A Systems-Thinking Approach to Strategic Planning

Winter 2023

By Marquis Scott

This article appeared as "All Systems Go" in the Winter 2023 issue of Independent School.

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar.  

Step 1: Define the organizational mission, vision, and goals. 

Step 2: Determine the optimal method for consulting organizational stakeholders to understand the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT).

Step 3: Forecast financial initiatives and select key performance indicators.

Step 4: Develop recommendations and set organizational priorities. 

Step 5: Create action items. 

Most education leaders are familiar with these guiding principles of conventional strategic planning. We’ve used them so often, with little deliberation or question about whether it is the right process. And while conventional strategic planning—the kind that centers on SWOT, mission, and vision—has had a place in independent schools, today’s school leaders need to develop new ways of thinking. 

Our communities continue to face various challenges and opportunities due to COVID-19. Many of our strategic discussions center on guiding our communities through the new realities of post-pandemic institutional alignment, such as our continued and deliberate approaches to community health and well-being, the opportunity cost of hybrid and remote work, the visible impact of high inflation, school safety, tuition and enrollment, financial sustainability, and shifting community demographics, among others. School leaders need to begin integrating a systems-thinking approach into their strategic planning.

Systems thinking is a holistic problem-solving strategy that allows us to understand complex systems by learning how their components are interrelated and could contribute to or affect a possible outcome. Take an “iceberg” metaphor, for example. If we witness an iceberg in the ocean, we can only see the tip, which is above the water’s surface. When we apply a systems-thinking lens, we are compelled to identify the trends, patterns, structures, and beliefs that lay beneath the visible portion of the iceberg. Systems thinking supports strategic planning by:

  • discovering a sense of communitywide perspective and innovation;
  • asking the right questions, considering many possible outcomes, and working collaboratively to create practical solutions and initiatives; and 
  • developing creative thinking to match creative situations.

This framework ultimately helps school leaders understand recurring patterns, underlying structures, and values and beliefs that can impact complex planning and problem-solving experiences.

As David Peter Stroh explains in Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results, there is considerable value in identifying deeply entrenched dynamics and leverage points to reduce the likelihood of individuals repeating their mistakes. To integrate a systems-thinking approach to strategic planning, school leaders must work diligently to reframe widely held notions, embrace an adaptive leadership approach, engage in scenario planning, and adopt a zoom-out/zoom-in approach.

Rethinking Old Strategies

The strategy was excellent, but the employees were not on board. We overestimated the resistance to change in internal and external communities. The strategy lacked originality and ingenuity.

These are some of the recurring problems in traditional strategic planning. Moreover, they are connected to the “dragging and dropping” approach—stretching assumptions of the present into the future—that schools so often take to strategic planning. But dragging and dropping, which Geoff Tuff and Steven Goldbach describe in Detonate: Why—And How—Corporations Must Blow Up Best Practices (and Bring a Beginner’s Mind) to Survive, can no longer work; the past two years have revealed the downsides to this approach. The reason is that each of our schools has core reasons why it has been successful—a sound mission, a healthy admission process, affordable tuition, and competitive salaries. And it can be tempting to rest on these reasons and return to a conventional strategic process that has played a part in that success. However, it is difficult to prepare for the unexpected and easy to feel enticed by the idea of the strategy that worked before—why would it not work again, why would we not take the same approach? But the context for these reasons will be different tomorrow than it is today. 

Independent schools will continue to evolve as demographics change, and different populations have unique needs because of shifting internal and external forces. Families expect independent schools to be more innovative and opportunistic, and to think holistically and creatively. In “As the World Shifts, So Should Our Leaders,” a 2022 Harvard Business Review article, Nitin Nohria writes, “The business environment undergoes a major shift every decade or two. Each one creates new business opportunities and requires changes in leadership approaches. There are clear signs that we’re amidst such a shift right now. Smart leaders will consider the implications—and prepare for them.” These findings are not surprising. Using dated and conventional practices will not help schools address their changing landscape. 

