You might recall that my April 14 article talked about an insidious foe of a solid board-superintendent working relationship: the assumption that your district’s performance – educationally, administratively, financially – is the preeminent factor determining the health of your partnership with the board. You might also recall my definition of insidious foe: “an erroneous assumption about the business of governing that can do serious damage to the board-superintendent working relationship. What makes these assumptions insidious – and hence especially dangerous – is that they appear to make good sense. In fact, you might even hear them proffered by wrong-headed management “gurus” as nuggets of leadership gold.”
Well, here’s another insidious foe that you should beware of: the assumption that traditional long-range strategic planning will strengthen your district by generating innovation in response to environmental change. In today’s rapidly changing world, getting your board involved in one of those cumbersome comprehensive planning processes covering an arbitrary period of three or – worse – five years can seriously damage the relationship with your board. The reason is simple: that this kind of formal long-range planning has proved to be a complete bust in terms of generating change initiatives in response to environmental challenges, seriously disappointing the board members who’ve been involved in it. But you’ll still hear people ballyhooing the importance of traditional long-range plans, so be on guard and don’t become the unwitting victim of wrong-headed advice!
I learned an invaluable lesson about the limitations of formal long-range planning early in my career when I was executive assistant and chief of staff to the president of a large, urban community college with three campuses and, at that time if I recall correctly, around 40,000 students. I was finally getting around to writing the paper that would make me a bonafide masters degree holder and get rid of that irritating “pending thesis” tag on my resume. I decided to do a study of the impact of the institution’s planning in terms of significant innovation. For the past five years, the institution had been engaged in a comprehensive long-range planning process that involved annually updating the projected activity in major goal areas for each of the next five years and compiling these plans from the bottom up: updated academic and administrative unit plans compiled into department plans into campus plans and ultimately into a college-wide “Five Year Plan of Advancement.”
The first major part of my study was to identify every college investment in significant innovation over the past five years. My criteria for coming up with investments were simple: resources – both time and money – had to have been allocated to a brand new program or project that didn’t exist in the current operating plan and budget and, therefore, couldn’t be considered merely an expansion of ongoing activity. The second part of my study was to determine the source of every one of these major investments in innovation in order to assess the innovation impact of the very elaborate long-range planning process that the institution had been using for the past five years.
You won’t be surprised to know that not one of the identified innovations had been generated by the comprehensive five-year planning process. The sources, in every case, were creative, aggressive administrators and faculty members working outside of the formal planning process – coming up with new initiatives and then fighting for them up the line until ultimately getting them approved and funded. Indeed, the college’s high-tech work retraining center was a classic example of top-down innovation, since the president himself spearheaded its development. What did the formal comprehensive long-range planning process have to do with the initiatives? It did what these formal planning processes typically do: historical recording and validation. Far from generating innovation, the college’s five-year planning process incorporated the innovations – once they’d been planned and funded – so they now had a formal home and could be projected forward into the future in the next iteration of the comprehensive plan.
In later years, I’ve seen this sad story repeated in various settings, wasting thousands of hours and pounds of paper producing no significant innovation – often at the expense of the board-chief executive partnership. Why does this kind of outdated planning, which has largely disappeared in the for-profit sector, still occur in public and nonprofit organizations? Based on experience, I’d say there are two primary culprits: (1) a very natural human desire to feel secure and safe in a threatening world in flux; and (2) the all-too-common demand of external stakeholders, most notably state departments and funders such as foundations, for evidence of planning and management capacity. Unfortunately, the planning documentation itself is often seen, from the outside anyway, as the product, without funders and other stakeholders digging into the real impacts of the planning process on organizational performance.
The solution isn’t to abandon formal planning. It’s to employ a modern planning process that focuses on generating significant innovation without getting bogged down in comprehensive long-range planning for meaningless periods like five years. But that’s a story I’ll have to deal with in another article.