• Alan Pue

It's the Process, Not the Plan

On October 17, 1777, English General, Gentlemen Johnny Burgoyne, surrendered an entire British Army to Horatio Gates, commander of the American forces at Saratoga, New York. If the battle of Lexington produced the “shot heard round the world” then Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga produced the “shock heard round the world”.


Many historians have identified the Battle of Saratoga as the turning point in America’s war for independence. The victory heartened the sagging morale of the American forces and helped encourage the French to enter into a military alliance with the fledgling nation. This alliance proved invaluable to the American cause. In October of 1781 the French fleet played a key role in forcing the British army to surrender at Yorktown thus bringing the American war for independence to a successful conclusion.

Interesting you might say, but what does the British surrender at Saratoga have to do with school leadership? Fair question. Consider this answer. Agur, author of Proverbs 30, reminds us that we can derive personal benefit from observing the small things of the earth (Proverbs 30:24-25.) Since that is true perhaps we can discover valuable lessons on ministry leadership through a study of eighteenth century military history.


At Saratoga the unthinkable happened. A well-equipped, well-trained, professional army sent by the most powerful empire on earth was utterly defeated by a novice army comprised largely of farmers and craftsmen and lead by men with virtually no military training. The world was turned on its head and someone had to pay. Sound familiar?

You might not be leading a revolution, or trying to thwart one, but I think you would agree that you live and lead in turbulent times. Pressure for change is constant. As a consequence leadership challenges can seem unrelenting, and at times beyond your expertise. You will, however, be judged on your ability to respond effectively to that pressure. If you ably guide the school you lead through crisis and challenge to greater levels of impact, you will be considered a success. If, however, under your leadership difficult situations are not resolved, leading to diminished impact you will likely become a target for criticism.


That may seem unfair. Perhaps it is. But unfair or not it is reality. Every leadership situation comes with a sobering responsibility. According to the parable of the talents found in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 25:14-20) God entrusts to our care the matters of His household and does so with the expectation that we will act wisely on His behalf. And therein lies our challenge. We can embrace our call to leadership willingly. We can act decisively. We can invest great energy. We can do all of that, however, and still fail to produce a positive result. Indeed, this happens with disheartening frequency. So, what can we do to respond wisely and well to the many challenges we face in school leadership?

Let’s begin to answer that question by introducing an important concept that can be summed up in this phrase: The process is the plan. General Burgoyne had a well-designed plan, created by some of the greatest military minds of the British Empire. It was a plan based on sound military strategy; divide and conquer. On paper it looked brilliant. In reality it was a disaster. Burgoyne had a great plan, but one constructed through a faulty process. He was doomed from the start because he and his superiors violated three key planning principles.

Principle One: “Nobody warned us that there would be so many trees.”

OBJECTIVE ASSESSMENT IS ESSENTIAL TO THE SUCCESS OF ANY PLANNING PROCESS.

Burgoyne’s idea was “. . . to end the war by splitting the rebellious colonies in two. This was to be accomplished by driving down from Canada to Lake Champlain, Lake George and the Hudson River, thus splitting New England off from the middle and southern colonies.” The idea was to join Burgoyne’s army to one lead from the south by General Howe and to do so with “all possible expedition.”


That, of course, never happened. The plan, initially developed in London, was based on poor topographical maps and thus unfortunately failed to adequately account for the kind of terrain Burgoyne’s army would be forced to traverse. It was countryside with so many tress and other natural obstacles that over one twenty-four day period Burgoyne was only able to advance his army a mere twenty-three miles. So much for expediency.


Adding to the problem was King George the Third’s involvement in the planning process. While the initial idea was not his, the king soon enthusiastically adopted it. Once that happened serious discussion essentially ended. Anyone who had any misgivings kept silent in the face of the king’s endorsement.


If this were a rare occurrence it would not merit our attention. Unfortunately most plans are created via a process that does not adequately provide for thorough, objective assessment. Ministry planning is typically an internal activity in which a relatively small number of people participate. Even when a large number of people are involved objectivity can suffer, and objectivity is the life’s blood of any planning process.


The reason for that lack of objectivity is simple. None of us is truly objective. Leaders are not objective. Neither are staff members, students, parents or supporters. We are all shaped by our personal experiences and private agendas. So, unless you are willing to invite an objective voice to be part of your planning process you risk missing crucial information to which you will be hopelessly blind. Left to yourself, you are less inclined to ask tough questions. Nor is it likely that people will ask tough questions of you. That is simply human nature. It is the difficult, probing kind of question, however, that typically produces the best quality information. You need a good coach to guide you through the process, to ask those tough questions, to probe beneath the surface, to push you to think a bit deeper, a bit more creatively. You may choose to deflect or ignore those questions but at least they will be asked.


So where do you find a coach, that objective voice? There are a couple of avenues you could pursue. You could invite a trusted colleague to observe the planning process. Give him the freedom to evaluate your efforts. Or, you could engage the services of a professional planning consultant. Whoever you ask, however, must bring the appropriate level of experience and expertise to the task, and not just in strategic planning but in the world of Christian schooling as well. I have a list of questions I often give to school leaders when they are looking for help with planning and problem solving.

Principle Two: “Those guys are really persistent and they are really mad.”

A COMPELLING VISION WILL ALWAYS TRUMP THE STATUS QUO.

