Executing Strategy: Operationalizing a Strategic Plan

In her recent post, Strategic Planning in Education – 3 Keys to Success, Jamie Billingham provides an overview of the purpose of a Strategic Plan and makes clear its central organizational importance:

Nothing affects a school district more than its ability to create and execute a strategic plan. A good strategic plan can improve student outcomes, keep great teachers and enhance the reputation of district leadership.

As a School District, we have engaged in a significant consultation process and created our Strategic Plan 2014-18 with an emphasis on the following goals:

Strategic Plan 2014-18 -Horizontal

  • Excellence in Teaching
  • Excellence in Leadership
  • Flexible Access to Programs and Services
  • Ethical and Innovative Use of Technology
  • Parental and Community Engagement

Strategic Plans look great on paper; however, do they actually work in terms of being put into practice? As Billingham notes, not everyone believes in them. “Tom Peters describes strategic planning as “death by a thousand initiatives” and Henry Mintzberg suggests that the evidence clearly shows that, “lead boots” and “paperwork mills” are the usual outcome of strategic planning.” To borrow from Jerry Seinfeld, we may know how to take the reservation, but we may not know how to hold the reservation. How then do we ensure that our Strategic Plan is not a cancelled reservation for system improvement, is not a stand-alone plan that collects dust on a School Board bookshelf (or to make it 21st century, has very few hits online)?

In Abbotsford, our Strategic Plan informs all that we do and ensures a system alignment that facilitates distributed leadership and a level of public accountability (a “how do we know”) that is transparent and shared throughout our community. Our Strategic Plan informs our Elementary, Middle and Secondary Operational Plans, which are in turn supported by the Operational Plans put forward by the Directors of Curriculum, Technology and Learning Services. These Plans give guidance to our respective School Plans which in turn influence our School based administrators’ Professional Growth Plans. Total system alignment and strategy execution with congruence to our District directions. However, although strategy is guided from the top, execution is driven from the middle with Operational Plans that allow respective Principals to view themselves not as managers of schools but, to borrow from Valerie Hannon, as R and D capacity leaders within a network of innovation. One need only look at the Rick Hansen Secondary School Plan to see this connection and school based agility.

The Secondary Operational Plan brings to life our District Strategic Plan. As a collective and on a yearly basis, secondary administrators refine strategies outlined in the District Strategic plan with a view towards creating a succinct, inquiry-based and aligned action plan. This year’s Plan places a focus upon the following five areas:                                                                     Secondary Op Plan 2015-16 - Visual

  • Assessment
  • Inquiry Based Learning
  • Leveraging Technology to Create Student Centered Classrooms
  • Flexible Learning Structures
  • Capacity Building: Leadership for Learning

Based on their own interests and/or areas of professional growth, the administrators create teams around the first four bullets (the fifth, capacity building, is the professional development component I lead as their Assistant Superintendent). Each team creates its Strategic Plan Worksheet with Goals/Rationale/Objectives and Actions to guide the work done and once a month I meet with the Facilitators of each group. As space in this blog post is somewhat limited, here are a few of the highlights of their work:


  • Developing a guide for secondary assessment practices with a focus on visible learning targets in each classroom
  • Creating an SD34 website with videos of Abbotsford teachers and summative assessment practices in place in their classrooms
  • Designing exam schedules to incorporate alternative summative assessment options (Jan 2015, June 2015)
  • Creating an outcome/competency-based Secondary report card to roll out with the new BC curriculum
  • Using our Administrative Pro-d Day to host the SD34 Secondary Assessment Conference (May 2015, Myron Dueck, Tiffany Poirier – April 2016 currently in planning stage)

        Inquiry Based Learning

  • Hosting our second annual district-wide opportunity for 40 secondary teachers to participate in a two day in-service with the Buck Institute that is supported by follow up support sessions with the Curriculum Department
  • Working with the Curriculum Department to create a yearlong PBL Series for teachers
  • Developing an online database of ‘project libraries’
  • Piloting a cross grade interdisciplinary PBL approach in grade 9

Leveraging Technology to Create Student Centered Classrooms

  • Piloting BYOD at two schools
  • Implementing the use of digital portfolios at one school (as part of a five year Secondary School implementation process)
  • Introducing blended learning and training to secondary teachers and all secondary administrators through Redbird Advanced Learning
  • Developing senior electives for September 2016 that will model the use of blended learning
  • Looking at creating a means for credit recovery through an online platform

Flexible Learning Structures 

  • Designing flexible spaces based on a cross-curricular perspective that recognizes literacy, numeracy, knowledge, thinking, communication, and application as foundations for learning how to learn
  • Working with our own STaRT Education to pilot Learning Commons at three schools
  • Developing a collaboration model for teachers for use in schools which also serves as extended learning opportunities for students

Capacity Building: Leadership for Learning

Nobody should be satisfied with a Strategic Plan that merely shifts the same old furniture about in the same old room. Real system transformation requires that we redesign the room itself. Perhaps even blow up the old room. As Danah Zohar succinctly states, it requires that we change the thinking behind our thinking. Our District alignment (Strategic Plan – Operational Plan – School Plan – Professional Growth Plan) provides our school leaders with a system based thinking – a focus, a connective purpose – that helps them innovate and confront big issues with big ideas instead of Band-Aids and checklists. In working in teams, these same leaders encourage personal accountability by providing a shared responsibility around the development of the culture, vision, and goals for Secondary Schools within the larger District entity. And, perhaps most importantly, each one of them is able to use the Operational Plan as a vehicle through which they can integrate individual learning to facilitate their own professional growth.

Operationalizing a strategic plan – it’s a collaborative process, ever evolving: It’s the how behind what we want to be.