Your School’s Big Dream: Creating a Vision for the Future

Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Whenever I think about strategy-making, this quote comes to mind, as so many well-thought-out strategic plans end up as a collection of faster horses instead of a better mode of transportation. Why is that? Are traditional strategic-planning processes inherently designed to push us to build on what we know versus what we may need but not yet fully understand? Can these processes serve us well in this time of great change?

The answer depends on how a school approaches strategy-making. Too often, we start with a collection of needs instead of a North Star to guide us, that is, a firm vision statement of why the school exists. The former approach almost always results in enhancing what we know while the latter can open new thinking. Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, suggests that, “All organizations start with why, but only the great ones keep their why clear year after year.”

When I facilitate strategy-making retreats for boards, I often ask trustees to answer the following questions about the school:
  • What do we do best?
  • What is our core capability?
  • What needs can we satisfy that others can’t?
  • What kind of image do we want?
  • What are our ethical and social responsibilities?
  • What value do we want to have to our customers?
  • What do we want to be in five years?
These “what” questions can help a board to focus in on “why” the school exists. And that “why” can provide real clarity in developing a vision for the future. Consider the following vision statements that guide some well-known organizations.
  • Oxfam: A just world without poverty
  • Feeding America: A hunger-free America
  • Human Rights Campaign: A world where LGBTQ people are ensured of their basic equal rights, and can be open, honest and safe at home, at work and in the community
  • Habitat for Humanity: A world where everyone has a decent place to live
  • Teach For America: One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education
In every case, the vision is the North Star that reaffirms the “why” and guides the work of the organization in support of that aspirational goal. And the very aspirational nature of vision statements helps organizations to reach for tomorrow instead of focusing on the needs of today. Of course, a vision statement in and of itself does not eliminate the possibility of a strategic plan made up of faster horses, but because vision statements force us to question how we get there, they can open new lenses into the future and fuel our ability to find new strategies instead of just enhancing those we already know.

In their 2007 book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath explored the idea of vision through another lens: the power of a sticky vision. Four of their suggestions for “stickiness” seem particularly applicable to schools:
  1. “Articulate your organization’s ‘core idea.’” The Heath Brothers refer to this as your secret sauce. If we can’t articulate that core idea that makes a school distinctive, it is almost impossible to establish a cohesive and compelling vision. When schools face market challenges, leaders often respond by trying to add more and more services, and in so doing, can lose their focus.
  2. “Don’t zoom out, choose.” If we have an Achilles’ heel as an industry, this is it. We want to do it all — if there is a need, we want to meet it. Sticking to a single idea in a mission or vision can be difficult, particularly if that statement is being developed by a committee or a board. In their book, the Heath Brothers tell the story of a pizza restaurant developing a mission statement. They begin with the mission statement, “To serve the tastiest pizza in town.” After a rigorous group discussion and an analysis of all the restaurant’s services they end with, “To create cuisine-related solutions for regionally proximate families.” The lesson is clear: When an organization tries to say it all, it loses its secret sauce.
  3. “Make the vision concrete.” Just as important as the notion of focus is the need for specificity. We must seek clarity in a vision statement so that everyone is united on where we are going. A concrete vision streamlines decision-making and resource allocation, as it is an effective filter for what will and won’t help to attain the vision. Too often, we see vision statements like this: “To create an experience that pleases our customers; a workplace that creates opportunities and a great working environment for our associates; and a business that achieves financial success.” This could be the vision for almost any kind of organization and is so broad as to provide very little direction.
  4. “Show why employees should care about it.” Simon Sinek suggests that customers will never love a company until employees love it first. This is a very important consideration for schools. Our teachers, administrators, students, and parents are our most vital brand ambassadors. When they are excited about what is happening at the school, their zeal can be infectious; people want to be a part of it. Thus, a vision that excites faculty and staff can move the community forward with real power. Consider the vision statement of the company Life is Good: “Spreading the Power of Optimism.” Now that is a vision that puts a smile on your face! We in the independent school community need to step back and think of the vision statement as the school’s big dream.
In assisting start-ups with developing a vision, productivity coach Kirstin O’Donovan suggests that organizations should think of a vision statement as a photograph of the future business. Doing so will give the business shape and direction. Several years ago, best-selling author Daniel Pink consulted with organizations to help them uncover their secret sauce by having employees take pictures of what they most liked about working for that organization. Those pictures were powerful statements about what the organization must keep at its core to remain successful — the values that underpinned their “why.”

In closing, I know that many school boards and leadership teams — and NAIS, too — will be engaging in strategic planning over this summer. I urge everyone to start this process by asking questions and thinking about the message in Henry Ford’s quote. Some of the most successful organizations have been founded by asking questions instead of seeking answers. In the New York Times article “The Power of ‘Why?’ and ‘What If?’,” the author tells the story of the invention of the Polaroid instant camera.

The inspiration for the instant camera sprang from a question asked in the mid-1940s by the 3-year-old daughter of its inventor, Edwin H. Land. She was impatient to see a photo her father had just snapped, and when he tried to explain that the film had to be processed first, she wondered aloud, “Why do we have to wait for the picture?”

The strategies for success are changing. If we don’t ask different questions, we will continue to end up with faster horses — not driving the future.
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Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.