Zero-Based Strategic Thinking

In 2012, I took a three-month, 10,000-mile solo road trip around the country, visiting 70 private and public schools and visiting with hundreds of educators. I have dozens of great stories from my travels, and I've met many talented educators. When I'm asked to sum up my journey, I find myself balancing boundless optimism with deep concern about our industry.

The institution of education is facing an existential transition caused by a confluence of factors, including universal access to information, global social and economic connectivity, and dramatic shifts in consumer needs and desires. This transition is a function of industry-wide mutations in demand-driven consumerism alongside the maturation of a vastly more interconnected system of knowledge creation and diffusion.

As recently as five years ago, educators politely listened to, and largely ignored, suggestions that the world is changing at a dramatic rate and that education must adapt. Today, many educators agree that the traditional Industrial Age model of learning no longer adequately prepares our students for their futures. As a result, many schools, and certainly many independent schools, have redefined their vision of the essential qualities of a graduate. We want our students to be good at asking questions, finding problems, working collaboratively, thinking across broad themes and systems, and understanding the rich diversity of the global experience. However, I've found few schools that actually align strategy, resources, systems, and customer-focused communication with that vision.

Simply put, most independent schools have been playing defense, hoping more or less to preserve their traditions while appeasing families with a nod toward change. But there are also some courageously inventive schools rapidly breaking ground on a very different system of learning. The latter are proactive, offensive-minded — focusing on strategic thinking that leverages creative, novel, and even quirky ideas that restrengthen the alignment of their core learning values with evolving consumer demands.

We need to pay attention to these schools.

Mutations Are Industry-wide Disruptions

My friend and "thought-colleague" Thomas Steele-Maley of the Kieve-Wavus School (Maine) introduced me to Shoshana Zuboff and her husband, Jim Maxmin, on a visit to their home in Maine last spring. Zuboff, now retired, was one of the first tenured women at the Harvard Business School, and she and Maxmin are both widely sought-after international consultants.

In addition to their book, The Support Economy: Why Corporations Are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism, Zuboff is in the process of writing another book about major shifts in capitalism and consumerism, including a focus on education. Her 2010 article in McKinsey Quarterly, "Creating Value in the Age of Distributed Capitalism," is an absolute "must read" for school leaders who want to understand the economic and social shifts that are driving changes in education.

In Maine, we talked for hours about the intersection of these cultural forces. Zuboff argues that consumer capitalism is fundamentally changing from "a mass production logic based on standardization and high volume throughput to a distributed logic based on providing people with the tools, platforms, resources, and relationships that enable them to live their lives as they choose." This paradigm shift — to what Zuboff calls a new "distributed capitalism" — is occurring in a wide range of consumer markets, including publishing, music, retail, health care, and, yes, education.

According to Zuboff, "Major shifts like this have historically developed through a process of mutation that drives fundamental economy-wide change. While innovations improve existing frameworks, mutations combine social, economic, and technological components in an internally consistent and wholly new institutional framework." She insists that the so-called "disruptive innovations" described by Clayton Christensen and others do not meet this mutation standard, and that is why, as she puts it, "despite so much that is supposedly disruptive, there is relatively little genuine disruption taking place."

Zuboff points out that Henry Ford's discovery of mass production was the mutation that shaped 20th-century managerial capitalism. She argues that a current example of this new kind of framework is the way Apple and iTunes have dramatically changed the economics of the music industry. "iTunes does for distributed capitalism what Henry Ford and mass production did for managerial capitalism; it introduces a whole new operating system for how to realize value for individuals."

In the education sphere, we are seeing the emergence of similar lower-cost mutations with major changes in textbook publishing; the explosion of massive open online courses (MOOCs) at the college level; access to academic content via iTunesU and many other free sources; the dramatic growth in online learning at every level from K–12 to postgraduate; personal learning programs like Khan Academy; the rapid rise of charter and hybrid learning schools that operate at far lower costs than independent schools; and much more.

