description, I guarantee you that any sentence in a strategic plan has seen many edits before it was approved, no matter how simple the wording may appear. 

The power of post-its

When studying public policy in graduate school, I wanted to be in the rooms where change and decisions were being made. When I envisioned those rooms, I never would have imagined so many post-its! At every strategic planning session, we’ve put post-its to use in different and creative ways. I’ve seen them used to group ideas into themes that eventually became a strategic plan’s focus areas, or as a way to write down as many different ideas as you can during the design phase. Of course, post-its are just a conduit for the important work that’s key to any successful strategic plan–creative problem-solving, reflection, collaboration, and feedback. But still, if I’m choosing between a whiteboard or post-its, I’m choosing post-its any day!

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In many ways, drafting the strategic plan is the easy part

Creating the strategic plan is just the beginning! Putting the plan into practice is when the work really starts. There are so many decisions to be made and questions to answer: What actions are required to achieve our goals? Who should be responsible to lead key portions of the work? How will we know we are on the right track? Often, plans are masterfully written and then they gather dust on the shelf. When deciding to pursue a new strategic direction, make sure that your team is prepared to commit time, effort, and resources to implement the plan in the years to come. 

How can you prepare for the successful execution of your strategic plan when it seems like there are so many unknowns? At Education Elements, we adhere to the motto, “plan for change, not perfection.” The one thing you can predict is that something will come up that you could not have predicted. Instead, you need to be able to accommodate changing needs and priorities–and expect them. What’s most important is that your plan is grounded in your district’s values and accurately reflects where your constituents aspire to go. The path to getting there will change, but you’ll know you can trust your strategic plan to be your guide. 

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