Updated: May 14
First published in Independent Education Today on 23 March 2020
Schools need to deploy strategic thinking to determine the best response to this crisis, says strategy consultant Juliet Corbett
School leaders are rightly focusing on contingency and business continuity plans at the moment. However, they will soon need to switch their attention to urgently reviewing their wider strategy.
A robust strategy is based on an analysis of the external environment a school operates in, including economic, political and social trends. The speed and scale of current shifts in these areas, and the level of uncertainty surrounding them, is arguably unprecedented.
So it’s important to take a fresh look at your strategic approach to everything from teaching to business model, recruitment activities to fundraising plans. All schools will need to make strategic adjustments but in some cases these adjustments will be urgent in order to secure the future of a school.
So what are the new emerging trends and how can schools react strategically? Here we look at four methods for coping with fast-paced change from the fields of marketing, organisational change, strategy and innovation.
Familiar but fast-paced economic and political trends
Changes in the economic and political sphere over the last few weeks have been sudden and unpredictable. Yet some of these changes are familiar because they compound trends that have been challenging the independent school sector for a number of years.
We’ve experienced severe economic downturns before so we know the negative impact it will have on fee affordability, fundraising income and endowment investment returns. We also understand the impact that a possible removal of rates relief for independent schools in England and Wales might have on their cost base.
“A strategic response to these increased challenges may involve seeking out fresh ideas from other sectors and academic research”
Arguably the main challenge is that many schools are going into this turbulent period already under significant financial pressure. Most schools have, therefore, already tried the obvious strategies for reducing costs and increasing income.
So a strategic response to these increased challenges may involve seeking out fresh ideas from other sectors and academic research. Here we look at storytelling and seeking out the ‘bright spots’ from the fields of marketing and organisational change.
Build a compelling story
The most difficult cost efficiencies to deliver are often those that require people to change their behaviour. The power of storytelling has long been harnessed by marketers to influence buying behaviour and can be applied to cost-saving behaviours too.
Julie Hodges, professor of organisational change at Durham University, notes: “What management care about does not always tap into employees’ primary motivators for putting extra energy into change programmes. You therefore need to be able to tell a change story that includes the things that motivate employees.”
For school staff a key motivator will be getting the best outcomes for their pupils. So a compelling change story might include examples of how cost efficiencies have already started to ensure fees can be minimised, both widening access to the educational opportunities the school offers and making the school more financially viable. Using real stories of the positive impact on people builds an emotional connection to the change which can otherwise be absent.
Look for the bright spots
In all schools there will be examples where previous cost saving efforts have been successful. These are what Chip and Dan Heath call ‘bright spots’ in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Rather than focusing on the areas that aren’t working, take the time to study these bright spots.
What was different about these departments or activities which made the switch to cost saving behaviour work? How can this success be replicated? How can these bright spots be communicated as stories to encourage behaviour change?
New and unpredictable social trends
In contrast to trends in the economic and political sphere, the recent shifts in social trends are mostly new.
Some of these may be temporary, such as social distancing and stock-piling. Others may be permanent, like increased expectations around virtual classroom provision, more willingness to use video conferencing or live streaming to sample a school and parental attitudes to risk.
Responding to these new social trends requires a different strategic response. Identifying trends early and using trial and error innovation will both become key aspects of a school’s strategy.
Identifying trends early
The fast-changing external environment makes it more important that staff are continuously anticipating how new trends will affect their area of work.
PESTEL analysis is a useful tool for this environmental scanning. This involves considering how your school will be affected by changes in each part of the external environment: political, economic, social, technological, environmental (e.g. climate change) and legal.
Over the coming weeks you could complete this analysis via a series of facilitated team video calls. This will allow you to anticipate how these trends might impact your activities in the short, medium and long term. Identifying these trends early will offer your school a strategic advantage as you will have longer to plan your response.
Trial and error innovation
The ability of a school to innovate becomes particularly important when external change is this fast. Some of this innovation is being forced upon schools, such as expanding online teaching and learning.
However, a strategic response to the current crisis might involve encouraging employee-led innovation in other areas too through small-scale trial and error. For example, development offices could trial Facebook Lives with advice on home learning as a new way of engaging alumni.
“The ability of a school to innovate becomes particularly important when external change is this fast”
Research by London Business School found that for small- and medium-sized organisations one way to encourage employee-led innovation is to give people time out from their day-to-day tasks to trial new ideas. For some staff, school closures and event cancellations may offer this opportunity.
Determining your strategic response to coronavirus
As we move beyond short-term contingency planning schools will need to deploy their strategic thinking skills to determine the best strategic response to this crisis.
The Rethinking Strategy in Independent Schools research project reported last year that heads largely felt that their schools did not have a strong culture of strategic thinking. The report’s best practice recommendations on building this skill set may therefore be useful to school leaders at this time.
The right strategic response will be different for every school but it is worth seeking out fresh ideas from other sectors like those we’ve explored here. Enhanced strategic thinking skills and a new perspective will both contribute to a more resilient school strategy in the face of coronavirus.
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Juliet Corbett is an experienced strategy consultant working with schools and fundraisers to help them achieve their vision faster.