Zuboff cites seven factors that indicate when a sector is ripe for mutation. Based on my dozens of school visits and interactions with hundreds of school leaders from all over the country, I find four of these factors are particularly, perhaps even frighteningly, relevant to the independent school landscape, and indeed the landscape of all public and private education:

  • Services are in high demand, but are affordable by only a few. Worldwide demand for education as a gateway to careers and higher earning potential is essentially infinite. But the vast majority of American independent schools are now affordable by less than 1 percent of the population.
  • Trust between the producer and the consumer has fractured. The General Social Survey of American moods and values shows a 10-point drop (38 percent to 28 percent) in trust in educational institutions from 1976 to 2006. Customers constantly evaluate educational options for their children and are ready to shift when they find one that improves their perception of value.
  • The education sector has high levels of fixed costs that could be shifted to, or subsumed by, more flexible, lower-cost collaborators, competitors, or networks. Schools have high fixed costs, mostly allocated to people and processes that deliver a largely undifferentiated service to their customers, and to campuses that no longer define the boundaries of learning. The key transactional medium — knowledge — is increasingly available through alternative, lower-cost, more tailored mechanisms that are available both in person and virtually.
  • Independent school end users — families — have needs and desires that most schools have yet to imagine. School client surveys are almost exclusively focused on satisfaction with respect to current programs. Little effort is spent on imagining future alternatives that meet consumer needs and desires outside of the traditional school structure.
Zuboff is by no means alone in seeing radical shifts impacting education as technology empowers people to bypass traditional structures. Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute for the Future and author of The Nature of the Future: Dispatches from the Socialstructed World, says that we are "moving away from a dominance of the depersonalized world of institutional production." The changes "threaten many established institutions and offer a wealth of opportunities for individuals to empower themselves...." Gorbis sees the rise of a new framework of societal connections that allow individuals "empowered with technologies and the collective intelligence of others in the social network to take on many functions that previously only large organizations could perform" — more efficiently, and at a lower cost.

Flow of Knowledge Dictates System Structure

In the physical world, there is also compelling evidence that our system of learning is perched on the edge of fundamental and inevitable reorganization that is largely beyond our control.

Adrian Bejan, a world-renowned professor of engineering at Duke University, is the creator of the Constructal Law, what many have called the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics. The Constructal Law states, "For a finite-size flow system to persist in time (to live), its configuration must evolve in such a way that provides easier access to the currents that flow through it." Bejan was kind enough to explore the impacts of his work on education via comments to my blog review of his book Design in Nature. He and his collaborators have rigorously demonstrated that all flow systems — be they highways, blood vessels, veins in a leaf, hospitals, or rivers — develop in such a way as to increase the efficiency of flow through the system, resulting in system-wide structures with remarkably similar and predictable topographies.

Why is this relevant to education now? Prior to the last decade, knowledge passed through a relatively small number of largely isolated or weakly connected pathways: individual schools, teachers, writers, universities, publishers, and libraries. That paradigm has now exploded into a vast multidimensional neural ecosystem of knowledge creation, consumption, and management that is accessible to anyone with a mobile computing device. I call this ecosystem the cognitosphere.

The Constructal Law requires that the now-connected system of learning (education) will develop along predictable patterns that maximize the flow of knowledge through the system. These evolving patterns represent precisely the change vectors that Zuboff and Gorbis describe. Entities (schools, universities, individuals, companies, social media groups, crowd- and open-sourced interest-based collaborations, research labs, etc.) that facilitate knowledge creation and flow — that fully develop the dynamic, creative, externally focused, adaptive processes that I found percolating at innovative schools around the country — will form the healthy, vibrant, main nodes, and trunks of this new education ecosystem. Regardless of their history, fame, or financial strength, schools that remain rigid, isolated, and focused on knowledge consumption will tend to wither. New actors formed out of Zuboff's mutations and Gorbis's "socialstructing" are already overtaking traditional schools as they strengthen network connectivity and promote rapid, efficient, flexible, fluid knowledge flow.

Natural ecosystems: a Fundamentally Different Learning Model

Nearly all of the almost 70 private and public schools I visited on my 2012 road trip recognize the significance of rapidly evolving external stresses, but they are reacting in a wide range of ways. Some are still tweaking the existing Industrial Age, assembly-line model of education and relying on an outmoded model of strategic planning that largely bases future options on past indicators of success.

