Good evening, I hope you’re doing well. The Super Bowl is on.  This year, like so many others, I ordered wings for the boys and put on the game. But for various reasons, I’m the only one in front of the TV right now, and without anyone to explain to me what’s going on, I am completely clueless. I feel like there’s a lesson in there somewhere…

I talk and write all the time about strategy, and this article in the New York Times about China’s investments in order to improve its global reach made me think about how to communicate about how we use that term. According to the article, the Chinese are really in it for the long game… (is that a football term?)

At the Center, we tend to obsess over language, sports metaphor or not, and have been known to spend hours trying to find clear and exact terminology to discuss the work of educational improvement.  I admit that it can sometimes be a teeny bit trying, but the end result is that we are able to stake a claim as forward thinkers in many areas.  So we’ve talked a lot about the definition of strategy, and here’s our latest thinking:

The word strategy is used casually to denote any action with an intended outcome—for example, teaching practices such as wait time and think-pair-share are sometimes referred to as instructional strategies.  For our purposes, we have a more technical definition that emphasizes a chain of cause and effect relationships to reach an intended outcome.  Our definition of strategy:

  1. A coordinated sequence of acts,
  2. In service of shared mission, vision, and goals, that
  3. Embody our aspirations for all kids,
  4. Secured by beliefs about what is important and why, and
  5. Deeply rooted in a theory of change, that
  6. Plots the throughline from top leadership to student outcomes.

In addition, for a strategy to be maximally useful, it will also be clear:

  1. How both the outcomes and the actions will be monitored and
  2. How feedback loops and accountability improve the strategy in order to reach goals.

Our definition of strategy has everything to do with improving opportunity, experience and outcomes for all students.  Obviously, China’s investment in ports has nothing to do with their aspirations for equitable classrooms.  It is, nevertheless, a sophisticated strategy for maximizing Chinese profits and market share over the long term by placing their bets on improving infrastructure in other countries that will, as a result, be better positioned to access Chinese goods and services.

The Republican party has done an impressive job of implementing a long-term strategy of control of the Supreme Court—see this article in The Atlantic.  Much of their campaign advertising in 2016 stressed their focus on shaping a Supreme Court that would uphold the values of their chief supporters.  Emphasizing the importance of the Supreme Court “energized the base”, as they say, and taught voters a way of thinking about electoral strategy—to privilege the judicial branch over the legislative in making candidate choices at the polls.  This was also a bet—who could have known that the stars would align to prevent the appointment of an Obama nominee and afford the appointment of two conservative justices within 18 months?  Assuming that these justices will vote as presumed, Republican voters will be rewarded for their loyalty to this strategy by seeing issues of concern to them resolved in a satisfactory way.

Enron, the massive power company that exploded in a fireball of scandal, was very strategic in its methodology—to exploit, ruthlessly, their might; their deep understanding of laws, systems and markets; and their willingness to bend ethics and break laws in service of increasing their profits.  Their bet was that the law would not catch up with them.  Here is a NYT article about Enron, and there is a great book about Enron by Bethany McLean: The smartest guys in the room: The amazing rise and scandalous fall of Enron.  It will make you raise your eyebrows more than once.

So, the ongoing leadership, and coaching, questions are, to begin with:

  1. What is your strategy for improving opportunity, experience and outcomes for all students?
  2. What is the throughline from leadership to classroom?
  3. How long term are you thinking?
  4. What are your big bets?
  5. How will you know if your strategy is working?
  6. How will you use that information?

If you want more to read on strategy, see last Coaching Letter. We are currently planning for a strategy workshop in late June that will provide leaders with the opportunity to think big about their long term strategy and how it is monitored and supported–and what capacity needs to be built, and whether or not it’s any good… Stay tuned.

I made it to the half-time show. I hope your team wins.  Best, Isobel

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