The secret to a strong plan: Making it doable

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” These words are as true today as when poet Robert Burns wrote them hundreds of years ago. In schools, good planning articulates a vision for student success. Throughout my career as an educator, I have engaged in strategic planning. Curriculum mapping is strategic planning. School improvement planning is strategic planning.  To make real progress, schools and school districts need a plan.

Unfortunately, research has found, too often strategic plans have not resulted in significantly improved outcomes, particularly for low-income and minority students. Focus is placed on developing the plan – doing the hard work of analyzing different data points to identify the highest leverage strategies for improving student learning. Equally important, and challenging, however, is implementing the plan, making sure that it does not just sit on a shelf but is continuously referred to, monitored, and revised.

As districts do the hard work of developing plans for how they will improve their most struggling schools, as required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), there are a few key steps to keep in mind to ensure these plans can be used to make real change. 

Translate your strategies into actionable initiatives

Start by breaking down strategic goals, particularly those that are high level and multi-year, into definable, time-bound initiatives or projects. Each defined initiative should include key activities, a budget that includes personnel and non-personnel costs, a schedule with milestones, deliverables, performance metrics, and a list of the people responsible for each of these tasks. We all tend to think big when we are planning, but when it comes to implementation, you need to be realistic. Prioritize your initiatives, actively pursuing those that you determine, based on an analysis of resources and with input from your team, your organization can successfully deliver. Given the new strategic goals, determine which existing strategies and programs should be continued, modified, or discontinued and when. An important part of this analysis is understanding the current and needed capacity of those who will be doing or overseeing the work detailed in the plan. Those who support educators on the ground often need to develop new knowledge and skills. As professor Paul Manna has found, plan implementation falters when leaders are not mindful of how implementation requires the people responsible for doing the work to alter the work they have been doing and take on new tasks.

Build an implementation roadmap

Once you have identified your initiatives, work with your teams to build a comprehensive implementation plan. It’s critical that this work be collaborative to help ensure your teams’ buy-in and willingness to support the work. A strong implementation plan balances the urgent with the important while prioritizing and aligning daily actions and behaviors to achieve district or school goals. You can predict and plan for intended and unintended consequences of key decisions by being mindful of local, state, and federal laws, regulations, and data as they relate to district operations and stakeholders. A strong implementation plan focuses on relationships between/among initiatives; cross-functional/departmental/programmatic impacts of initiatives; and interdependencies between initiatives that potentially require changes in such things as timelines and resource allocation. Design and implement a governance and reporting structure to oversee and monitor the plan. This map will help ensure that the scope and length of the initiative is realistic and appropriately sequenced.

Create your case for change and mobilize the organization

Plan implementation is a lot of work, so you will need to convince your staff that it is necessary and will pay off. Through recurring and visible communication and outreach, leaders can empower and engage their leadership teams to rally, motivate, and inspire staff. Draft a communications plan that makes it clear why the changes outlined in the implementation plan are needed. A strong communications plan identifies audiences; determines the information each audience will need to support the plan; identifies the best format for reaching each audience; and determines who should deliver each message and when.

It is also important to anticipate resistance to some of the changes articulated in the plan. It’s human nature to resist change. Developing an executive summary of the strategic plan can help your staff digest and connect with the plan. Data is also critical for helping key stakeholders like school board members understand the current state of the district and the rationale behind plan priorities. As you make your case, look for and quickly address potential gaps in understanding among staff about priorities, decision-making roles and responsibilities, and belief in the school’s ability to make real change. As a leader, it’s important to model how to navigate change, demonstrate empathy for diverse perspectives, and maintain a steadfast lens on instructional improvement.

Assess and monitor progress and risk

One of the most common pitfalls of effective plan implementation is failing to regularly monitor progress and pitfalls, and adjust the plans as needed to address those assessments. Use continuous and structured cycles of inquiry to review data and identify persisting areas of inequity with principals and their leadership teams. When goals are being achieved, it’s important to acknowledge and reward that success. When you and your team fall short of your goals, ask why. Are the goals unrealistic? What about the timelines? Does the team have the resources needed to be successful? You can use the plan budget and schedule to regularly hold team members accountable.

Strategic planning offers opportunities to set a new course for addressing systemic inequities and improving access to learning opportunities for each student. If the pursuit of an equity agenda does not pervade the culture of a district, then it is unlikely that it will become the focus of every school within that district. As we shift our attention to implementation planning, we need to ensure that we build capacity of all adults to have conversations about racial and other inequities that hold students back from achieving excellence. That will only happen with careful planning.

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About the Author — Michele Shannon

Michele Shannon is a National Leadership Facilitator for the NYC Leadership Academy. Michele was formerly Chief of Schools for Boston Public Schools and the Sr. Director of Administrator Development for Los Angeles Unified School District.

Focus is placed on developing the plan, equally important, and challenging, is making sure that it does not just sit on a shelf but is continuously referred to, monitored, and revised.

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