Some schools, however, are re-imagining the learning process at a more foundational level, instituting truly innovative practices that embrace the realities of the shifting landscapes. In particular, my visits and interviews with hundreds of teachers, administrators, trustees, and students indicate that innovative schools are "backflipping" to the core lessons of John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and the other giants of the Progressive Era more than a century ago. These innovative schools, many of which have been highly successful for decades or more in the traditional model, share common characteristics of a new learning ecosystem:
  • Dynamism: Teachers and students restructure the use of classroom time and space. Teaching styles and classroom organization differentiate the learning experience for each individual child. Teachers and students are co­learners, with students taking increasing ownership of their learning experience.
  • Adaptability: Adults develop a growth mindset and actively embrace a level of constant change that reflects the world outside of class. Courses change and merge, and the boundaries of departments and subject disappear. Teachers balance standards-based instruction with project, group, and student-created activities.
  • Relevance: Learning is based on broad themes, not parsed according to a narrow definition of subject. Teachers and students establish all-school areas of study (justice, environmental stewardship, equity, democratic citizenship, design, local current events, future technologies, community health, etc.) that weave together disparate strands of learning into a tapestry of meaning resonant with the interests and passions of students outside of school.
  • Permeability: Students and teachers spend significant time off campus — in their communities and, through technology — connecting with other students, teachers, and experts around the world, at any time. The concept of school as differentiated from the "real world" disappears.
  • Creativity: Learning increasingly emphasizes the creation of knowledge along with a balanced consumption of foundational elements of a liberal arts education. Students lead their own learning through the design of problems, projects, and even course materials. Schools overtly teach the skills of creativity across subject boundaries.
  • Self-correction: The institution adopts self-correcting and regenerative mechanics that allow it to become self-evolving, not a slave to conflicting outside forces that are de-linked from educational best practices. They take time for frequent and authentic reflection. They gain comfort with constant change.

Here are just a few of the hundreds of "What if...?" questions that have sprung out of 10-minute brainstorms with business officers, heads of schools, admissions officers, and teachers. What if...
  • What if the teacher weren't physically in the room?
  • What if we build closer relationships with corporations in our community?
  • What if we could include home-schooled students in some of our programs or share our facility at a reasonable price for them?
  • What if we didn't charge tuition?
  • What if we got rid of divisions and worked as one school?
  • What if we did not have computers?
  • What if we got rid of 50 percent of our real estate?
  • What if we shrunk enrollment to fit the space instead of expanding space to meet enrollment?
  • What if we sent a whole class abroad for a semester?
  • What if we did not add a course without retiring another?
  • What if kids were grouped throughout the day by something other than grade?
  • What if teachers could not repeat something they did from the prior year?
  • What if we change the way we teach such that we doubled class size?
  • What if we got rid of all textbooks and paid teachers to develop digital course materials?
  • What if we dropped all departments?
  • What if every child's educational needs were met via customized learning in the classroom?
And these from fifth-grade students at Poughkeepsie Day School (New York):
  • What if instead of homework during the year, we had a week or two more of school?
  • What if students created their own schedules?
  • What if students were allowed to follow their curiosities — with time allotted and teacher support during the regular school day?
  • What if school were about what people really need in the world?

How We Get There: Zero-Based Strategic Thinking

The world is changing. Our vision of students prepared for that world is changing. Our schools must inevitably change at the systems level to meet these new demands. Can we imagine and enact institutional change using the same lens, maps, and tools that we have in the past? A rapidly growing community of futurists and educational thought leaders in both private and public education believes we need a new visioning process to proactively meet these existential challenges.

Since the end of my road trip last year, I have been fortunate to share my findings with educational leaders at regional association meetings and individual schools. In active-learning workshops, I put forward a simple prompt with each group: "Ask questions that start with ‘What if... ' that challenge, break, or discard something significant at your school." Through this exercise, we have generated hundreds of thoughtful, insightful, actionable ideas (see sidebar above). I then asked them, "How many of those questions did you contemplate in your last strategic plan?" The combined answer, frighteningly, is, "Virtually none."

I have also prompted school leaders to make two side-by-side lists: those assets of their school that could be shifted to, or subsumed by, a lower-cost collaborator or competitor, and those that cannot. Not surprisingly, all of the lists that have been generated are vastly over-weighted to the "Can Shift" side of the ledger. In other words, provoked to imagine the possibility of dramatic change, most of us recognize how close our schools tread to the fraying edge of our value proposition.

