An important piece of your school’s next Strategic Plan 

I’m not sure what to think of the idea of synchronicity, but it’s funny how in the space of just a few days you can have the exact same conversation with three different Heads of school, in three different corners of the world and they all say pretty much the same thing.

“Our last Strategic Plan was back in 2019 and, even though it was scheduled to take us through until 2025, we are starting to feel like we need something different.”

The reasons for this, of course, may be different in each context. Given how quickly the world around us is changing right now, five plus years with the same ‘map’ might just be a horizon too far to navigate towards for even the most mature educational institutions.

In some parts of the world, Strategic Plans have an unfortunate tendency of outlasting the school leaders. Meaning, many new Heads are given the tricky task of taking over where the last person left off and implementing a plan that can all too easily feel second-hand and a bit tired around the edges. And then, of course, there is the small issue of a global pandemic that relegated even the best laid Plans to the metaphorical back burner. To the point that, midway through 2023, they have either gone up in smoke or, at best, are difficult to locate.

So, if you’re starting to feel like you too need something different, please allow me to offer a small piece of advice:

If it’s time to build a new strategy, don’t overlook the opportunity to build an experience strategy.

We’ve said for a while now that the schools that will stand out in the future will be those that intentionally design the experience of school for its students, its families and its employees. That experience strategy, rather than being a warm and fluffy optional extra, is increasingly critical for schools that are looking to become places where students are happy and feeling like they belong.

Similarly, to those who are looking to see an impact on their brand, their enrolment, and their ability to recruit and retain outstanding teachers, there is plenty of evidence these days to suggest that experience strategy will take you much further than yet another cliche-filled marketing campaign.

So, if you sit on a school Board and you happen to be reading this, one way of thinking about this topic is to return to the work of Richard P. Chait (et al.). In particular, his seminal book Governance As Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards which famously summarises the three ‘modes’ of effective governance: fiduciary, strategic and generative.

From an experience strategy point of view, we can take Chait’s framework and draw three important conclusions:

  1. Your school’s ‘experience’ is one of the most important assets that you have in your possession. It is critical to design this experience with intentionality and not just leave it to chance.
  2. If your strategy is written without understanding what students, families and employees are experiencing, and will need to experience in the future, you run the risk of building a pathway to a version of school that may be obsolete before you get there.

  3. There is an exciting opportunity for school Boards and leadership teams to look together at their school through the lens of experience, to review what’s working and what’s not, and to imagine a future that has truly been designed with the user in mind. 

If you’re about to embark upon a new Strategic Plan, don’t just think about the buildings, the finances, future enrolment, educational programs, examination results and, perhaps, a capital campaign. Take the time to review and plan towards an experience that is both uniquely yours and uniquely relevant. That, more than anything else you do, will make your school truly stand out.

David Willows is the Co-Founder and Strategic Director of [YELLOW CAR], the world’s leading Customer Experience Strategy consultancy firm for schools.

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