Planning for uncertainty
An interesting two years
Financial crises, ash clouds, haze, epidemics, regulatory changes, geopolitical instability – all are beyond a Headteacher’s control, and all pose a threat to a school’s health and growth. Andy Homden, who was in his first headship at the Alice Smith School in Kuala Lumpur during 1997 recalls how a combination of existential threats lead to the development of a new and flexible approach to strategic planning which has been put to the test more than once in the last 15 years.
The new campus had opened, and things were going well. Class numbers continued to rise as all the new systems for transport, safety and the general logistics of transferring the upper primary and secondary years to a new site were kicking in. Over thirty new staff had been successfully recruited, the early years refurbishment on the old city site was completed on time and we were humming. Everything was planned to the last detail, with a clear five year plan in place. And then . . . . . everything hit us at once.
First, a change in the government’s visa approval processes cast doubt on having new staff in front of the children. We were forced to send 15 new teachers home, pending clarification of their immigration status. Classes were doubled up.
Then in late September, the unpleasant smoke and haze from distant forest fires in Sumatra and Borneo descended on us from both east and west, staying for over six weeks. Almost simultaneously, the local currency started to decline . . . . and then crash uncontrollably. Welcome to the world of international school leadership. I was less than 18 months into my first headship. 1997 – 8 was certainly a year to remember.
It was soon clear that the long term plans that we had so painstakingly drawn up were becoming irrelevant. Families started to send children home as the haze got worse, and even as we sorted out the visa issues and staff returned to class, we lost more students as companies repatriated their staff, and our school population began to shrink. Soon we were 100 families down, and faced with some very tough decisions. At an Extraordinary General Meeting in March, the community voted to accept mid-year fees increases – and in term 3 they rose by a whopping 19% so that we could keep going along the path we had planned.
We weathered the storm. Our community was strong and held together by well-understood values, but our carefully structured 5 year plan had to be discarded. What we needed was a way of taking the school forward that gave us sufficient flexibility to react to changing circumstances, while keeping us on track towards the vision that the whole community shared. As we prepared for the next school year we started using a principle that we called “dynamic stability”. We knew the kind of school we wanted in the long term, and after the EGM, this vision was not going to change. We were also very clear about the mission of the school, which helped us make difficult decisions while remaining true to ourselves: we did not allow ourselves to be guided by purely financial expediency.
The flexibility came with the strategic plan describing how we would implement the vision. We would not plan specific action in any detail beyond the coming year. We pencilled in one or two things we thought would be necessary for subsequent school years – but nothing that could not be changed. We also monitored the data carefully, keeping a very close eye on admission trends, regularly updating “best case, worst case” scenarios. We delayed recruitment for as long as possible until admissions became clearer.
This gave us the flexibility to go with the wind – to bend where necessary without ever losing sight of our destination. As we got used to this dynamic, yet stable planning methodology over the next five years, we found we could speed up growth as well as slow down if necessary. We were “strong like bamboo” rather than like stone or steel. The school responded, prospered and grew.
Dynamic stability replicated
The methodology has proved to be durable. You can’t control external circumstances. You just have to be ready for them. The severest test came in 2008 – 2009. Another young school, another financial crisis – this time global rather than regional, but this time with a flexible strategic plan in place to deal with it from the beginning. It was not an easy year; however we trimmed our sails to suit the wind, ready to take advantage of changing circumstances rather more quickly than our competitors, investing in more people and resources just at the right time to enable us to come up to capacity. The lessons learned 10 years before had been valuable indeed.
For more about this flexible, yet principled and stable approach to strategic planning, please see click the image.
If you would like to learn more about how to develop and implement a “dynamically stable” strategic plan, please contact Consilium Education on firstname.lastname@example.org