Zuboff's new genome for the era of distributed capitalism is based on a set of functions that successful institutions incorporate to dispassionately evaluate which assets of the existing framework have real value in a mutated landscape. I find the following elements of this genome, extracted from her article in McKinsey Quarterly, particularly compelling for strategic consideration by independent schools:
  • Inversion: Smart companies ask, "Who is our customer, what does each need, and how can we help?" rather than "How can we sell you what we have in the past?" Schools will leverage technology and focus on pedagogies that actually differentiate learning for individual students to meet the rising demand for tailored services.
  • Rescue: Value-rich core assets are rescued from a costly industry structure, while nonvalue-generating assets are discarded. Schools will increasingly focus on strengths that cannot be replicated by online or hybrid alternatives, focusing in particular on personal relationships and social interactions that physical schools provide.
  • Bypass: New content delivery systems bypass legacy overheads of the traditional systems. Content is increasingly accessible via digital technologies, leaving teachers available to mentor students through more authentic sequences of self-owned discovery, questioning, creativity, and synthesis.
  • Distribute: Student learning is not concentrated in a physical or organizational space, but in individual space. Learning does not require a classroom as much as assets, activities, platforms, tools, and relationships that may be much more widely distributed, both physically and virtually.
While the pace of mutation is accelerating, there is still time for effective educational leaders to weigh the rapid changes around us, leverage core values, and sustain the broad outlines of the entity "school," albeit with significant programmatic evolution. In order to do this, we must adopt a new customer-focused zero-based strategic thinking model (the name first popped up at a New York State Association of Independent Schools workshop last spring) that can lead to fundamental changes in our learning model.

This thinking links three critical elements of a forward-looking school:
  • a vision of students as self-evolving learners prepared to access, filter, consume, and create knowledge, and to better manage ambiguity;
  • full alignment of resources at the systems level to ensure learning-driven education in support of the vision;
  • communication of value-driven differentiation for both the internal and external communities.
This approach identifies assets and opportunities that are critical to customer value and builds sustainable school-wide systems from there. It breaks down — rather than reinforces — narrow silos of interest that tend to drive our current strategic plans. A zero-base starting point leverages — rather than discards or overlooks — practical, insightful, sometimes quirky ideas worthy of strategic discussion. These are exactly the questions and ideas required to generate an offense that creates expanded opportunities for value growth. These are the questions that all successful start-ups, incubators, innovators, and entrepreneurs ask when they are searching for ways to realize value for end users and grow market share at the expense of traditional service providers. This process does not dictate that schools of today are obsolete. It does dictate that we shift from a tradition-based method of strategic thinking to one focused on the value as determined by individual consumers.

For some, these challenges to fundamental traditions and structures will seem unnecessary or perhaps even dangerous. The resistance sounds like this: "Why can't we just tweak what we have successfully done for years, decades, or centuries? We have always had schools; they are not going to disappear. Our value is too great to lose." But that is what the leaders of General Motors and many other strong, iconic organizations said... almost up until the moment they filed for bankruptcy.

The forces of change outside of the school walls are much larger than those we have faced in the past, and some are beyond our control. I don't advocate that there is a single proscribed recipe for all schools. I suggest, however, that this zero-based approach reflects major global trends and results in a stronger foundation of value than one built largely on legacy assumptions. If we look at the evidence of historic analogues, evolving social trends, and even physical laws that govern the nature of systems, the current Industrial Age path appears to be a dead end for schools. Schools that fail to recognize these tectonic shifts will be part of our industry's past — not its future.

Acknowledgments: The ideas summarized in this article are seeded and nurtured by hundreds of people at dozens of schools, so I hesitate to mention only a few. But in addition to those cited in the article (Shoshana Zuboff, Jim Maxmin, Marina Gorbis, and Adrian Bejan), my thinking is particularly nurtured by Bo Adams, Jill Gough, Chris Thinnes, Jamie Feild Baker, John Hunter, Holly Chesser, Brett Jacobsen, David Monaco, Lee Burns, Peter Gow, Pam Moran, and Bob Dillon.
Grant Lichtman

Grant Lichtman is a senior fellow at the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence. He shares resources and blogs about every school he visits and works with at His book, #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education, is available via most major online book retailers.