Independent School Governance in a Time of Ambiguity

Summer 2023

By Morva McDonald, Myra McGovern

governing in ambiguityThis article appeared as "Governing in Ambiguity" in the Summer 2023 issue of Independent School.

One by one, the faces of Giddens School (WA) board members appeared on the computer screen. Some—often those with young children—appeared worried and haggard. Others appeared rested and eager to connect. Seattle had seen some of the first U.S. cases of COVID-19, and initial conversations about how to respond revolved around the assumption that the school would have to move to emergency remote learning for a few weeks, or a month at most. But by the time the board convened on Zoom in May 2020, it was clear that the pandemic (as we had begun to call it) was going to have a longer run. 

We were meeting to talk about the future, as we did most weeks. Would we be able to run summer camp? Could we reopen school in the fall? How would we communicate if someone in our community became severely ill or passed away from COVID? What were the risks beyond health? 

The Giddens leadership team had pored over mountains of information, digested reams of studies, listened to the concerns of community members as well as countless podcasts from infectious disease doctors and public health specialists, and connected with other independent schools in Seattle. The amount of information was overwhelming, and often, the advice was conflicting; the CDC recommended one thing, the local health department another, and politicians something else. The disease was so new that even the experts weren’t certain which pieces of information were the most important or how everything fit together.  

The pandemic catapulted us—individuals and institutions—into a moment of significant ambiguity. It wasn’t just a time of great uncertainty but actual ambiguity. We had a great deal of information, but the overall meaning of that information was unknown or there were many possible interpretations of the same information. This made decision-making considerably more challenging, and for independent schools, this had a tremendous impact on the work of heads and boards. Heads found themselves in conversation with and relying on their boards and board chairs for more support with daily, operational issues—things that are not usually within the purview of trustees to weigh in on. It was messy at times, but it felt necessary to ensure that school communities remained intact. 

Now, as we move out of the pandemic, heads and boards are working to maneuver their work back to a more strategic, appropriate position, but ambiguous situations still abound. We need new processes and tools to make governing independent schools in this landscape more successful. 

Complexity as Context 

Ambiguity makes the job of running a school, even in typical times, challenging. In the case of the pandemic, seemingly every decision had an element of considerable risk, a direct impact on stakeholders, and advice coming from various directions. In many cases, boards and heads of schools relied on a rational model of decision-making, asking questions such as: What are our options? What are the consequences of those options? How do we as a school value these consequences? 

As heads of school and leadership teams struggled to simplify the complex issues, boards became more involved in operational decisions, such as how many students should be in each classroom, how far apart they should sit, or even whether the school could meet in person at all. These sorts of operational decisions previously would have been understood as significantly overstepping their appropriate role. 

In the pandemic, many risks felt untenable. In so many cases, there were no right answers, only solutions that were less reasonable than others. And many heads were grateful for the support of their boards in determining a path forward. In mid-April 2020, 64% of school heads polled in an NAIS Snapshot Survey reported that their boards were performing “well” or “very well” at assessing the risks that had the greatest impact for the school. 

In addition to COVID-19, in the summer of 2020 communities across the country were also dealing with the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. Some cities were living in near-constant protest. At many independent and public schools, the political polarization affecting the nation manifested in heated disputes about how to discuss race, gender, sexual orientation, and the history of slavery and discrimination. School leaders—no matter the political leanings of their communities—had to navigate these contexts. 

Curriculum became a hot-button issue in the public sphere, with some schools’ constituents lobbying to adopt more inclusive curricula, some lobbying schools to focus more on core academics, and others lobbying for greater attention to mental health. The confluence of the pandemic and the racial reckoning threw into stark relief the pressure on schools as organizations and school leaders as individuals to find quick solutions. Sometimes, the pressure was so intense that school leaders found themselves in either/or decision-making patterns that simplified the challenges and led to short-term or short-sighted solutions. In part because of the increased ambiguity of the situation, the influence of decision-making was often shaped by identifying the pros and cons of specific decisions.  

Even in more “typical” times, schools are complex organizations. Stanford education professor emeritus Larry Cuban urges us to think of schools and school systems as matryoshka dolls that nest inside of one another. He writes in a May 2021 post on his blog that: “elaborate blueprints, technical experts, strategic plans, and savvy managers simply are inadequate to control complex systems with thousands of reciprocal ties between people to operate effectively in such constantly changing and unpredictable environments. ... What does happen in these web-like complex systems of interdependent units is that they adapt continuously to turbulent surroundings.” 

A New Mindset

This level of complexity within such a dynamic context means that heads of schools, leadership teams, and boards of trustees have to lead without a map, while focusing on the future and navigating ambiguity in the present. Many factors shape individual and organizational decision-making, according to James March and Chip Heath in A Primer on Decision Making: How Decisions Happen. A leader’s relationship with risk taking, the complexities of giving and taking advice, the politics surrounding the decision, the ambiguity of the information, and the vested interests of stakeholders are just a few. 

Gone are the days—if they ever existed—of clear-cut decisions, where either/or approaches could solve the challenges facing schools. Today—and moving forward—leaders must determine how to navigate ambiguity and how to bring their communities along with them. This is the landscape in which heads and boards must work now. And these are the strategies they will need to rely on.

