Site-Based Decision-Making

Chapter 15 - Strategy: Converting Intention into Action

Future Perfect Planning, as outlined in Chapter ****, enables the school council to imagine their school as they would wish it to be five or ten years from now. When blended with more traditional strategic planning, this vision can then become the focus for a living and fluid planning document, the school action plan.

The importance of a living and fluid document deserves underlining. Too many organizations approach planning as if shopping for a security blanket. If the document is thick and the supporting research thorough, the reasoning goes, the plan will protect the organization from surprise and danger. The real danger comes when people actually believe such plans and stick with them. It is a bit like pointing an ocean liner toward the ultimate destination, turning off the radar and puttting the vessel on auto-pilot.

Changing conditions require constant vigilance and adaptation. Especially during times of discontinuous change, the premises, assumptions and projections of last year and last month may be rendered obsolete or inappropriate from day to day.

Those who stick to their thick planning documents may wake up some morning to the moan of fog horns close by reefs and other hazards not foreseen by their plan. Swept off course by unseen currents, unprotected by someone in the "crow's nest," the ship struggles to regain steerage and survive danger and heavy seas.

This blind adherence to plans sometimes leads schools into difficulties which undermine the future effectiveness of the program. This "planning dependency" is closely asssociated with "implantation" change efforts which import and imitate the succesful programs of others. Hunger for clarity and for certainty can trap many teams into simplistic adoption schemes which inadequately address the need for adaptation to the local context.

The team can easily be seduced into writing a five year plan which stretches a series of activities out along a time line. Following a change model like CBAM, the team leads staff through stages of innovation, proceeding from awareness through *** and finally onto consolidation. The resulting document looks impresssive and reassuring, but appearances can be misleading. The plan is far too mechanistic to actually address all of the surprises which are likely to occur.

The problem is that change within a school should be an experimental process. Invention of successful programs requires learning as one proceeds. There must be open mindedness -- room for trial and error. Translating successful programs into thriving local versions requires careful observation and consideration of what happens when strategies are implemented.

In reality, the action plan for any one school should be the impetus for an experimental discovery process. It should be a work in progress, an overture. Themes from this overture will play over and over again through the ensuing performance, but they will be greatly altered by time and experience.

It is fine to lay out five years of activities, but the school council should acknowledge the likelihood that 65 to 85 per cent of the activities should be significantly modified as the project proceeds. As the team acts it should also learn. As i t learns, the plan should shift. In order to institutionalize this learning, reassessment and review activities should appear periodically across the project time-line.

"Let's take time to re-think our plan. How are we doing? What's working? What isn't working? What might we change? What's happening in other schools? What can we learn by looking inward? by looking outward?"

Fortunately, the magic of information technologies supports this kind of fluidity. Word processing allows documents to shift with experience and learning. Recent networking software allows automatic updating of all related files. Electronically stored plans can provide us with the flexibility we need.

What might such an action plan look like? The answer depends somewhat upon the state. The formats required by some departments of education leave room mostly for benchmark activities. They are especially well suited to the "implantation" model of educational innovation. If this kind of plan is required for compliance reasons, a school might develop two kinds of plans: one compliance plan and one with far more flexibility and learning built into it. The first might have quite a few goals to satisfy state objectives. The second should be far more focused.

This field guide offers a different kind of format in Appendix F and an example of how it might be sketched out for a single school in Appendix G. In the example, a school has selected the teaching of reasoning as one of its major goals for development over the next few years. The plan is a first sketch, a view of the future before it has happened. It is meant to be rewritten dozens of times as the team learns from its experiments and efforts.

To create an effective action plan, the school council must be aware of key components which belong in the plan and must acquire through the research process outlined in Chapter **** a repertoire of activities likely to promote the kinds of change envisioned by the group.

Action Components

As the school council looks out across five years and asks what activities are most likely to help them achieve their ultimate goal, they should make certain that they select in a balanced manner from each of the following:

1. Learning:

These are activities which involve participants in building their understanding of the innovation as well as their capacity to make the innovation come to life. Included in this component would be staff development experiences as well as many awareness experiences such as discussions, field trips, etc.

