Monday, June 01, 2009

Perhaps it's time to ask a different existential question

Reprinted from the June 2009 edition of the USCG Performance Improvement Newsletter.

As many of you know, for the last several years I have flirted with the idea of getting back into the boarding school business as a faculty or administrative member. I recently came upon the strategic plan for a school in Pennsylvania. You’ll find the plan posted on the school’s website under the “About” tab.

I was struck by how the plan actually both represented the school now and the school they want to be. I was struck by how approachable the plan was, and I was struck by how rich the plan was. It’s like a rich seam in the earth, a seam which beckons we come forward and find the riches.

I wrote the head of school asking him a couple of questions, and his answers provide us, I believe, some food for thought.

Before I note any details of his response, an anecdote about a recent gig I had at a marine safety unit.

I was delivering the Team Leader/Facilitator course and during the first day, it became clear that a primary purpose of their attending the course was to prepare to facilitate a unit-wide strategic planning meeting where all hands would participate in a SWOT analysis. There was some slight trepidation that the session would not go well (based on some things that happened the last time this effort was completed); the students wondered if I might be able to help facilitate the meeting.

No conflict on my calendar, so I went to the XO and CO to see if I could offer my services. Not needed, was the response.

So, we worked “preparing for the session” into the TL/Fac class and the five students facilitated the SWOT session the following Monday.

The XO & CO were more than right: I didn’t need to be there.

Wrote the XO after the meeting: “The team prepared an aggressive agenda, pre-staged the room, employed silent brainstorming, affinitized the input & multi-voted to keep the session productive & on track. They did a great job guiding the unit through a successful, productive day in record time.”

How’s this tie in with that independent school’s strategic plan? Well, I’d asked the head about the strategic planning process, and whether or not they used consultants. I also asked about how they move from the strategies to action. Here’s some of what he wrote:
Our first SP was published in 2003, about 9 months after I was appointed headmaster. . . . I managed the process myself, including all the writing, as I'd had experience developing such plans at two other schools. Every member of our faculty/staff was assigned to one of six focus groups (these areas of focus were identified/selected by trustees and senior staff) - and, through a series of meeting with each group, we identified overall goals, then defined strategies that were paired with each goal.

In 2007 we published our second SP. The document you are referring to is the "external" version of our plan. I feel strongly that, to put it bluntly, a strategic plan needs to be presented to the whole school community (alumni, parents, foundations, etc.) as a marketing piece – glossy paper, nice pictures, etc. There's an associated "internal" document – the SP Implementation Schedule, that defines associated costs and the person/people who are primarily responsible for push particular strategies forward. . . . On an annual basis, I color-code all the strategies: green = completed; yellow = in-process; red = not yet begun. It gives a quick visual indication of where we are in each area. Also part of this update is a color-coded timeline on which an updated accounting of scheduled completion dates is presented.

. . . We've used the SP07 along with the Board-level planning instrument as a focal point and standing agenda item in our regular senior staff meetings. At every Board meeting, the senior staff member who is overseeing each of the four focal areas for the Board planning initiative gives a report on plans and progress for that particular area.

There's an argument to be made for engaging third-party consultants to help with planning. In fact, we used a local development/planning consultant to gather benchmarking data and complete a SWOT analysis for us. That was helpful in getting started - but, ultimately, the fact that we managed the process, start-to-finish, gave a different, more positive, sense of ownership of the plan than I'd witnessed in settings where the plan was developed and written by a consultant.
I thought the head’s comments were telling, particularly as I look back over nearly two decades of serving as a consultant, and right on target with the XO and CO who wanted me to prepare and coach their members. We’re not needed to do work. We should be spending our time teaching other people how to implement Baldrige-based processes and systems. Clich├ęd, but, teach a person to fish…

One of the things I’ve been grappling with is the existential question, “Am I making a difference.” I go into a unit to do some work, whatever it might be, and I wonder if I’m making any organizational difference. Sometimes, it’s hard to see what difference my work has made. Perhaps, it’s time for me to reframe the question. The question isn’t about organizational difference; the question is, “Have I provided people new tools they can use to manage and lead this unit and future units?” Perhaps our focus ought to be about preparing people – not doing organizational work, but providing the tools and skills and knowledge for those in leadership and management positions to do what is necessary to lead and manage the organization.


ERE said...


That was an excellent article. When I took this billet 4 years ago, I came in with the "Lead the horse to water" philosophy which I still hold. Thank you for expressing the effectiveness of educating a group and turning them loose so effectively.

LAR said...

I just wanted to let you know your "Existential Question" article really did resonate with me. To a great extent your conclusions sum up a lot of the frustration/futility I've been feeling and trying to identify the past few months, so thanks for sharing your thoughts.