How to Write Your Strategic Plan
Like a Builder


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You're listening to the School Leadership Reimagined Podcast, episode number fourteen.

Welcome to the School Leadership Reimagined podcast...

where we rethink what's possible to transform your school. If you're tired of settling for small wins and incremental improvement, then stay tuned to discover powerful and practical strategies for getting every teacher in your school moving towards excellence. Now, here's your host, Robyn Jackson. ​

Hey Builders, welcome to episode 14 of the School Leadership Reimagined podcast. I’m your host, Robyn Jackson and today, we’re talking about How to Write Your Strategic Plan Like a Builder.

Tell me if this sounds familiar?

Every summer, you pull together your leadership team and together you create a strategic plan. Usually, you have to use some sort of district-provided strategic planning template and perhaps you’re even required to write some version of a SMART goal.

Maybe you start out by looking at last year’s data and try to identify what you need to focus on for the coming school year. Perhaps you even survey your stakeholders and get their input. You might even examine the district goals to make sure that you plan aligns with theirs.

Then, after some discussion (or maybe even a LOT of discussion), you and your team craft a strategic goal for the coming school year.

Now I’m gonna make a wild guess here, but I imagine that whatever you come up with each year sounds a something like this: During the 2018-2019 school year, we will increase the number of students who are at proficient or above in reading by 8.6% and in math by 9.7%.

Or maybe it sounds like this: We will increase graduation rates to 85% in the 2018-2019 school year.

Does that sound about right?

So let me ask you a question. When was the last time you were really excited by your school strategic plan?

When was the last time that you read your final school strategic plan and were truly inspired?

I’m guessing never?

That’s because most strategic plans are downright boring. They focus on goals that are unremarkable and they rarely delineate a clear pathway to reaching those goals.

In fact, once we write these boring strategic plans, we almost never look at them again until the end of the year when we quickly compile some data (usually test scores) together to show that we either met or didn’t meet those goals and then we’re on to the next plan.

That’s only one of the many reasons that the way that we typically create school strategic plans is just plain wrong.

Today, I’m going to show you how and why the way that we write our strategic plans for the year is wrong and I’m going to show you a better way to write your strategic plan, a way that helps you focus on BIG, inspiring goals, and develop a very realistic and measurable and meaningful way to achieve them.

In episode 13 and I’ll link to it in the show notes, I shared 5 books every builder should be reading this summer. After I shared those books I made you a promise that I would devote an episode to each of those books and show you how you can directly apply that book to a real and persistent challenge that you are facing right now in your school.

This episode is the first in that series.

This week we’re going to take a closer look at the book the Big Leap by Gay Hendricks...

and we’re going to apply some of the main points in the book to how you build your strategic plan. By the time we’re done, will never look at the strategic planning process the same way again. 

Okay, I want to start by telling you about something that happened to me a few months ago. I was giving a speech at a conference and I was talking about how we don’t set our goals high enough. I challenged the group to set big, meaningful, inspiring goals. Goals like EVERY student will, or ALL students will, or 100% of our students will…

Then, a woman raised her hand and she said, “I can’t set goals like that.”

So I asked her, Why not?

She said, “I’m a Title I school. If I miss my goal, I’ll lose my funding”

So I said to her, “Then don’t miss your goal.”

I know it sounds flippant but I promise I wasn’t dismissing her concern. I mean I get it. You don’t want to put your funding at risk by setting a goal that is “too high” so you set more “realistic” goals.

And even if funding isn’t at risk, we still do the same thing. We figure out what we think we can reasonably do first and then make that our goal and when we do that, instead of setting big hairy audacious inspiring goals, we low ball it.

And this my friends is the epitome of an upper limit problem.

Last time, I mentioned the upper limit problem. I first learned about it in a book called So The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks (I’ve got a link to the book in the show notes).

An upper limit problem is he describes it is this: All of us has a limited tolerance for feeling good. When we hit our upper limit, we manufacture thought that make us feel bad or we do something that stops us from moving towards the goals we say we have.

What’s more, few people understand how the upper limit problem works. So when they reach their upper limit and think or do something that keeps us from moving towards our goals, we don’t realize we are doing it. We think that we aren’t reaching out goals because we’re somehow flawed, or we don’t have the right team, or the system is rigged against us, or bad luck or bad timing any number of other reasons. So we start dialing back our goals or making excuses for why we can’t reach the bigger goals we really long to reach.

And what makes this such a trap is that in the past you may have actually set a big goal before and failed to reach it so you have real experience that says, you can’t reach big goals.

So what does that have to do with the way that we write our strategic plans?

Well have you ever noticed how uninspiring strategic plans are? I mean really, you spend a week in the summer working with your leadership team and the best you can come up with is “we will make an 8.7% gain in reading proficiency in grade 5?” Seriously?

And yet, when I challenge leaders to write strategic plans with bold, big goals, they start hedging. They make excuses like “we really want to focus on incremental growth,” or “our teachers will be overwhelmed if we set goals that high.”

