I’m writing this blog during a 17-hour road trip that was supposed to be a 2-hour flight. My husband and I wanted to take our two boys skiing for spring break and have spent the last several months meticulously planning the perfect trip. I booked all of the fun activities, and he dusted off our equipment and bargain shopped for winter clothing. We found the perfect, non-stop flight that would minimize the frustrations of traveling with two young kids. And then mother nature brought the 4th largest snowstorm on record to Denver, Colorado. Thousands of flights were canceled, including ours.
Lucky for us, my husband’s superpower is that he can quickly pivot to accommodate change. Without hesitation, he loaded our already packed suitcases into the car, strapped the skis to the roof, and here we are, well on our way to the vacation we hoped for.
I can’t help but compare this experience to the constant pivots schools have to make on their journey to accomplish their goals. They engage in thoughtful strategic planning, identifying the outcomes they want for their students and the path they think will get them there. And then life happens. Even the disruptions that are easy to predict (staff or leadership turnover, policy changes, new district initiatives or priorities, etc.) can uproot the most thoughtful of plans, let alone the unpredictable, like a weather emergency or global pandemic.
The key to ensuring your plans (like your school’s improvement plan or your district’s strategic plan) weather disruptions is to plan for change instead of perfection. This means developing a plan that feels good enough for now, and recognizing that with more information and learning you will rework or redesign it based on what you learn. That last part is really important though – based on what you learn. In most traditional approaches to planning, data are viewed as a tool for evaluating success, something that happens at the end of a project or initiative. But waiting until the end to pay attention to data robs your team of the opportunity to learn something new and improve your plan based on that information.
Waiting until the end to pay attention to data robs your team of the opportunity to learn something new and improve your strategic plan based on that information.
Instead, consider the following strategies for using data in order to adapt and improve your plan as you go.
1. When you develop your plan, include indicators of progress rather than indicators of success
The latter is strictly focused on outcomes. The former can be more formative, focusing on fidelity of implementation or change in behavior before we even get to the point of measuring outcomes or impact.
2. Create teams with data use in mind
Prioritize time for those teams to talk about data and help them create meeting habits that ground their conversations in real-time observations and data.
3. Work hard at creating psychological safety within your teams
To have honest, frank conversations about data, even when it leads to difficult or uncomfortable conversations, psychological safety is necessary. Model the practice of using data to identify pivot points in your plans rather than to place blame for perceived failures.
4. Include opportunities to collect ongoing feedback
Collecting feedback on an ongoing basis should be built into your plans. Use that feedback to reflect on your plans and adjust as needed.
Thankfully, my husband’s quick thinking saved our spring break vacation. But the reality is that it didn’t have to come to that. For days leading up to our trip, I knew there was a massive snowstorm hitting Denver. I could have used that information to make some easier adjustments to our plans, like deciding to drive but leaving earlier so that we could break it up over several days. But because I was so emotionally committed to my perfect plan, I ignored the data and stayed the course. Eventually, the disruption was undeniable and our options were limited – drive 17 hours in one day or cancel our trip.
Don’t put all of your careful planning in jeopardy by failing to learn as you go. Expect change. Expect to learn. Expect that you will need to pivot.