As we welcome summer, we hope to leave behind our COVID-19 vocabulary—pandemic, PPE, PPP, and perhaps the most overused “p-word,” pivot. Although the former may fade away, “pivot” is here to stay as the pace of change continues to accelerate around the world. Pivoting can become easier if you engage in another p-word, planning—more specifically, scenario planning.
Many school leaders and boards found scenario planning to be an essential tool in navigating the complexities of a pandemic year. I recently had the occasion to talk to school heads to learn how they employed this tool and how it changed their thinking about the future.
School Journeys Through the Pandemic
Most schools used scenarios to plan for the various ways that COVID-19 could disrupt the school year. All the school heads I spoke with structured the work by launching task forces made up of various school leaders and trustees; some also included local public health officials and civic leaders. All used multiple scenarios to plan and provide resources for the many forms school could take in an unpredictable year. School leaders say they liked scenario planning because it gave them some semblance of control in an out-of-control world, and they agreed that it would become part of their toolkit going forward.
While the most common use for scenario planning was the pandemic, some schools used it more broadly to plan for long-term financial sustainability and to accelerate change. Ashley Harper, head of Wakefield School (VA), began scenario planning before the pandemic to imagine potential financial scenarios and the changes the school would need to make to achieve its desired outcomes. Harper used financial modeling tools to help her identify the most sustainable path forward. The work has not only put the school in a more stable place, but it has revealed a more appropriate value proposition. Thanks to her leadership and a strong team supporting her, the school is on a strong path forward with record enrollments.
Kevin Glass, head of Atlanta International School (GA), has been using scenario planning for a long time. AIS recently envisioned how the key drivers of access to technology, sustainable economic growth, cultural values, demographic shifts, race and gender relations, community relationships, and climate change could impact AIS between now and 2030. To create scenarios, the AIS team imagined how these drivers could be affected through various stages of scarcity/abundance and collaboration/polarization. This work will help them imagine how the school, in each scenario, can create a learning environment that prepares students to be real-world problem solvers.
Scenario planning opened the door to aha moments for many schools. Matthew Nespole, head of Key School (MD), says that connecting through Zoom gave parents more access and created a stronger community. Perhaps more important, the entire experience led the school to prioritize well-being. By examining their processes, they realized where their current system produced stress for students and adults. They are now working toward eliminating that by taking a deeper dive into pace and exploring how they could reconstruct the school day.
Paola Clark, head of Escuela Bilingüe Internacional (CA), employed a key principle of scenario planning in her process—she read and listened to as many diverse perspectives as possible. That process of casting a wide net allowed her and her team to consider a range of possibilities and plan for the paths that made most sense in her school’s culture. She noted that the pandemic has been a massive accelerator of change and that scenario planning will be the new way to conduct strategic planning. By engaging in this process, her school was not only able to adapt but also enhance IB teaching and learning practices, grow enrollment, strengthen the community, and identify the school’s “sweet spot for long-term sustainability.”
Alan Braun, head of the Valley School (WA), says his team’s work with scenario planning relieved anxiety and gave the team the confidence to change course when needed. The mindset they adopted because of the pandemic also led them to dig into the second pandemic of systemic racism cohesively and intentionally. They used Tiffany Jewell’s This Book Is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work to guide them. He says they are now getting more comfortable with being uncomfortable and are learning the importance of staying focused on mission, being their true authentic selves, and remembering that, at its heart, education is relational. They are now leaning into a culture of trust rather than rules.
Even the most high-functioning of school teams found that the pandemic could bring them to their knees. Mike Cobb, head of All Saints’ Episcopal School (TX), says they were lost when COVID-19 first struck, and that was a new feeling for his team. They had long used agile thinking to stay ahead of change and address challenges, but that was not enough. Scenario planning helped them through massive uncertainty. Cobb now plans to marry the two processes to ensure long-term sustainability for his school.
At The Lawrence School (OH), Head of School Doug Hamilton and his team engaged in scenario planning centered on the specific needs of their population: students with learning differences. They knew it would be particularly important for these students to be in person, in front of teachers who know their nonverbal cues and understand how they process information. Because of the school’s focus, it has long had a medical advisory board in place. That group was a critical sounding board during the scenario planning process. Hamilton says having these established relationships and a foundation of trust was key to a smooth and overall successful process.
Employing Scenario Planning Post-Pandemic
Moving into a post-pandemic world, scenario planning remains an essential tool for independent schools. Uncertainty will be with us for the foreseeable future, and scenario planning can help schools navigate that successfully. Still, it can also challenge conventional thinking at a time when we most need it. More traditional types of forecasting can be useful in the short term because they prepare us for predictable futures, but scenarios take us into the unexpected and open our eyes to possibilities that were previously unseen. As Peter Drucker said, “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence itself, but to act with yesterday’s logic.”
NAIS is in the process of building scenario planning resources specifically for independent schools that will offer frameworks, scenarios for various external forces, and case studies. If you want to get started with scenario planning now, these four steps outlined in the Bridgespan Group’s toolkit can guide you:
Scenario planning can open your lens wider to envision new possibilities and plan for them. Let’s leverage the future for the success of independent schools.
- Identify key external forces that could affect your school’s offerings and long-term sustainability. Note which drivers have both a high level of importance and a high level of risk.
- Develop scenarios that incorporate the best-, moderate-, and worst-case scenarios anchored in the key drivers. Translate scenarios to reflect their impact on your six- to 12-month revenue forecast.
- Develop a set of actions that would allow you to manage against each scenario effectively. Quantify the financial impact of these actions to understand total estimated savings achieved or costs incurred.
- Determine concrete and measurable trigger points that will prompt your school to act at the right time. Monitor them regularly to ensure that you make and execute decisions quickly as circumstances evolve.