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Independent schools strategic planning series: Part two

Why a three-year strategic plan for your school just isn’t enough 

In the first article of our series on school strategy, ‘Thinking ahead: Independent school boards and strategic planning’, we discussed strategic planning for school boards in general, but touched upon the need to look further into the future when developing strategy. In this article, we make a number of observations based on the strategic planning work we have done recently. 

Many of the schools we have worked with believe they have done the right thing because they have established a three-year strategic plan. Unfortunately, any true strategic change that a school desires is likely to have a lead time of ten years or more. For example, opening a new campus, vertical integration into childcare and/or becoming a registered training organisation (RTO), high technology learning curriculum development, making a significant academic or cultural shift, or targeting a specific segment of parents, are all examples of strategic initiatives likely to take longer than three years – long-range planning is key to bridging the gap between where your school is now and where you want it to go. So why is a three-year strategic plan still the norm? 

The answer we hear most is that planning any further into the future is impossible - that it is simply guessing. This argument holds that the speed of change is such that any planning is likely to become redundant as the change flows through. Underpinning this view is a belief that to plan effectively you need to be 100% sure of the facts. Unfortunately, the only way to be 100% sure of the future is to wait for the future to arrive. 

There are many strategic planning models, but most contain the same key components (often called different things):

  • an analysis of the current situation (internal and external to the business);
  • integrating and interpreting this data to create a snapshot of the current strategic position of the business (key challenges and issues);
  • clarifying the business reason for existing and objectives (mission and vision);
  • developing key strategic priorities or goals (to deliver these objectives); and
  • developing a strategic action plan to deliver each of these priorities (the detailed strategic action plan).

The challenge with these models is that they are made up of two key components which are fundamentally different, as set out in Table 1.

Table 1: Strategic thinking vs. strategic planning


True strategic thinking

Strategic planning


Interpretation and insight

Structure and detail


Trend analysis (interpreting the grey)

Solid research and detail (the black and white)


Picking a path / direction (there is no right answer)

Detailed planning of the journey


'Steady as she goes' is rarely a strategy. If a strategic direction is not chosen, then you are relying on luck

Not executing

People tend to gravitate towards strategic planning rather than true strategic thinking. Strategic thinking is hard, it is operating in the grey and we don’t know all the facts. Strategic planning is a structured process and fits well with the right brain / analytical focus which is common in western education. Strategic thinking is hard, requiring interpretation, analysis, insight and taking a helicopter view. This focus on trends and insights is very uncomfortable for many people. It is much easier to assume that what has worked in the past will continue to work in the future. The well-known failure of Blockbuster, the video rental chain that once dominated the market with its thousands of physical locations worldwide,1 is a salient reminder that what worked in the past may be a recipe for disaster as the organisation moves into an ever-changing future. 

True strategic thinking is also often undermined by the data collection that precedes the strategic analysis. Many times, the data collection begins with good intent, but the questions asked and the data collected are shaped by the beliefs and perceptions of those driving the process. It can be uncomfortable to collect the data and trust the process to allow insight to emerge. One approach to analysis of the data is to actively work to fill in the ‘Unknown Unknowns’ Johari Window.2  

Figure 1: The Johari Window – adapted version3 

Formulating strategy with an understanding of the four knowledge-awareness areas of the Johari Window can help an organisation understand its own strengths and weakness in relation to the dynamics of the industry in which it operates, while also developing a greater awareness and understanding of its competition, environmental considerations, and future implications. As Welch notes:

It is crucial for businesses to acknowledge the significance of integrating all four categories of knowledge-awareness, known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns, into their strategic formulation, as this can facilitate the development of adaptable and effective strategic plans that consider the constantly evolving business landscape.

If Blockbuster had been able to see in an unfiltered way the impact of the emergence of new technology on the delivery of video entertainment, they may have made very different strategic decisions. It has been suggested that walking the aisles to select a video was part of the entertainment experience and shaped their interpretation of the strategic changes rapidly overtaking their industry. One approach is independent data collection combined with actively allowing the board time to review and analyse the available data. 

A further key question is ‘so what if true strategic thinking doesn’t happen?’ Doesn’t a well-built three-year strategic plan provide a way forward? The answer is ‘yes’ it does but from our experience these plans end up being very similar. Key areas of focus include improving educational excellence, retaining and growing high quality teaching staff and supporting and growing the school culture. With so many similar objectives these plans often become an exercise in executional excellence. They assume that if the school does the basics exceptionally well, they will continue to succeed. This may be true but unfortunately if the strategic demands or challenges shift, a school may perfectly execute the wrong strategic tactics.

So, what is the answer? If we start with the assumption that schools need to engage in both true strategic thinking and strategic planning, then it should fundamentally change the strategic planning cycle and the key steps in the process. A genuine board strategic analysis workshop, informed by unfiltered data can provide the school executive with real guidance from the board. This should have a longer-term focus ‒ we suggest 10 years minimum, however, it can be longer. One of our clients recently undertook a 2040 strategic analysis workshop and what seemed way too far in the future, provided true board strategic guidance. The workshop took the time to consider the emerging strategic challenges and issues and to dispassionately consider how to take a true strategic position rather than to simply leave the future success of the school to luck. 

In the third article of this series, we will discuss the tools available to school boards to promote strategic thinking. The choice of tool/s is up to the individual board. What is important is that the board recognise the need to think strategically, since it is key to the board making a meaningfully contribution to the organisation’s strategy. To conclude, we will leave you with a quote from a recent strategy book, Making Great Strategy, which aligns with the approach we recommend for boards:

Great strategy melds intuition with reason. It offers a novel, inspiring vision of the future supported by the pillar of rigorous, logically valid strategy arguments. Without this pillar, only good luck and fortune separate the strategic genius from the raving lunatic.5

If you would like to discuss strategic planning at your school or have any other questions, please contact our team at Effective Governance for more information.

1. On Blockbuster’s failure, see, for example, Satell, G., 2014, ‘A Look Back At Why Blockbuster Really Failed And Why It Didn't Have To’, Forbes, 5 September, accessed 5 October 2023.
2. The Johari Window model is a tool that was developed by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham in 1955 self-awareness to raise self-awareness and help people understand their relationship with themselves and with others. See Luft, J. and Ingham, H., 1955, ‘The Johari window, a graphic model of interpersonal awareness’, Proceedings of the western training laboratory in group development, UCLA, Los Angeles.
3. Welch, J., 2023, ‘Visioning strategy through the “Johari window”: discovering critical “unknowns” in a rapidly evolving context’, Strategy & Leadership, vol. 51, no. 5, pp. 30‒35.
4. Ibid., p. 30.
5.  Sørensen, J.B. & Carroll, G.R., 2021, Making Great Strategy: Arguing for Organizational Advantage, Columbia University Press, New York, p. 266.

Ian Doyle
Senior Advisor
Ian Doyle is Human Resources Professional with over 25 years’ experience in HR roles in the Banking and Insurance Industries. Ian started his Human Resources career in Westpac ultimately having responsibility for Senior HR portfolios across the Qld...