Design as Strategy: The Cook-Schmoker strategy fight and the best practices of school planning

I was recently reminded of a really interesting educational research debate, or maybe fight is more accurate, about school organizational planning and design. The conflict is over the nature and usefulness of “strategic design” for schools.

To give a little context, consultant and blogger Aaron M. Renn (Urbanophile) offers us a breakdown of a strategic plan:

There are four parts to a strategy-driven program:

  • A vision for what you want to achieve
  • A set of capabilities or programs you need to get there
  • A list of activities to bring them into reality
  • Execution, execution, execution.

This structure of this loose framework is not in dispute here, although its applications certainly are.  

The first combatant in the strategy debate, educational data use advocate Mike Schmoker, in his article “The Tipping Point: From feckless reform to substantive instructional improvement” argues that “strategic planning” as a process has failed for schools. Strategic planning, the author contends, is a practice of long-term planning that discourages creativity and enthusiasm on the part of employees.

Describing the problems he perceives in strategic planning, Schmoker writes, “Invariably, we wound up committing to far more activities and initiatives than anyone could possibly monitor, much less successfully implement…Clarity and coherence suffered” (p. 426). Schmoker had worked on a number of plans and his article details challenges such as these and then proposes that schools replace “strategic planning” with a focus on specific short-term goals to be achieved by each teacher or staff member. Schmoker then uses the remaining space in his article to make an argument for “learning communities” that focus on “continuous improvement” in short-term gains rather than long-term goals.

In explicating strategic planning, Schmoker cites William J. Cook, Jr., an expert in planning. Cook, however, was not happy to be connected to Schmoker’s thinking and he published a response, “When the Smoke Clears” in 2005. Cook contends that what Schmoker describes so negatively is not “strategic planning” but rather a misapplication of the concept.

The problem, according to Cook, lies with a managerial approach to planning that is “comprehensive” rather than “strategic.” The author explains that management, which is concerned with the maintanance of the status quo, is generally in opposition to strategy which is about creating a different reality. Cook writes:

Here is the difference. Management is about compliance; strategy is about creation. Management is about rationalistic science; strategy requires intuitive imagination. Management is about probability; strategy is about possibility. Management is about preserving the existing order; strategy is about destroying existing structures to generate new formations. Management is about implementation; strategy is about creating capacity for constant emergence. (p. 73)

Cook continues:

However, planning can be considered strategic only if it sees a new reality and does whatever it can to push the existing system toward that reality or to begin working outside the existing system.

A strategic plan, therefore, according to Cook, is like a form of design. It imagines an alternate reality and sets out a plan for creating it.

It perceives the future not as some received or conjured “vision,” but as an irrevocable commitment to purpose beyond the ordinary. The first proof of a truly strategic plan is that most people see it as unrealistic. The second is that the plan is beyond the capacity of the existing organization to carry out. Management has neither the temperament nor the vocabulary for this kind of thinking.

It seems to me that this thinking is very much in line with the REAL School philosophies of school design–school leaders should be designers, constantly re-imagining reality in search of a transformative future no one would have thought possible while participating in the previous forms of the organization or its predecessors.

A final take away worth noting, is that Cook is very clear that organizational autonomy is a prerequisite for strategy. Districts can be strategic and so can independently operated schools, but a public school in the district system can only maintain, it cannot transform.

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