Thinking strategically

Most board members I work with clearly understand the importance of strategic thinking for guiding the school’s future direction in a sustainable, intentional direction.  Having said that, many board members admit that they struggle to understand what it means to “think strategically”.

Strategic thinking is NOT the same thing as strategic planning, and indeed strategic planning can become an impediment to strategic thinking if not handled appropriately.  Many members of school boards feel more confident if they stay within their comfort zone of thinking operationally – planning, monitoring and executing – while at the same time acknowledging that they would like to develop more future-focussed strategic skills.

The strategic focus of a school board

When we consider “strategic thinking”, we should not restrict ourselves to the five-yearly (or so) process of developing a new strategic plan.  Strategic thinking should be a normal, regular, ubiquitous component of every board meeting.  Every decision a board makes should involve strategic thinking.

However, it is possible that not all board members have a common understanding of the key word – “strategic”.  The word “strategy” derives from the Greek στρατηγία (strategia), which means “army moving” or “generalship”.  Like military strategy, effective school board strategy means flexibility in placing resources where needed to achieve the goals that have been identified as key priorities.  In other words, being flexible to move resources if circumstances change is “strategic” behaviour.

It follows from this that strategic thinking differs from “everyday” decision-making because it adopts an intentional process which considers data (such as school culture, demographic change, risk factors, and so on) to identify the key priorities required to advance the school’s mission.

Research persuasively reveals that most people’s decision-making processes are consciously or unconsciously biased.  Most people pay very little attention to how they make their decisions, but rather they focus solely on the outcomes.  We need to understand that we gather knowledge in many disparate ways – our five senses, emotions, intuition, reasoning, language, traditions, beliefs, etc – and each of these ways brings certain advantages and shortcomings that we should recognise and acknowledge.

It is therefore important that when a school’s future is being considered – which means every time the board is looking to make a decision – strategic thinking is required.  Sound strategic thinking should be neither complicated nor time-consuming; it should simply but explicitly consider all relevant data and perspectives to achieve the best outcomes for the school. 

It is often said that there are five steps involved in thinking strategically:

When various options are being explored by a board, differences of opinion are almost inevitable, especially when various perspectives are considered.  Such differences of opinion are valuable – indeed, they are the point of having the discussion!  It is, however, essential that while the conflict of ideas is embraced, it must never degenerate into a conflict between people.  Mutual respect is essential for clear strategic thinking.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

We support schools that wish to develop a new Strategic Plan or Strategic Vision; see HERE for details.  We also conduct workshops on strategic planning such as OSG-S5 Mission, Vision and Strategic Thinking.

Detailed advice on strategic thinking is also provided in the book "Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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