Byron's Babbles

Strategy In Action

Posted in Coaching, Education, Education Reform, Leadership, Learning Organization by Dr. Byron L. Ernest on December 4, 2013
Strategy In Action

Strategy In Action

I spent this week in the classroom at Harvard University learning to use strategy and be more strategic in supporting powerful learning and teaching in the Harvard Graduate School of Education program, Strategy In Action. This was a program made up of an outstanding curriculum with the learning being facilitated by incredible the incredible Harvard faculty Rachel Curtis and Elizabeth City. Part of my pre-work homework for this course was to read Strategy in Action: How School Systems Can Support Powerful Learning and Teaching (Curtis & City, 2012). Let me just say this is a book that everyone in education should read. A habit that I developed doing literature reviews while completing my doctorate was to take bullet notes of everything I read. This book was so outstanding that I decided to include my summary as a post to this blog. Here it is:

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Strategy in action: How school systems can support powerful learning and teaching

Rachel E. Curtis & Elizabeth City (2012)


Prepared by: Byron L. Ernest


1.     It is simply not enough to have strategies in place; we must be able to consistently execute them

2.     The education of children is our number one priority. Number one above power struggles, political whims, or practitioner and parental excuses

3.     High performing schools are driven by four key strategic elements: unrelenting focus on quality instruction, robust community support, dedication to operational excellence, and strong leadership

4.     Every stakeholder of the school must know the data

5.     No matter what our role is as educators, we cannot go at it alone. We must involve the business, civic, parental and broader community in our strategic efforts

6.     Evaluate all budget recommendations based on three criteria: their direct impact on student achievement, risk to the district if not implemented, and alignment with the district’s strategic objectives.

7.     If principals don’t provide the instructional leadership, the school won’t perform

8.     Systems making substantial progress answer three questions: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? How are we doing it?

9.     What is strategy? “The set of actions an organization chooses to pursue in order to achieve its objectives. These deliberate actions are puzzle pieces that fit together to create a clear picture of how the people, activities, and resources of an organization can work effectively to accomplish a collective purpose.” ≈ Stacey Childress

10.  The great challenge and opportunity: to educate all of our children to succeed in a rapidly changing world we can scarcely imagine

11.  School systems exist to support learning for all students

12.  Teaching matters most

13.  Being strategic, coherent, and well aligned is everyone’s business

14.  Our “product” in education is learning

15.  American propensity is to favor breadth over depth, meaning that American fifth graders are taught twice as many math concepts as their Japanese counterparts

16.  All three parts of the instructional core matter: teachers, content, and students. The core is the interaction of the three sides of the triangle

17.  Systems, not just individuals, must steward the instructional core

18.  Strategy is about filtering the noise

19.  Deliberate actions are puzzle pieces that fit together to create a clear picture of how the people, activities, and resources of an organization can work effectively to accomplish a collective purpose

20.  When strategies are not effectively implemented teachers will experience each initiative as a discrete thing to be done, not understanding the purpose behind each and the relationship between them

21.  Strategy and all its components must address the instructional core by supporting high-quality teaching of rigorous curriculum, answering the question “How will this improve the quality of student learning and teaching?’

22.  Every school system we know that is rapidly improving student learning places its bets on strategic objectives and initiatives with direct connections to the instructional core

23.  Teachers’ focus must be shifted from what they taught to what the students learned

24.  The purpose of a team must be clear, challenging, and consequential

25.  A team is responsible for developing the improvement strategy for the system, ensuring coherence and aligning resources to strategy, creating the conditions required for implementation, and tracking results is more concrete

26.  Being clear about purpose guides selection of team members, who are selected on the basis of their ability to help the team fulfill its purpose

27.  Clarity of purpose also help team members understand what they are being asked to do

28.  Norms are a set of agreements that define how team members will behave when they meet

29.  A productive and satisfying meeting begins with a well-designed agenda

30.  One simple way to build trust is to be deliberate about it

31.  Expressing vulnerability is one of the most powerful ways to build trust and one of the strongest indicators of the level of trust that exists in a team

32.  A strong leadership team is composed of people with different expertise, experience, and perspectives

33.  In the face of problems, one questions helps focus complex systems and teams: “What is best for children”

34.  We can’t talk in generalities

35.  Generalizations are tidy and can make conversations more comfortable, but they don’t help us to understand what is most needed in the system and to learn from the variations and exceptions

36.  When tempted to oversimplify and generalize, remember to dig deeper to understand the nuances of why a project works in some settings better than it does in others

37.  Use data to guide the analysis

38.  Look closely at the data

39.  Ask questions about the data

40.  Wonder about the data

41.  Many time instead of being data-driven, we are driven to distraction

42.  If you want to improve outcomes, numbers alone will probably not provide all the information you need, particularly in the very human endeavor of teaching and learning

43.  Three types of data: Counting, hearing, and seeing

44.  Using data often leads to more questions than answers

45.  Problems have causes and symptoms. We often mix these two things up.

46.  “We see things as we are, not as they are” ≈ the Talmud

47.  When the vision is clear, everyone in the system give the same responses to the important questions

48.  In cultivating strategy for a school, it is encouraged to assess the present, imagine the future, and learn from the past