Some even pat my on the head metaphorically of course (because no one gets to touch my hair thank you very much), and they look at me all patronizingly and they shake their heads and think, She’s so naive.

But let me ask you, when did setting and meeting big goals become a sign of naivete? I thought that the reason that most of us became educators was to make a real difference in the lives of students. When did an 8.75% gain represent a “real difference?”

But wait you say:

What about incremental improvement?

Well here’s the problem with incremental improvement. Let’s say that you set an incremental improvement goal of making an 8.75% gain each year. So year one, you work hard as a school and at the end of the year, let’s say you actually reach your goal and make an 8.7% gain. Heck, let’s get wild and say that you made a 9% gain. Yay!

So you celebrate your 9% gain and then the next year, you target another 8.7% gain but here’s the problem. Once you celebrate your 9% gain from the prior year, you’ve now scratched an itch. The following year, you won’t have the same sense of urgency. And let’s be real, it’s really hard to maintain a sense of urgency when you are creeping along towards your goals.

But what if instead of an progression of 8 and 9% gains, you actually set a really big goal of every student reaching reading proficiency or above by grade 2? Or how about every senior in your school will meeting or exceed the admission requirements to you state university system? Or how about every graduating 8th grade student in our middle school will be admitted to the high school of his or her choice?

Now pay attention to how you’re feeling right now hearing those goals. Are you feeling a little tightness in your chest? Is your brain firing off a thousand reasons why you can’t reach that goal? Are you feeling skeptical and finding yourself dismissing those goals as little more than pie in the sky?

If you are, then you just might have an upper limit problem.

I mean why are these goals so unrealistic? Why wouldn’t we be setting these kinds of goals for our strategic plans?

Can I be a little blunt with you?

If you are NOT setting these kinds of goals, why does your school even exist?

When you think of your SIP plan as the promise you are making to your students each year then you gotta wonder: Is that really the best we can do? Is that really ALL we’re offering to our students. 

If our school cannot guarantee that by the end of second grade all students will be reading on grade level or by the end of high school all students will be eligible to go wherever they want to go for high school, or by the end of high school all students will be eligible to be admitted to the state university system, then what on earth are we doing?

I know. I know. There are all kinds of mitigating circumstances. Some students have reading disabilities that prevent them from reaching proficiency, not every middle school student will be able to enter the high school of their choice because they may not be motivated to do the work that it takes to get there, and not every high school senior will even want to go to college and on and on and on.

The thing about it is that these mitigating circumstances sound plausible. They sound reasonable even.

But may I suggest to you today that as reasonable as they sound, these excuses are simply signs of an upper limit problem.

Because if I set a goal that every student in my school would be proficient or above by second grade then that means that I have to figure out how to make sure that every student reaches that goal, even the ones with reading disabilities.

If I set a goal that every middle school student will be eligible for the high school of their choice then that means that I will have to shape my school to deal with the motivation issues and keep them from preventing every single one of my students from being eligible.

And if I set a goal that every high school senior in my school will meet or exceed the admission requirements for my state school then even if they choose not to go to college, I need to make sure that at least they had the option.

Period. No excuses.

But my district makes us write our SIP plan a certain way. But my teachers would never go for it. But my students are so far behind. But I don’t have the right team, the right funding, the right culture, the right whatever. Blah Blah Blah.

I know that I am sounding dismissive here and I realize that these may seem like legitimate concerns, but none of these excuses are enough to keep you from reaching your really big goals if you commit to them. So, all these excuses no matter how valid they may seem are really just signs of an upper limit problem.

Now I’ll be honest with you. This is something I struggle with myself so I know how hard it can be. When I first started Mindsteps, I faced a big dilemma. I said that I believed strongly that every teacher should and could be a master teacher, but I was afraid to make such a bold statement and then be held to it by my customers. After all, how could I make such a guarantee?

But the more I thought about it the more I wondered, how could I not? If I cannot gurantee that going through my workshops or materials can take any teacher and help that teacher become a master teacher, if my materials only work for teachers who frankly would have been master teachers anyway, then how can I reasonably ask people to invest in me?

So I did it. I fought against my upper limit problem and I made that our tag line -- any teacher a master teacher. And once I did so, it changed everything. No longer could I slap together a workshop or a free resource. I had to vet everything I put out and ask myself will this help any teacher become a master teacher? We even have what we call the “worst teacher” test here in the office. Whenever we are creating a new resource we ask ourselves “Can the worst teacher we’ve ever met get something out of this? Will this resource help the worst teacher we’ve ever met get better? If the worst teacher we’ve ever met uses this resource will it help them teach masterfully?

If the answer is no, then we go back to the drawing board. Setting that HUGE goal has given us a discipline and a means of evaluating our work. It’s also given us a huge responsibility which in turn forces us to produce better products and services and to hold ourselves to a higher, more demanding, but ultimately more rewarding standard.

