On October 17, 1777, English General, Gentlemen Johnny Burgoyne, surrendered an entire British Army to Horatio Gates, commander of the American forces at Saratoga, New York. If the battle of Lexington produced the “shot heard round the world” then Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga produced the “shock heard round the world.”
At Saratoga the unthinkable happened. A well-equipped, well-trained, professional army sent by the most powerful empire on earth was utterly defeated by a novice army comprised largely of farmers and craftsmen and led by men with virtually no military training. The world was turned on its head and someone had to pay. Sound familiar?
You might not be leading a revolution, or trying to thwart one, but I think you would agree that you live and lead in turbulent times. As a consequence, leadership challenges can seem unrelenting. Moreover, you will be judged on your ability to respond effectively to that pressure. If you ably guide the school you lead through crisis and challenge to greater levels of impact, you will be considered a success. If, however, under your leadership difficult situations are not resolved, leading to diminished impact, you will likely become a target for criticism.
That may seem unfair. Perhaps it is. But unfair or not it is reality. You can embrace your call to leadership willingly, act decisively, invest great energy and still fail to produce a positive result. Indeed, this happens with disheartening frequency. So what can you do to increase the probability of long-term success at your school?
To answer that question, begin with this phrase: The process is the plan.
General Burgoyne had a plan created by some of the greatest military minds of the British Empire. It was a plan based on sound military strategy—divide and conquer.
On paper it looked brilliant. The planning process that produced the plan was, however, deeply flawed because Burgoyne and his superiors violated three key planning process principles:
Principle One: Objective assessment is essential to the success of any planning process.
Burgoyne’s goal was to end the war by splitting the rebellious colonies in two. He would accomplish this by connecting his forces in Canada with an army led from the south by General Howe and to do so with “all possible expedition.”
That, of course, never happened.
The plan that developed in London failed to adequately account for the kind of terrain Burgoyne’s army would be forced to traverse—a countryside with so many trees and other natural obstacles that over one twenty-four-day period, Burgoyne was only able to advance his army a mere twenty-three miles. So much for expediency.
Adding to the problem was King George III’s involvement in the planning process.
While the initial idea was not his, the king soon enthusiastically adopted it. Once that happened, serious discussion essentially ended. Anyone who had any misgivings kept silent in the face of the king’s endorsement. Sound familiar?
If this were a rare occurrence it would not merit our attention.
Unfortunately many plans are created via a process that does not adequately provide for thorough, objective assessment. The reason for that lack of objectivity is simple. None of us are truly objective. We are all shaped by our personal experiences and private agendas. So, unless you are willing to invite an objective voice to be part of your planning process, you risk missing crucial information to which you will be hopelessly blind.
Left to yourself, you are less inclined to ask tough questions. Nor is it likely that people will ask tough questions of you. That is simply human nature. It is the difficult, probing kind of question, however, that typically produces the best quality information. You need a good coach to guide you, to ask those tough questions, to probe beneath the surface, to push you to think a bit deeper, a bit more creatively. You may choose to deflect or ignore those questions but at least they will be asked.
Principle Two: A compelling vision will always trump the status quo.
The British never fully understood the true motivation for the revolution, and that failure caused them to consistently miscalculate. The British vision was simple: Return the rebellious colonies to the empire. The American vision, while equally simple, was far more compelling: Give me liberty or give me death.
Without a compelling vision, planning tends to focus on minutia: Who? How much? When? Those are important issues but they will not sustain people during crisis.
Nehemiah faced this problem when he led Israel to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. About half way through the project, with opposition mounting, the people found themselves overwhelmed by massive piles of debris. There was too much rubbish and not enough progress. We can learn a lot from Nehemiah’s response.
He neither berated them for a lack of faith nor ignored the ugly reality of the moment. And he didn’t try to rally the troops around his leadership with a stirring speech. Instead, he simply reminded them of a simple fact: they had been called to a singular, essential task by a God “who is great and awesome” (Nehemiah 4:9–14).
Plans don’t create vision. Plans don’t motivate people to sustain efforts at excellence. Plans may provide a framework, a road map of sorts, but plans without vision become shackles that trap and confine.
Principle Three: In a dynamic world, flexible implementation strategies are often the difference between success and failure.
Take this statement to heart:. “A battle seldom develops according to plan. Victory or defeat rests on the ability of one side or the other to exploit the changing circumstances on the field of combat itself.”
The British army was defeated at Saratoga because they had no idea how to respond to the terrain in which they found themselves. They were not afraid to engage the enemy. On the contrary, they were a well-trained army that fought with great tenacity and courage. They lost the battle because they simply couldn’t adapt to changing realities.
Plans quickly become static. That’s one reason why so many “strategic” plans never see the light of day once they are completed. In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins quotes one CEO who observed that “plans are useless but planning is priceless.” I don’t agree that plans are useless, but rest assured that circumstances will change. Additional information will come to light. New opportunities will appear. Key people will get transferred. The stock market will decline. Murphy was right: “Everything that can go wrong will go wrong and at the worst possible moment.”
One common characteristic of great leaders is their ability to adjust in a fluid environment without surrendering the essentials. So what can you do to increase your capacity to implement and maintain a dynamic planning process? Consider the following five steps:
- Enlist a Strong Team. Planning is a team sport. As the author of Proverbs reminds us, “Without consultation plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22). I am not talking about a standing committee on long-range planning. The typical planning committee creates the perfect environment for static thinking. A quality strategic planning task force will create and maintain an effective balance between strong leadership and wise counsel.
- Identify What Is Non-Negotiable. The first, in my opinion, and most important, task of any planning team is to identify the heart of the organization: its purpose, its mission, its values, and its beliefs—those things that are non-negotiable, those things that could not be abandoned without doing serious damage to the organization. Only when an organization understands what is fixed can it respond with an appropriate level of flexibility to changing circumstances.
- Determine What’s Most Important Right Now. Every school has limited resources. You simply can’t do everything you want to do. What you must do instead is to decide what will make the greatest difference for the greatest number of people at this moment in time.
- Celebrate Each Success. It typically takes three to five years before any significant change becomes “the way we do things around here.” When people are able to see and experience the predicted positive results of change, however, it helps speed the acceptance process. Public celebration of small successes will increase public awareness and support in a positive way.
- Continuously Evaluate Progress. The Japanese use the word “kaizen” to describe the kind of continuous evaluation and step-by-step improvement that leads to greater levels of excellence. An appropriate evaluation process will ensure that necessary refinements can be made leading to improving performance.
Strategic planning is not for the faint of heart. It requires a disciplined, nimble mind; a courageous heart; and a tenacious, yet gracious spirit. Objective evaluation of any organization can uncover serious problems that must be addressed. In fact, you may find yourself standing in the midst of a minefield wondering where to step next.
Are you ready?
If so, remember: It’s the process, not the plan.