Retreat Number One

Following the approval of the scope of work by the School Committee, we held a full-day retreat for the Senior Management Team to design the strategic planning process in earnest.

Our goal was that Senior Management Team members would leave this retreat feeling more like they were truly part of a team, with a better understanding of each person's role and clear norms for working with one another throughout the strategic planning process. We also wanted the team to leave with a better sense of the overall purpose and governance structure of the strategic planning process. We drafted a detailed facilitator’s agenda and worked in partnership with the superintendent to do some fine-tuning based on her experience with the team. The high-level agenda was the following:

  1. Welcome & Opening Activity
  2. Text Study: Understanding the Change Process
  3. Setting Group Norms
  4. Understanding the "Swamp" of Ideas on Education
  5. Envisioning the Future Together
  6. Refining Mission, Vision, and Values
  7. Setting Priorities and Establishing Work Teams & the Steering Committee

Postcards from the Edge

The day began with an icebreaker in which we laid out a set of postcards, each featuring an evocative photograph or image, and asked each member of the Senior Management Team to select a single postcard to represent their answer to the following question: “How do you hope your personal role in this school district will effect positive and lasting change in the district and community?

This activity served the purpose of helping the Senior Management Team continue to get to know us and one another, while also encouraging each individual to reflect on their desired role in the strategic planning process. In this way, each member of the Senior Management Team could see how their particular role might contribute to the whole and how others’ work might complement their own. 


Learning Together About the Change Process

A strategic planning process is an exercise in change management; therefore, we believe that it is critical for those leading the process to understand the characteristics of such a process—complete with the most common pitfalls. For that reason we asked the Senior Management Team to read and analyze “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail” by John Kotter (Harvard Business Review, 2007). We then led the team in a “text rendering” protocol, developed by the School Reform Initiative, in which they discussed key takeaways from this article. While we found the Kotter article to be particularly helpful, there are many others in the change management and organizational development literature that could work well. The point is for the group to arrive at a shared understanding of the key features of any organizational change process.


The Necessity of Norms

Oftentimes, leaders believe that there isn’t sufficient time to develop group norms, as they seem “soft” compared to the nitty-gritty work of curriculum and instruction or budget and finance. We believe that developing and adhering to group norms creates a strong relational foundation for the difficult conversations that will inevitably ensue in a strategic planning process. 

Having a set of shared norms helps create a safe space, and keeps members accountable to one another.  At the retreat, the Senior Management Team agreed to a set of group norms for the strategic planning process that carried over into other meetings. We put these norms on a piece of foam core board and hung them in a prominent place at every meeting.

Navigating the Swamp of Ideas

We believe it is vitally important for district leadership to have a shared understanding of the “swamp” of ideas, i.e., the assumptions and expectations about public education—both positive and negative--that are carried by the community and the U.S. population at large. The idea is not to dwell on these narratives, but rather to simply know what one is up against so that the strategic planning process can include ways to open up a more imaginative conversation within the district and the community as a whole.

The Senior Management Team created its own “swamp” on a giant felt board. This exercise gave the team a chance to vent a bit, but more importantly, it helped them create a more aspirational story to share with others. Please see here for more information.

Using Video Prompts to Introduce Learner Variability

To provide the Senior Management Team with additional fodder for envisioning a bright future for the district, we then shared an excerpt from a video of a TEDx talk by Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Todd Rose entitled “The Myth of Average.” This talk makes the point that there is no such thing as an average learner and that education systems should be designed “to the edges.”

As you’ll see elsewhere in this guide, we used this video in many different meetings as a way of helping various stakeholders understand the need for change and the importance of designing educational systems that meet a wide variety of learning needs. It should be noted that we looked far and wide for compelling—and relatively short—introductory videos that could serve as prompts for productive conversation about the future of education. While there is an increasing number of videos about personalized learning and the importance of 21st century skills, many of these videos are about specific topics, not general surveys of why schools must change to meet the demands of a new economy and society.

The Todd Rose video worked well, both as an introductory primer to 21st century teaching and learning and as a prime for thinking in unconventional ways about education. It worked well with many different audiences.

Developing a New Mission & Vision

Many districts will want to revisit their mission and vision statements during a strategic planning process, though every district has its own unique history around these activities that must be fully understood and honored.  If, on the one hand, the school district has a mission and vision that are well established and fully socialized in the district and community, these statements can become the guiding lights of the strategic planning process. If, on the other hand, the mission and vision are a bit dusty and not reflective of the district’s desired future, it may be time to hit the reset button.  In either case, this is a conversation to have with the superintendent and other district leaders, as they are best suited to gauge the receptivity of various stakeholders, including the School Committee.

At the retreat, the Senior Management Team determined that the draft mission and vision that had been created just a year earlier by the School Committee did not reflect some of the latest developments in the district and merited revising.   We asked them to reflect on what about the drafts did or did not resonate for them, which helped us begin to gather input on what the revised mission and vision statements might contain.

In the final analysis, the most important consideration is that all stakeholders have some role in shaping these symbolic statements; they help set the priorities of a district and community and keep participants grounded in their intended outcomes.

Strategic Planning Governance

Finally, we used the remainder of our time with the Senior Management Team to begin to set up a governance structure for the strategic planning process.