Compasses, Maps, and Strategic Planning

This article originally appeared in the November 2017 Monthly Recharge published by Leadership+Design.

As a Head of School, I spend a lot of time engaged in strategic thinking with our stakeholders. I bring the perspective of a Head, but also a Leadership+Design consultant who's led strategic design for other schools.

Whether at Watershed or elsewhere, strategic planning sets the same trap: plans become to-do lists. And since most of the trustees serving on our boards come from a corporate world - and they are rightly concerned with translating strategic work into action - the language of accountability can mean a rigid belief in Gantt charts, timelines, and dashboards.

The problem is the world can change suddenly. Heads of school leave unexpectedly. Boards unravel. Technology disrupts, markets shift, and financial assumptions can be rendered irrelevant.   That's why Pat Bassett has famously called for "strategic thinking," not strategic planning.

That's also why Whiplash is right to implore leaders to embrace "compasses, not maps." A compass sets a direction, but it doesn't pretend to know what rivers you'll need to fjord. A map sets a step by step course - but as all of us who've used Google Maps in a new city know, its model of reality doesn't always match the situation on the ground. What do you do when the street it wants you to take is closed?

At Watershed, we built a 10 year financial model that allows us to understand the long-term impact of current-year decisions about key financial levers: enrollment, tuition growth, financial aid, staffing, and compensation. Of course the future won't follow that path - but it helped all of our leaders to have a conversation about the push and pull between key financial drivers. As we had discussions about financial aid, we knew we were also having a conversation about faculty compensation. Our decisions about tuition were made annually, but always with a long-term view of financial health.

Similarly, our current 3-year strategic plan was an approach to building a virtuous cycle: first, clarify our position in the Boulder market. Use that clarity to drive enrollment growth and achieve financial sustainability. Use that financial health to invest in the program, thereby delivering higher execution of our mission.  1, 2, 3.


Strat Plan 3 Steps.jpg

There were many ideas for implementation in that strategic document, some of which happened, such as a new May Term global studies program . Other ideas were explored but dropped.

As Watershed grew, we achieved a stronger financial position - but growth also exposed new needs in our community, thereby changing our priorities for how to spend those hard-earned dollars. Some of the best developments in our school's program, such as hiring a new Director of Social-Emotional Learning, advanced our strategic priorities though it was never specifically called for as an action item.

As we approach the end of our three year planning cycle, Watershed is healthier and better - but also different than we could have envisioned three years ago. By using a compass, not a map, we took advantage of what we learned about our school as we grew. We identified new opportunities. We stopped small experiments that didn't pan out.

Maps hold tremendous psychological appeal, as they flatten a 3-dimensional reality to a flat, 2-dimensional surface. They suggest certainty and the rhythmic cadence of sequential progress. But school leaders have an opportunity if we think in terms of compasses. Our work is messy. But even as we work through the ebb and flow of life in schools, we can uncover paths that take us in the right direction.

Greg Bamford