2. Practicing:

Research on staff development substantiates the value of extensive practice in relatively safe or simulated settings prior to implementation.1 Much staff development is flawed by its stress on theory as opposed to practice. What looks easy when modelled by the visiting consultant too often turns out to be demanding and difficult. Staff needs opportunities to develop new capacities in simulated settings which allow them to stumble without risk. Associated with this activity is the desirability of peer coaching and support systems which help the individuals persevere.

3. Experimenting

These are trial activities, ways of testing the school's readiness for the innovation. The school council identifies ways that members of the staff can test the waters, dipping their toes in to see if the water is too hot rather than plunging in only to discover that the temperature is scalding. The council recognizes that innovation involves risk. They proceed with reasonable caution, piloting the new approach with a few representative teachers, not just pioneers. They send out scouting expeditions, fully expecting that local conditions and contexts may require substantial re-design of the project based on what is learned from these early trials.

4. Re-Assessing:

Wise councils will step back from the flurry of activities at least once a month to gain perspective and review what is happening. These periodic reviews and reassessments need to be formally scheduled commitments, and the questioning process must be rigorous. Those who launch innovations sometimes become "true believers," and the zeal can actually blind them to the truth. In their passion to see the innovation fully implemented, they may disregard data which hints at failure or unanticipated problems. Such blindness can block the re-design process which is fundamental to successful adoption.

5. Consulting:

It is all too easy to bury everyone in action during the implementation phases and ignore the inclusion strategies highlighted earlier, but inclusion remains an activity set which is fundamental to success, especially if the school council sees adaptation of the innovation as its mission. Adaptation requires extensive consultation with all participants. How is it going for you? What's working? What isn't working? How does it feel? Do you have any suggestions for what we should be doing differently? Activities in this component include informal conversations, get togethers, surveys and any other communicative experiences which will inform the council's thinking. Consulting should also include discussions with those from outside the building, be they central office consultants, university people or colleagues from other schools or other districts. These outsiders can sometimes offer ideas and perspective less available to those who are close to the innovation.

6. Modifying:

"Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!" is a poor strategic approach for schools. This component requires periodic sessions to alter the original experimental efforts in response to new knowledge gained through experience. These activities need to be performed daily by the actual practicioners in order to make the innovation work with own students. On a broader scale, the school council should schedule these activities at least monthly to accompany the re-assessing described earler.

7. Extending

There will come a time, perhaps in the second year of the innovation, when a larger number of staff members will join the vanguard in sharing the innovation with their students. The action plan must accommodate and support this "passing of the torch" so that it is not dropped. Those in the second wave should have already been holding the torch through classroom visits and peer coaching opportunities in the previous year. Activities in this component concentrate on successul transitioning. What can best be done to expand successful adoption

8. Assessing

In addition to the components listed above, there must be formally scheduled assessments which gather data to determine the accuracy of basic program hypotheses. Is the innovation producing the predicted student outcomes? It is essential that the assessment activities match the innovation so that Information Age activities are not judged by "smoke stack" tests. Innovators often experience failure because they cannot demonstrate success in believable terms. The sucess may be there, but it may mean little if it cannot be shown.

9. Re-Designing

Some of these components seem redundant. That is intentional because the experimental process requires frequent revisions. Re-thinking is fundamental to a learning approach to strategy and innovation. Re-designing is a major, comprehensive shift of a program to take into account a year's worth of experience. It may include major shifts and changes in direction. Experience may have proven that certain premises or hypotheses were unsound. The school council must translate those understandings into a new plan of action.

10. Consolidating

There should come a time when an innovation has become institutionalized, when it will require little heroic action for maintenance. Consolidation activities are those which set up this condition and set the school council free to concentrate on new ventures.

The primary message of this chapter is the importance of building learning into action plans. Learning in this context refers not only to the staff development and training agendas required to implement new programs. It means that the school council and all participants will keep asking questions and revising their thinking and actions while they proceed.

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Copyrighted 1991 by Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.