By Shira Leibowitz
What if we could untether our strategic planning processes from typical constraints? What if we looked at building on our strengths and capitalizing on our opportunities rather than fixing our weaknesses and responding to threats? What if we unlocked our potential to grow, thrive, and evolve? What if rather than sustainability and stability we focused on transformative possibility?
Members of Solomon Schechter School of Queens’ professional development team and Board of Trustees spent a day and a half with Charles Cohen and Ray Levi of PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) in imaginative exploration of the possible. Piloting a generative, creative planning process known as “asset optimization”, we began with a few “rules”:
- No silos allowed – multiple voices identify disparate assets, including human assets, to unleash new potential.
- Thinking must be interactive.
- Change and success must find common ground. We must not view change as an end unto itself, but rather as a vehicle for achieving success. Similarly, we must challenge the potential constraints of success, which can lead us to being stuck in what has worked even though our world is rapidly changing around us.
- The power of imagination must be embraced.
- In order to “connect the dots” in new, innovative ways we must identify dots we might not have even realized existed.
- The Head of School must accept not being the expert.
- The Board must support innovative thinking.
From there, we played. Using a model created by Shattuck-ST. Mary’s School’s President Nick Stoneman as a means of sharing the creative process that transformed his school over the span of a decade of innovation, we first engaged in two rounds of asset optimization using assets from schools other than our own. We worked with a very specific asset in each of six areas: Physical Plant, Faculty and Staff, Brand Recognition, External Relationships, Geography and Region, and Program Offered. Our task was to optimize potential by intertwining assets in these six disparate areas, finding opportunity previously unrecognized by connecting and combining asset categories in new and innovative ways in order to improve in seven specific areas: Faculty Engagement, Student Retention, Increased Enrollment, Facility Expansion, Endowment Growth, Additional Programs, and Alternative Revenue.
Charles Cohen and Ray Levi functioned as our coaches, activating our learning by observing, asking reflective questions to stretch our thinking, and offering feedback on what we might consider. They challenged us to be more specific and less “neat,” freeing us to resist the impulse to tie loose ends together quickly and instead to consider as many possibilities for building on strengths as we could. Working in two separate groups, we strove to optimize assets for two fictional schools, each with seemingly unconnected assets. Through the brainstorming, we crafted narratives of meaning, building on strengths to create schools that are world class – one emphasizing community and character; the other science and social policy. Inspiring us to live with the inherent messiness of creativity, at least for awhile, our facilitators sent us off on round two with two new schools and two new sets of assets to consider. To the delight of our facilitators, we emerged with “messier” packages of potential, and multiple potential directions for the schools presented to us – one a girls’ school emphasizing the arts and expanding into wellness programming and therapeutic arts for students and the broader community, and the other a struggling school in need of substantial intervention with a plethora of possibilities for improvement based on strengths, some of them initially hidden.
With the experience of imagining the possible in connection to fictional schools, with fictional assets, we were ready to identify real assets in our own school; dots we might not have yet even recognized in order to then connect those dots in new, innovative ways. Feedback from our coaches Charles Cohen and Ray Levi on our identification of our own assets was consistent with the feedback they offered in relation to our efforts at optimizing assets in the fictional schools which which we had practiced: be more specific. And so, we went back to work – identifying with much greater specificity faculty members, alumni, programs, and opportunities made possible by our physical plant. Those assets became the raw material with which we returned the next day to engage in multiple rounds of the asset optimization exercise using real assets of our own school.
Prompted by our coaches to think more expansively, more ambitiously, more creatively, more flexibly, and more specifically, we imagined a world class school. We envisioned signature programs and strategic partnerships enabling us to be ever more relevant to our students, preparing them in concrete, innovative ways for the rapidly changing world of work with emphasis in technology, science, and entrepreneurial ventures; infused with commitment to being socially responsible; deeply grounded in the enduring values and texts of our Jewish religious tradition. We described potential ways to build upon global connections stemming from our own multi-national, multi-lingual student and family population. Considering museums, universities, libraries, businesses, organizations, and individuals with whom to develop strategic partnerships, we recognized ways of cultivating connections to benefit our students. We imagined expansive potential for recruitment and facility expansion based on a virtuous cycle of optimizing assets.
Beyond the imaginative ideas, we experienced important shifting of mindset. Possibilities requiring effort, risk, and courage were shared aloud as possible, leading not to a sense of anxiety or outright dismissal, but instead to openness to further exploration. “The toothpaste is out of the tube,” one participant playfully remarked, in reference to our rapidly changing world as well as the possibilities we together imagined.
Ready to leave the limitless world of potential and possibility and return to the more mundane day to day world of the operational and the tactical, we considered next steps that would enable us to build on positive momentum generated. Members of the professional leadership team considered concrete actions we could take to actualize some of the more manageable suggestions offered as well as to lay the groundwork for more ambitious innovation. Most significantly, we considered ways of bringing others who had not participated in the training into the process, primarily our Trustees and our faculty. Recognizing that at this time two days of learning combining theory and imaginative play with a purpose would not yet be achievable or even advisable for our very busy Trustees, or our very busy faculty members, we considered specific ways to infuse the language and thinking behind asset optimization into our work as we seek to shift our school’s mind set to a focus on identifying, cultivating, celebrating, and building on strength and opportunity. While much remains to be done, the conversation and learning has already had a potent impact. The toothpaste is out of the tube!
Shira Leibowitz is Head of School at The Solomon Schechter School of Queens in New York, an instructional and leadership coach for teachers and principals, and a facilitator of on-line learning and community. She holds a Ph.D and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
cross-posted on the PEJE Blog