May the Force be with You- - The Ultimate Organizational Strategies for School Success (Part I)

Dear Colleagues,

After months of build-up, the new Star Wars movie was released a few days ago. . . not surprisingly, to record audiences.

On the one hand, it is amazing that this film series- - which began in 1977, and actually has two more installments planned (in 2017 and 2019)- - has transcended generations of children, adolescents, and adults.

On the other hand, it is equally amazing that the characters- - from Yoda on- - have influenced the same generations with lessons that apply to friendship, business, and life itself.

And so. . . in the spirit of holiday giving, this Blog message describes the “ultimate core/essential” strategies for school success- - organized in two sets of 7 C’s.

Process Dictates Products and Outcomes

With the assumption that schools have “enough” resources, materials, personnel, professional development, and other supports (and, I know, that we always need more). . .

Why are some schools more positive, productive, and successful than other schools that have the “same” amount of resources and supports?

To answer this question, I want you to think about the one or two educators who most positively influenced you- - at any point in your preschool through graduate career.

Was it the smartest teacher? The teacher who taught your favorite subject? The teacher whose class contained your best friends?


You are probably thinking about the teachers who were most enthusiastic. . . caring. . . optimistic. . . inspiring. . . and who may have changed your life.

For me. . . it was my high school music teacher. . . someone who I keep in touch with to this day.

By way of analogy, my point is: The most successful schools are the ones that “mix” their available resources with staff enthusiasm, caring, optimism, and inspiration.

These are the schools where the underlying processes that motivate success, result in the products and outcomes of success.

Remember, the teams that have the best athletes win championships only when they play as a team.

The 7 C’s of Organizational Success

So. . . what are the underlying processes that help organizations (i.e., districts and schools) to maximize their success?

These are summarized in the following 7 C’s:

  • Charting the Course
  • Collecting the Supplies
  • Cruising with Purpose
  • Checking Coordinates
  • Correcting for Drift
  • Containing Crises
  • Celebrating the Voyage

Let’s briefly describe each of these components.

#1: Charting the Course

Joel Barker said, “Almost all successful individuals and organizations have one thing in common—the power and depth of their vision of the future.”

This is the essence of strategic planning. Charting the Course focuses on specifying the goals, objectives, and outcomes of your school’s (or district’s, or grade level’s or classroom’s) current or desired journey or “voyage”—whether in the organizational, climate, academic, social-emotional-behavioral, and/or personal/ interpersonal (or combined) areas.

Critically, and as much as possible, your desired outcomes should be described in specific, behavioral terms so that they are observable and measurable.

For example, rather than saying:

“I want to improve positive school climate this year,”

you might want to specify instead:

“I want to increase the number and ratio of positive and prosocial to negative and antisocial interactions between students and staff, respectively, based on (a) classroom and common school area observations; (b) incidents reported in the classroom and referred to the office; (c) student, staff, and parent surveys and self-reports; and (d) student, staff, and parent focus group outcomes.

Relative to Barker’s quote, your goals are your “vision of the future.” Without your goals and vision, there truly is no strategic plan.

#2: Collecting the Supplies

This step focuses on identifying and gathering the needed resources so that your journey has the highest probability of success. Significantly, many people think only about money as their primary resource.

And yet, there are other resources that sometimes are more powerful. For example:

* Other people- - colleagues, mentors, consultants, or other professionals- - can be resources.

* Written, audio-visual, or multi-media information sources- - books, DVDs, web-based trainings or references- - can be resources.

* Time- - to do research, to engage in training, to devote to self-improvement, to focus tenaciously on a strategic goal- - is an essential resource.

* Places and facilities- - libraries or other research sites, model or exemplary practice sites, simulation or job-related training sites- - are possible resources.

* And, finally, technology- - with all of its wondrous innovations and advances- - is a resource.

The point here is that goal-setting is not enough. If we are under-resourced, we may never build the momentum needed to reach our goals, or we may need to abandon the journey because we run out of provisions. So, part of strategic planning is to “plan for the journey before embarking on the journey.”

However, relative to this planning, we sometimes need to over-plan and over-resource for the journey. That is, we need to plan not just for the “best-case scenarios,” but also for the “worst-case scenarios.” Functionally, this means that we sometimes need to have more resources available to help us meet our goals than needed.

Once again, goals are not successfully attained when challenges are underestimated or when resources are not available to address emergency situations.

#3: Cruising with Purpose

You are able to Cruise with Purpose once you have (a) developed your strategic plan, (b) identified and gathered the resources needed, (c) prepared for potential difficulties, (d) chosen the optimal time to begin, and (e) determined how and when you are going to evaluate your progress.

With all of this accomplished, you can embark on your journey with direction, determination, confidence, and purpose.

While all of this sounds natural and easy, many people complete all of the planning and preparation, but never embark on the journey.

