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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Want to Become a More Agile School Leader? Try This

There’s a simple way to think about strategic planning
By Michael Cornell — January 23, 2024 4 min read
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The No Child Left Behind Act ushered in a gluttony of accountability schemes that required standardization and a reliance on being “data-driven” above all else. The SMART goal, the 1980s business-management goal-setting process, seemed to be just the right medicine for an industry not well suited to chase down numbers. Looking back on it now, this strategy seemed poorly suited to the demands placed on school each day.

IMPACT planning is designed to address the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of the modern world and of our work in schools. IMPACT is an acronym for Invite, Mission, Process, Analyze, Commitment, and Trust.

Every one of society’s challenges walks in the schoolhouse door every day. The IMPACT framework enables planning that is agile, responsive, and acted upon each day. IMPACT frames your planning process around who we invite to participate and the facilitation of meetings; the role of mission; the emphasis on process over outcome; analyzing the broadest array of evidence; commitments over accountability; and trust.

Invite your sherpas
An invitation is an intentional act and one that offers the opportunity for the leader to explicitly tell the invited that “I care about you and what you have to say.” It is also important to invite inquiry and well-facilitated dialogue that enables the leader to mine the collective wisdom of the group you’ve invited.

A way to put this together comes from the famous case study, Mount Everest–1996, a tragedy in March of that year in which five mountaineers from two widely respected teams died while attempting to summit Mount Everest. A key learning from that study was that the sherpas, the guides who were the true experts in all aspects of navigating Everest, were not involved in the critical decisions related to the climb, resulting in the deaths of the five climbers.

Your sherpas are your teachers, support staff, clerical staff, and parents. Invite your sherpas and watch people light up at strategic planning meetings and watch your plans light up student learning.

“It’s not what the mission says, it’s what the mission does.”
There is a great story about the time that President John F. Kennedy visited the space center at the time of the Apollo missions. During one visit, he asked a janitor, “What do you do?” The man replied, “I am putting a man on the moon, Mr. President.”

IMPACT ensures that your mission unites everyone around the same sense of purpose and breathes joy into our work.

Process over outcome
IMPACT planning emphasizes the individual actions that we want every adult to take in the service of children each day that we know will impact the school experience. It’s like analytics in sports . . . focus on the leading indicators of success (great teaching and leading practices). When we do that, the test scores and graduation rates become the results of our work and not the focus of our work. When the metrics rule the day, districts can lose sight of their mission and instead focus strictly on the metrics that are meant to represent it. (Harvard Business Review)

Analysis of Evidence

Using state tests, or other standardized assessment, to measure progress toward goals is often an exercise in collecting the stuff that is easiest to collect and matters the least. Your school is already very good at collecting evidence of student learning on a week-to-week or even moment-to-moment basis. Why not include in your plan what you’re collecting each day/week/month to establish tight feedback loops on student learning?

Leaders also have to do the retail work to ensure that they are collecting the evidence though their constant presence in classrooms and other student activities and use staff meetings as opportunities to discuss what you’re seeing.

Evidence is about the conversation, not the comparison.

Commitments and Community
College basketball coach Jay Wright says, “We all have different roles, but we all have the same status.” IMPACT planning emphasizes making commitments to each other as equals about how we will serve children and families. Commitments trigger important belonging cues that lead to true community. When we take off our “principal hat” or our “parent hat” and join together community around our commitments, we teach our children the most important lesson of all and create plans that get acted on at the same time.

When you use your process to bring people together as a community, you establish relationships and trust. It’s also important to bring your team together multiple times over multiple years so that the relationships and trust also enable humility and vulnerability among committee members. Brene Brown said, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” Isn’t that what we want from our strategic planning process?

Recently, I received an email from a veteran and well-respected teacher who said that “our district’s strategic plan is no longer a plan. It’s an action. It’s evident at every grade level at every school.” It was said that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” IMPACT is a simple way of thinking about strategic planning so that your district’s strategic plan is evident at every grade level at every school.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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