Articulate short-term and long-term approaches. Some independent school boards have a bias toward action, and the majority of discussions lead to either/or votes—yes or no—or official policies. But most ambiguous issues don’t lend themselves to such cut-and-dried decisions and many do not require a policy. For some topics—such as those that are polarities or dilemmas—a more appropriate approach might be an articulation of organizational values or a set of parameters to guide operational decisions. Rather than only asking questions about the consequences of decisions, school leaders, including board members, would benefit if they focus on more generative questions that center on the school’s identity, such as: Why is this issue important to you? To the school? How does this situation reflect or influence our school’s core values?

But it’s nonetheless important for schools to demonstrate responsiveness to a particular challenge or issue—even one that is ambiguous in terms of what’s the best approach. For example, in a school context in which parents are questioning aspects of the curriculum, it’s essential that the board and the head of school respond in the short term to parental concerns, but without locking themselves into a long-term strategy that doesn’t contemplate the larger issues associated with educational goals for students, diversity of thought, and a range of community needs and perspectives. 

Build a culture of organizational learning. Gathering, interpreting, and contextualizing information is key to strategic decision-making. But in an ambiguous situation, the importance of that information may not be available, clear, or static. This can be particularly frustrating for board members with a preference for action. 

To make progress, focus on learning and growth as an important desired outcome rather than action. As Lisa Kay Solomon, designer in residence at the Stanford writes in a 2019 Medium post, “Learning fuels clarity about our changing context, collaboration with diverse and global networks, conversations that spark new ideas and innovation, and deep connections that foster resilience and regeneration.” A learning mindset is also key to having more generative discussions. 

Supporting school leaders, including board members, to attend to what they are learning from one decision to the next is essential, particularly in contexts that require adaptive approaches. The challenge, particularly for the head of school, is to establish a culture of learning rather than a culture of knowing among the school’s leadership team and the board of trustees. 

Engage in scenario planning as a matter of practice. Developing scenarios will help schools prepare for a variety of situations and cope with both uncertainty and ambiguity. Creating scenarios encourages groups to flesh out narratives that identify the most important elements in a situation and how they might change. 

In the spring of 2020, for instance, many independent schools worked through scenarios describing the possible severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. They developed several financial and operational models, trying to respond to questions from “What if the pandemic ends by summer?” to “What if we cannot meet in person for several years?”

The scenario-planning process involves four key steps:
  1. Identifying key drivers of risk
  2. Developing model scenarios
  3. Creating a portfolio of actions
  4. Determining key trigger points 
Schools that engage in scenario planning should develop plans for best-, moderate-, and worst-case situations. This can help reduce the threat some people associate with ambiguity. Scenario planning allows for planning across the optimism spectrum, and it encourages boards to see opportunities as well as threats. 

Lower the emotional stakes. Leaders must also support stakeholders in managing the strong emotions that ambiguity can provoke. To do so, breaking down larger problems into small parts can help reduce the anxiety faculty, families, or board members may experience when decisions are not grounded in certainty. Also, focusing on making a reasonable decision, rather than a “right” decision alleviates the high-stakes pressure on individuals and organizations. 

Another tool to help teams make decisions amid ambiguity is the “Gradients of Agreement Scale.” First developed in 1987 by Sam Kaner, Duane Berger, and the staff of Community at Work, the Gradients of Agreement Scale allows people to express the degree to which they support an idea, rather than having to vote yes or no. 
Gradients of Agreement Scale
Using the Gradients of Agreement Scale (see the continuum image above), a decision can move ahead with votes in any of the first seven categories, but it helps to have a significant number of votes in the first two categories (Endorse or Endorse with minor concerns) for any decisions that are high-stakes or are going to require a broad team to implement. 

Many facilitators acknowledge that it’s difficult to achieve this broad, enthusiastic support, however. More commonly, group members select Gradient numbers across the continuum. A cluster of votes in the six through eight range of the scale can indicate the need to slow down or have more discussion. 

Charting a Course 

Boards are going to have to continue to flex the skills they developed during the pandemic with a new mindset: We must wrestle with tough questions—like how to protect physical safety and an open and welcoming culture, or how to navigate tradition and change in curricula, for example—make sense of the information available, talk through and understand the pluses and minuses of every approach, and still find a way to move forward. It’s a reframing of the challenges not as either/or choices and solutions but rather complex dilemmas that require negotiation through sometimes contested terrain.

As independent schools look to the future, we hope that we will never again face situations as unusual and as rife with uncertainty as the COVID-19 pandemic. We may hope for smoother sailing and less ambiguity. But as our organizations and the context in which we exist become ever more complex, learning to govern more effectively amid ambiguity will benefit all of us.

Go Deeper: Scenario Planning

NAIS has developed several scenario-planning guides, based on work from the nonprofit management consulting firm The Bridgespan Group. The three most recent guides focus on timely challenges:
  • Scenario Planning for Fundraising
  • Scenario Planning for the Education Workforce
  • Scenario Planning for Sustainable Enrollment
Download the guides here.
Morva McDonald

Morva McDonald is vice president of leadership and governance at NAIS. She was most recently head of school at Giddens School in Seattle.

Myra McGovern

Myra McGovern is vice president of media at NAIS.