Sometimes this occurs because of a fear of failure, a fear of the unknown, or a fear of taking or being in the lead. Sometimes, it is due to competing priorities, a resistance to change, or the belief that a secure present is better than a challenging future. And sometimes, it is because of a lack of confidence, determination, or motivation.

Here is where the “strength of purpose” is essential. Critically, while there are no certainties in life, are we truly living life when we are determined to keep everything certain?

Inner strength and purpose allows us to conquer our fears. . . it motivates us to make the future our priority, and. . . it inspires us to take the first steps along the path to accomplishment and success.

Trammell Crow said, “There’s as much risk in doing nothing as in doing something.”

And so, in order to make planning and preparation meaningful, we must take action. Said another way, once ready, we need to hoist the anchor, engage the rudder, and let out the mainsails- - confident in our ability to take advantage of the good and to adjust to the bad.

#4: Checking the Coordinates

This step is all about “formative evaluation.”

Formative evaluation involves planned, periodic evaluations that occur at different points in time during the journey to ensure that we are on course and not in need of mid-course corrections.

Formative evaluation is important because most goals are not accomplished in a direct, straight-line fashion. Typically, progress involves different pathways, requires different levels of energy, and occurs at different speeds. Progress also, at times, requires detours, rest periods, and moments to consolidate the advances made.

Without formatively “checking the coordinates,” schools, staff, and students sometimes get lost, miss the progress made, or prematurely believe that they have reached their destination. In addition, psychological research has long shown that when students chart and graph their progress toward long-term goals, both their motivation increases and more of their goals are attained.

Formative evaluation, then, is the feedback process that all of us need when long-term goals involve a series of short-term steps. If you think about it, most mountains are not climbed by ascending a single steep path to the summit. Mountains are conquered by patiently negotiating a gradual series of switchbacks that increase the potential for success.

Similarly, most large bodies of water are navigated by tacking the sailboat back and forth, maximizing the power of the wind to successfully arrive at the desired destination.

Without formative evaluation, we may not tack at the right time, we may tack too many times, or we may not tack at all.

William Drayton said, “Change starts when someone sees the next step.” Drayton understood formative evaluation and the Seven C’s of strategic, organizational planning.

#5: Correcting for Drift

Correcting for Drift involve the actions needed when formative evaluations tell us that we are off-course.

Let’s face it—life is complex.

A few years ago, there was a retirement commercial that began with an older gentleman chiding us, “What did you think—life was an expressway?”

Clearly not.

With all the complexities in life (in general and in school), and everything that seems to be bombarding us at the same time, it is easy to get lost in the irrelevant details, the inevitable detours, or the “crises of the day.” At times, all of this causes us to lose our focus and drift from our path.

And so, using our formative evaluation results, we need to periodically make mid-course corrections to stay on track.

Think about it this way: Many of you would be surprised to learn that when a plane travels across the country, it is off-course 90 percent of the time. This is because airplanes travel from one air traffic control center to the next- - at least, until they are within fifty or so miles of their final destination.

Thus, because the control centers are not aligned with your departure and destination cities, during the flight, the captain, the computers, and the air traffic control centers are constantly programming the plane to make mid-course corrections based on their current formative evaluation data.

Formative evaluations must be built into and executed as part of the system, school, staff, and student goals in our strategic plans. This helps us to make the necessary mid-course corrections so that we stay on track to reach our goals. Without these corrections, we could get so off course or so lost that our only option would be to give up the journey and start over again.

The time we spend in periodically evaluating and correcting our progress over time often saves us ten times the time required to restart the process, once again, from the very beginning.

A Mid-Course Summary and Set-Up

The first two of the 7 C’s focus on identifying your district, school, or staff’s strategic goals, designing a functional action plan, and collecting the resources needed to begin executing the plan.

Steps three through five of the 7 C’s involve the actual implementation of the plan, along with the periodic evaluations needed to ensure that you are progressing toward your goals- - making needed mid-course corrections if you are drifting or getting off-track.

Step six involves both planning and execution. It entails the advanced planning that prevents most crises, but the strategic steps needed so that when crises occur, they are quickly addressed.

Finally, Step seven emphasizes the importance of enjoying the entire journey- - not just the end of the journey when success occurs.

#6: Containing Crises

This sixth (of the 7) C, Containing Crises, focuses on the planning that prevents crises (as you are working to attain your strategic goals), and the responses that resolve them.

While we have talked some about prevention, I want to introduce what I call the “NASA Approach to Crisis Prevention.”

This involves thinking, during the development of a strategic plan, about everything that could possibly go wrong while actually executing the plan, developing an “early warning system” as an alert for potential crises, and then preparing response systems or contingency plans to address any crises that might actually occur.