You see when you set big goals with words like EVERY and 100%, it changes the way that you approach your work. In order to reach that kind of goal, you’re going to have to do things differently.

So you start to reconsider everything, every assumption you have, the way that you do things, the habits you’ve formed, your approach, every thing comes under scrutiny.

You also get this REAL sense of urgency. You see I can fudge 8.7%. I can’t fudge 100%. So I’m going to have to get serious real fast. And, I can’t let up. Not until I get to 100%

But then something really amazing happens. You start to get more creative. Where once you only saw problems, you start seeing solutions, ways to turn obstacles into opportunities. You begin to leverage your existing resources and crease new solutions. You get this energy this excitement because you begin to blast through barriers and in doing so, you start paving new roads.

And when you’re done, when you actually reach your goal, your school is different, your students are different, YOU are different.

Again, if that feels impossible to you, if that feels like pie and the sky talk, then that’s your upper limit talking.  

So how to you get there?

What’s the solution to your upper limit problem?

Well before I get into the solution, let me tell you what the solution is not. The solution is not to just go out there and throw out a Big Hairy Audacious Goal, put it in your SIP plan, and think, ahhh I’ve solved my upper limit problem.

Because upper limit problems are sneaky little buggers.

Often they will let you set a big goal. But then, once you set the goal, you’ll start to unconsciously sabotage yourself. So you’ll set a goal of all students reaching reading proficiency by second grade and then you’ll assign your WORST teacher to second grade, or you’ll go out a buy a reading package and then not get it rolled out until November because things go busy.

You’ll set a goal of every student being eligible for their high school of choice and then you’ll tie up your guidance counselor with testing duties or your AVID instructor will go out on maternity leave and you’ll place a long-term sub in the classroom or you’ll start and then abandon a professional development plan around rigor.

You’ll set a goal of every senior being eligible for admission to your state university system and then you’ll go out and buy new on-line credit recovery program and not have it installed on enough computers to be viable.

But you wanna hear the greatest way that we sabotage our strategic plans?

We put them in a drawer and don’t look at them again until January or even worse, the following summer.

You get the idea. We set the goal and then we do something unconsciously to keep ourselves from reaching that goal.

So you can’t just set a big goal and think you’ve conquered your upper limit problem.

The first step to solving your upper limit problem is to realize that you have one. Pay attention to all the times during the day when you catch glimpses of greatness, when you feel yourself drawn to a bigger ideal, and then you immediately hear yourself making excuses for why it can’t happen.

Pay attention to the times when you say, I believe all children can learn and then you immediately start making excuses for why some children can’t.

Pay attention to all the times you dismiss someone else’s big ideal as foolish idealism.

There are all signs that you are in the throes of an upper limit problem.

And when you catch yourself in the middle of an upper limit problem, you deal with that upper limit the way that you deal with any bully. You call it by name. You say, that’s an upper limit problem.

When you call it out like that, you siphon away some of its strength and hold on you. Then you can go back and place your attention to where it really belongs -- to dreaming big dreams for your students and setting big, audacious, inspiring goals for your students and your school.

When you do that, when you face down your upper limits and push beyond them, you can write a SIP plan that not only makes a real, meaningful promise to your students, you can build a school where every student realizes that promise in their own lives. That’s making a difference. That’s how you write a SIP plan like a builder.

And before we go, I just want to recap...

what we’ve learned today:

  • Your SIP plan is a promise that you are making to your students and their families. It’s almost like a guarantee you’re offering that says, if you come into this school, here’s what we can promise you’ll gain from the experience.
  • If your SIP plan is a promise, then you cannot be content to focus on tiny incremental gains. Instead, you need to set goals that encompass every student in your school.
  • The reason that so many of us settle for insipid, meaningless SIP plan goals is that we are afraid to set big goals. This fear is called an “Upper Limit Problem.”

Now I know for some of you today got a little woo woo but don’t miss out of the truth. You can and should be writing big, audacious meaningful goals into your SIP plan. Otherwise, what are you here for? And if you find yourself resisting setting those kinds of goals this school year, then you really need to deal with your upper limit problem because that upper limit problem will not only keep you from building the school that you were called to build, I bet it keep you trapped in tiny meaningless goals that sap your energy, kill your motivation, and prevent you from making the difference that you were truly meant to make.

Okay, now before we go,

I want to remind you about today’s spon​ser the Feedback Fast-Track Formula which is a 4-part online training program that helps you shave up to half the amount of time you are spending giving feedback to teachers while making your feedback twice as effective. In fact, if you use this process, you can help every teacher you work with score at least one level higher in at least one domain or problem area in one school year. Again, you can sign up for the training at 

And as I do almost every week, I want to connect with you on linked in. Would you please find me at Robyn Jackson on Linked In and let’s connect? I’d love for us to be connected.

Next ​week...

I’ll share with you a really powerful way to actually reach your big, meaningful, inspiring goals like a builder.

Bye for now. See you next time. 

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