49.  Personal/not personal paradox è Not about us…is about us

50.  A theory of action describes the beliefs that undergird an organization’s strategy and links the strategy to the organization’s vision

51.  A theory of action can be thought of as the storyline that makes a vision and strategy concrete

52.  A theory of action is a hypothesis using an if-then statement to articulate what will be achieve and how, in the broadest sense, it will be achieved

53.  Context matters

54.  A strategy consists of a small number of strategic objectives (three to five) that frame big areas upon which the system will focus

55.  The segments are: identify major strategic objectives; map strategic objectives with theory of action; and identify strategic initiatives, weighing ease and impact, synergy, and pacing and sequencing

56.  Tool: Ease Versus Impact Graph

57.  Strategy is not enough on its own

58.  Clear and established methods of executing the strategy, problem solving, learning from the work, and refining the work as you go along are essential to helping the strategy become something that actually helps children move toward the system’s vision

59.  Often, the way work gets done is defined by who is doing it rather than by principles of effective management

60.  When individuals and departments work independently, their approaches to the work are variably effective and create inefficiencies in the system

61.  Systems struggle in four areas: aligning resources to the strategy, implementing systems and structures to facilitate the work, supporting employees through work that demands they change their behaviors, and embracing the dynamic nature of the work

62.  Strategy comes to life when its execution drives the budgeting process and the allocation of resources, be they time, staff, or money

63.  The concept of cross-functional teams, the lifeblood of high-performing organizations, is unfamiliar and directly challenges the prevailing culture of autonomy and “turf.”

64.  Teams need to engage in the productive conflict that generates the best ideas and work

65.  Strategy execution is dynamic

66.  The strategy written on the page must evolve as it grows into life, responding to the environment, changing conditions, and the learning that occurs along the way

67.  Reality bumps up against the tendency of many school systems to function as if their work is static, linear, and predictable

68.  The system that is able to stop “doing” long enough to respond to the environment will be better able to keep purpose at the center

69.  Two-way learning is required for successful implementation of strategies

70.  Logic Model: Activities, Resources, Outputs, Outcomes, Assumptions

71.  A work plan is the bridge between the logic model and action

72.  After-Action Reviews: The building into implementation process the mechanisms to learn from the work

73.  For building stakeholder support communication in all directions is essential

74.  The trick to in communicating strategy is to simultaneously communicate a sense of urgency combined with sense of agency to improve, answering the questions “why change?” and “how to change?”

75.  Engaging a broad range of actors in the work is critical

76.  Successful strategy execution requires a balance of support and accountability

77.  Support for strategy is provided through resource allocation, technical assistance, and collaborative problem-solving

78.  Accountability is ensured through regular tracking of work, timelines and benchmarks, and assessing organizational learning

79.  Coordination across initiatives leads to better results

80.  The work of all initiatives must be aggregated to the system level

81.  Execution of strategy requires a high level of collaboration and interdependence

82.  Strong execution is marked by careful planning, ongoing learning, and nimble adjustments along the way

83.  Driving improvement requires us to dive in and develop ideas about what we most need to do to improve student learning and to constantly be looking beyond ourselves for better ideas

84.  The success of strategy depends on your making smart bets, learning from the work, and then shaping and refining it accordingly

85.  Three simple questions: How does what I’m doing support children and their learning? Is this working for children? How do I know?

86.  Designing strategy requires taking the time to be thoughtful and thorough

87.  For strategy to be effective, it cannot be immutable

88.  Strategy must evolve in response to needs and changes in the environment

89.  Measuring results is simultaneously simple and complex

90.  When we ferociously commit to acting and learn from that action, both become easier because they feed on and reinforce one another

91.  In execution, strategy comes to life

92.  Through the process of execution strategy evolves

93.  A system that uses strategy that focuses on autonomy and accountability will surely evolve as it learns from the innovations some schools initiate and the struggles other schools face

94.  Two tensions of strategy design and execution: How loosely or tightly the system will manage the school and the strategies focus on all children and, at the same time, on each child

95.  All children and each child

96.  A system needs to balance all with each by differentiating support in response to the specific needs of struggling students, teachers, and schools

97.  At the same time you are executing strategy you need to be intentionally learning from it so that you stay conscious, keep learning, and make good decisions

98.  Remember to keep the focus of the system’s work on students, teachers, and the content: the instructional core

99.  We must bring our best selves to the endeavor while maintaining a boundary between the work and ourselves

100.                 It is about the work, not the people. Ultimately, it is about the education of children.

Again, this was an outstanding book that I believe anyone who is serious about delivering wowful educational leadership, or leadership for any organization should read and study!

2 Responses

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  1. […] I stated in my earlier post today, Strategy In Action, I spent this week in the classroom at Harvard University learning to be a more effective leader at […]


  2. […] and long-term results. You can read a couple of my posts on strategic planning by clicking on Strategy in Action and Top 50 Strategy in Action […]


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