The British never fully understood the true motivation for the revolution and that failure caused them to consistently miscalculate. The British vision was simple: Return the rebellious colonies to the empire. The American vision, while equally simple, was far more compelling: Give me liberty or give me death.


The British believed that a show of force by its professional army would be sufficient to convince the colonists that a terrible mistake had been made. They were utterly wrong because they failed to understand the power of a compelling vision. Without a compelling vision planning tends to focus on minutia: Who? How much? When?Those are important issues but they will not sustain people during crisis.


Nehemiah faced this problem when he led Israel to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. About half way through the project, with opposition mounting, the people found themselves overwhelmed by massive piles of debris throughout the city. There was too much rubbish and not enough progress. So how did Nehemiah respond?


Well, he didn’t berate them for a lack of faith, but neither did he ignore the ugly reality of the moment. And he didn’t try to rally the troops around his leadership with a stirring speech. Instead he simply reminded them that they had been called to a singular, essential task by a God “who is great and awesome.” (Nehemiah 4:9-14) Both truths were of equal importance. The most important project, apart from God’s glory, inevitably becomes a monument to a man, while appeals to God’s glory apart from a legitimate project will often damage God’s reputation.


Plans never create vision. Plans never motivate people to sustain efforts at excellence. Plans may provide a framework, a road map of sorts, but plans without vision become shackles that trap and confine. And while vision is essential to any planning process, vision is not something that you can simply create. Vision must be discovered. Vision is a gift from God, a unique gift. Because God creates and doesn’t clone He will not give you the same vision that He has given to the school leadership team across town or to the author of the latest greatest book on what it means to be a school of excellence. There are common principles and practices that apply to every school but what God gives to you He gives to you alone.

Principle Three: “Why won’t these guys get in line so we can get a clear shot? They just won’t play by the rules!”

IN A DYNAMIC WORLD FLEXIBLE IMPLEMENTATION STRATEGIES ARE OFTEN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SUCCESS AND FAILURE.

Take this statement to heart. “A battle seldom develops according to plan . . . . Victory or defeat rests on the ability of one side or the other to exploit the changing circumstances on the field of combat itself.” The British army was defeated at Saratoga because they had no idea of how to respond to the terrain in which they found themselves. They were not afraid to engage the enemy. On the contrary, they were a well-trained army that fought with great tenacity and courage. They lost the battle because they just couldn’t adapt to the changing circumstances.


Plans quickly become static. That is one reason why so many “strategic” plans never see the light of day once they are completed. In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins quotes one CEO who observed, “Plans are useless but planning is priceless.” I don’t agree that plans are useless but rest assured that circumstances will change. Additional information will come to light. New opportunities will appear. Key people will get transferred. The stock market will decline. Murphy was right; “Everything that can go wrong will go wrong and at the worst possible moment.”


One common characteristic of great leaders is their ability to adjust in a fluid environment without surrendering the essentials. So what can you do to increase your capacity to implement and maintain a dynamic planning process? Consider the following five steps.

  • Enlist a Strong Team. Planning is a team sport. As the author of Proverbs reminds us, “Without consultation plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed.” (Proverbs 15:22) I am not talking about a standing committee on long range planning. The typical planning committee creates the perfect environment for static thinking. A properly constructed strategic planning task force will, however, develop a thoughtful, effective balance between strong leadership and wise counsel that creates the context for a dynamic, but focused decision-making process.

  • Identify Your Core. The first, and in my opinion the most important, task of any planning team is to identify the core of the organization. That core would consist of its purpose, its values and its beliefs; those things that are non-negotiable, those things that could not be abandoned without doing serious damage to the organization. Only when an organization understands what is fixed can it respond with an appropriate level of flexibility to changing circumstances.

  • Identify Critical Issues and Initiate Necessary Changes. Once a ministry has identified its core it is able to adapt to changing circumstance. Using a sound process programs and methodologies can now be reviewed, then revised or replaced without fear of losing something essential. The two keys at this point are timing and focus. Many change efforts fail because they are launched prematurely or because the agenda is too ambitious. Discipline yourself to limit the scope of change.

  • Celebrate Each Success. It typically takes three to five years before any significant change becomes, “The way we do things around here.” When people are able to see and experience the predicted positive results of change, however, it helps speed the acceptance process. Public celebration of small successes will increase public awareness and support in a positive way.

  • Continuously Evaluate Progress. The Japanese use the word kiazan to describe the kind of continuous evaluation and step-by-step improvement that leads to greater levels of excellence in production of a product or delivery of a service. An appropriate evaluation process will ensure that necessary refinements can be made leading to increased excellence.

ARE YOU READY?

Guarding the trust of an organization, ensuring that core values and beliefs survive to be passed on to the next generation, is a daunting task for any leader. Individuals who can fulfill that responsibility while effectively responding to the challenge of change are able to lead an organization to ever greater levels of impact.


Strategic planning is not for the faint of heart. Objective evaluation of any organization can uncover serious problems that must be addressed. In fact you may find yourself standing in the midst of a minefield wondering where to step next. Are you ready?

Planning is a rigorous, dynamic process that requires a disciplined, nimble mind. It also calls for a strong leader, one willing to confront reality without losing heart. It demands objectivity, wisdom, courage and flexibility. The opportunity to increase your impact for the Kingdom of God is, however, worth the price.


Sound planning will produce quality plans. Quality plans are important, but sound planning is essential. Remember: It’s the process, not the plan.

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