In a reframed, systems-thinking-based approach, at the outset of a strategic planning exercise, schools should ask:

  • What are our values? How do we know?
  • How do we live our values?
  • What are our objectives for the next strategic plan?
  • Who are we serving with this strategic plan?
  • What conditions must exist for our strategic plan to be true?
  • What resources are required to accomplish this goal?

These questions are intended to be independent of each other, but collectively, the responses support one another and ensure a strategic plan that is grounded in school values. 

Adapt Accordingly 

Embracing adaptive leadership is another critical step in adopting a systems-thinking approach to strategic work. In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, the authors describe adaptive leadership as an art, not a science—an art that requires an experimental mind. 

Adaptive leadership is a pragmatic problem-solving approach that enables leaders and organizations to adapt and thrive in response to organizational challenges and opportunities. Those using adaptive leadership are energized by the success of the organization and its employees, and they respond to obstacles by thinking outside the box and working together with others to find solutions. Moreover, given the pace of change in today’s environment, adaptive leadership promotes strategic planning by:

  • discovering a sense of perspective and innovation;
  • balancing short-term and long-term needs while managing the future state versus the present state;
  • reducing the probability of unintended outcomes and complexity; and
  • codesigning an iterative data-gathering method involving community members.

Heads of school, who play a unique role in strategic planning, embrace adaptive leadership. They understand that the art of strategic planning is a process of reframing, and they have a continuous-learning mindset. They encourage creativity and innovation, and most important, they lead by example. These individuals collaborate with school leadership to provide time and space for strategic planning meetings, which in turn encourages open dialogue to improve the organization. The underlying message for meetings that involve strategic planning is straightforward: Tomorrow will differ from today, and we need to prepare accordingly. 

It’s essential to consider: What must be true for our school to thrive in a different environment? But when can adaptive leaders find the time for such planning? One way to make efficient use of their time and get teams on board is to engage in scenario planning, a vital strategic tool and a fundamental method for analyzing prospective strategies. This process helps adaptable leaders embrace change, diversity, and distinctive perspectives that support organizational strategic planning goals and actions. It allows leadership teams to reflect and shed light on the future—ensuring that schools are proactively planning in a methodical, intentional, and creative manner.

Zooming Out and In

Related to but separate from scenario planning, is the idea of using a zoom-out/zoom-in strategic planning approach, influenced by Deloitte’s John Hage and John Seely Brown. This dynamic, robust, and proactive approach generates strategies that facilitate effective decision-making, execution, and collective autonomy. It’s an adaptable approach that allows teams to focus simultaneously on two different horizons, the zoom-out horizon (three to five years) and the zoom-in horizon (three and six months). And it works in our new reality because it accounts for the rapid pace of change.  

Many independent school leadership teams have participated in exercises to anticipate possible futures and prioritize those most likely to occur. However, once the meeting concludes, everyone returns to the office and frequently nothing changes. Or schools create the plan without dedicated resources or a simplified vision to bring the work to life. School leaders should be proactive in their efforts and identify post-strategy meeting action items that address both long-term and short-term planning and flexibility. Here is an example of a three-year zoom-out/zoom-in inquiry framework that could be used during a strategic planning meeting:

Zoom Out

  • What will education and community look like three years from now?
  • Based on the first question, what will need to be true for our school to succeed three years from now? 

Zoom In

  • Describe two or three initiatives that will have the biggest influence on accomplishing our goal during the next three to six months. How will we know?
  • In what ways might we measure our success?

Once these questions have been answered, the next step is to take strategic action, with these characteristics of success in mind: 

  • Share the planning process and timetable with the school.
  • Invite key stakeholders to provide input.
  • Adjust the planning process and time line.
  • Outline key action items, dates, milestones, and communication strategies.

Planning for the Future

My doctoral research, professional experience, and observation of inspirational leaders have taught me the value of creativity, adaptability, and systems thinking. Uncertainty and unpredictability appear to be the only constants. Instead of remaining faithful to conventional strategic planning methods in this rapidly changing and interconnected world, reframing strategic planning through a systems-thinking approach ensure that schools systematically, deliberately, and creatively prepare for the future. 

Marquis Scott

Marquis Scott is assistant head of school at The Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville Township, New Jersey.