In the context of an independent school, or any not for profit institution, the strategic planning process has three main components which are directly tied to the mandate of the Board. They are: to preserve the Vision (philosophy and overall mission of the organization); to understand the present (be grounded in the current realities of the school); and, to construct the future (the Strategic Plan must not only dream, but must also outline a path to make that dream a reality). In contrast to long-range forward planning which is a process to build on present conditions in a systematic fashion through forecasting future needs; strategic planning begins with the ultimate end in mind and through the process of backcasting works backwards through all of the intermediary steps back to present realities. Educators understand the concept of backwards design with respect to curriculum development, but often forget its implications for strategic growth as well. What exactly is backcasting? Backcasting takes forecasting to a new level. Where forecasting looks at current trends and tries to analyze what they mean for future conditions (like a weather forecast); backcasting looks at a possible future and then works backwards to determine what factors or interventions will be necessary to construct the future that we desire. Environmentalists use both methods, constructing models of future degradation based upon business as usual and contrasting that with the preferred future and then determining the actions that society needs to take to get there.
The second path is the one that we want to take in our Strategic Planning.
It is important to remember that the real strength of Strategic Planning is in its capacity to create dissonance in people - to upset old views, identify new possibilities, and pose new questions. In that sense it is more than just a planning tool but is, rather, a process of changing and transforming the organization.
If you have this model in your mind when you undertake the Strategic Planning process then it is easy to distinguish between the two components of the initial stage of your discussions: Vision and Mission.
In a nutshell, your Vision Statement outlines where you want to be and embodies both the values and the aspirations of your school. It talks about your future and provides the inspiration for change. By contrast, your Mission Statement defines your purpose and primary objectives and talks about how you are going to get to where you want to me. The Mission contains both your concrete goals and an operating framework to achieve them. In most cases, your Mission "objectives" will be measurable, shorter term steps towards a realization of your Vision. A key part of your review and/or refreshing of your Vision and Mission statements will involve some careful analysis of where you are now and where you would like to be in the future. This will involve detailed reflection by the Board, Senior Leadership and key friends of the school; it will involve consulting with your stakeholder groups: parents, staff, students, alumni etc.; and it may take some outside research into emergent societal and educational trends, new models of delivery of service, or potential demographic changes. This analysis and fact-finding will help you to clarify what your role is in the community and what should be next on the horizon.
Once you have articulated your Vision, and defined the Mission for the next three to five years, then you are ready to begin, using backcasting, to create a strategic road map of the route to lead the school from the present to its desired future. The "road map" will have milestones (or benchmarks) along the way that will identify critical success factors that are well-defined and quantifiable measures of success that will help to assess your progress as you implement the plan.
You will notice that so far I have not mentioned designing an "action plan" for implementation. Although this is where many Boards often focus their planning (building new facilities; changing programme models; adding technology; etc.), in actual fact these are the relatively unimportant details that you should leave for your "activity planners" (Head and Senior administrators) to research and present back to you. Your interest should be in being convinced that their proposed initiatives will actually ensure that you reach the performance goals that you have set out rather than having the "actions" become ends in themselves.
Finally, once you have refined, communicated and implemented your plan, it is essential that you establish regular reviews and reporting of your achievements based upon measurable, observable outcomes. You should be prepared to make mid-course corrections and expand your indicators to include unexpected new outcomes. The extent to which you effectively monitor your progress and determine that you are meeting those benchmarks will be the true indicator of the success of your plan and its implementation.
As I noted in my last post, you have a choice. You can either create a polished document that sits on the virtual shelf; or, you can initiate an organic process that propels you forward to your desired future.
Come to think of it, there really isn't any choice at all!