The reason why I call this the “NASA Approach” is because this is exactly what NASA does when designing its space ships, and what it is doing now as it conceptualizes its future trips to Mars.

More specifically, NASA spends an incredible amount of time in development and training in the areas of crisis prevention, intervention, and response.

For example, as they are designing the space capsules that will travel to Mars, they are building them with what are called “redundant” or “back-up” systems. That is, during the design process, NASA engineers will envision every possible hardware or software system failure or misfortunate that might occur from lift-off to touch-down. Guided by these “worst-case scenarios,” they will build back-up systems into the shuttles- - extra fuel cells, additional computer capacity, by-pass systems and strategies, and emergency procedures for unlikely, but possible, events.

Crisis prevention is also integrated into every astronaut’s training prior to leaving on a mission. Indeed, beyond preparing for the scientific parts of their mission, astronauts spend a large amount of time on “crisis response” procedures. Once again, after imagining every possible crisis that might occur on the shuttle, NASA conditions the astronauts so that they can respond to any crisis situation at virtually an automatic level. This training and response is essential- - especially when the difference between survival and catastrophe, at times, is counted in seconds, not minutes.

As a reminder:

The point here is that schools need to think, as part of their strategic planning, about the potential crises that may affect or completely ruin their potential to succeed. While good planning may actually prevent most crises from happening, planning also results in interventions that are available to contain and minimize crises if they do occur, and responses to repair the damage once they are over.

#7: Celebrating the Voyage

Step number seven, Celebrating the Voyage, focuses on celebrating the fact that (a) we can plan and improve our student, staff, and school outcomes by (b) making incremental progress toward our goals- - succeeding at different stages in the process; and that (c) we should commemorate and celebrate our short- and long-term successes that result in short- and long-term contribution, growth, and achievement.

This step, then, celebrates the steps during the journey, as well as the journey once the destination has been reached.

Of the possible areas of celebration, I would suggest that the first one above is the most important.

Too many times, we focus on “the win,” “the award,” or “the recognition.” And yet, the reality is that we do not always reach our ultimate or long-term goals.

Given this, we need to refocus our “perceptions of success”- - demonstrating sincere motivation and appreciation for the accomplishment of creating the strategic plan itself, for the care in preparing for the journey, for the thrill of taking the first steps, and for the excitement of experiencing new challenges and opportunities.

We also need to teach our students this lesson.

Indeed, when working with parents and teachers, I often remind them that:

“It may take a whole village to raise a child, but it also takes a whole child to raise a village.”

By this, I mean that we need to help our students, at levels appropriate to their development and maturity, to create strategic school (and life) plans for themselves (at different age levels and across the stages of their lives). Moreover, we need to help them understand that “success” is represented- - as above- - by the journey itself, the short-term accomplishments, and the ultimate or final results.

As a final step in Celebrating the Voyage, I would like to define “Failure” so that we can contrast it with “Success.”

I firmly believe that “the only failure . . . is not being able to explain why you have been successful or unsuccessful.”

To me, then, Failure does not occur when we do not “win,” attain a goal, or accomplish a task.

Failure occurs when we do not fully understand why we have not succeeded, and when we do not learn from or change the conditions so that we might succeed in the future.

Conversely, when we are successful, we fail ourselves when we do not determine how that has occurred. Indeed, when we understand how we have succeeded in the past, we can duplicate the effort or conditions so that we can continue to succeed in the future.


Now that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA- - also now known as the “Every Student Succeeds Act”- - ESSA) has been passed and signed into law (last week by Congress and the President, respectively), we know that the educational “landscape” will change.

In a nutshell, our state departments of education will have more decision-making authority over the criteria and evaluation of school success, and our districts and schools will need to adapt to these new criteria.

But significantly, with the new law, there appears to be a change of perspective- - moving from a deficit, failure-focused approach to an asset, success-oriented approach.

Regardless, the change will give our districts and schools another opportunity to recalibrate, rededicate, and renew their commitments to students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral learning, progress, mastery, and application.

And through it all, the 7 C’s will again take “center stage” in discriminating the schools that are successful, and those that lag behind.

And so, even as you approach the holidays, recognize that most districts and schools are already planning for the next school year (2016-2017). Thus, please think about the 7 C’s and how they can help you and your colleagues move to the “next level of excellence.”

  • Charting the Course
  • Collecting the Supplies
  • Cruising with Purpose
  • Checking Coordinates
  • Correcting for Drift
  • Containing Crises
  • Celebrating the Voyage

Meanwhile, as you take your well-deserved Winter Break and progress through the Holiday Season, please accept my best wishes for a safe, restful, and joyous time with your families and friends.

My next Blog message will continue- - in the spirit of New Year’s and New Year’s resolutions- - the discussion above with a focus on the 7 C’s for staff success.

So be well, and stay tuned. May the (holiday) force be with you !!!