Fostering Synergy in Partnerships

It’s about making the most of the time given and using a strategic planning approach to create implementation plans that can guide departments.

Time. It is still one of the most precious resources needed to grow or develop a team to be at its highest and best use for those it intends to serve. In a school district, the department leaders in central office have multiple calls to action as they serve a variety of stakeholders — students, teachers, administrators and parents — and time to serve all of them is still finite. Increasing the number of hours in a day is not possible; however, making time to create a common vision and focus the work for a team to achieve that vision is possible.

Recently, I have partnered with Heather Van Looy, Director of Instructional Technology for Fulton County Schools. Heather is new to the role within the last year and the type of person you want in a central office director position because she understands that while the daily/weekly tasks are important to accomplish in service to others, serving the team within her department was just as important for not only them but all of Fulton County Schools. Heather had the awareness and understanding that creating a shared vision for connecting the district’s organizational change with a department’s vision for its team would yield a greater impact.

Speaking to the importance of protecting time for strategy, Heather said:

“Taking the time to create a shared vision and develop goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics to reach that vision helps to make future work of the team more effective and efficient. It allows us to spend our time focusing on the right work, rather than simply putting out fires day to day.” 

This aligns with one of the key outcomes in Advanced Learning Partnership’s (ALP) Organizational Change Leadership Professional Learning Services. Heather also had insight that working with a planning partner and facilitator, a consultant, would better position her to be an active participant alongside her team fostering true collaboration and co-construction of desired outcomes and realistic pathways to achieve them.

Today, the Instructional Technology Department of any district truly feels the weight of needing to accomplish a large number of tasks in a short period of time which is why taking time to create focus areas and commit to intentional actions that lead toward impactful outcomes is essential. It’s about making the most of the time given and using a strategic planning approach to create implementation plans that can guide departments. Utilizing a partnership between a consultant and department leader can help, and getting to a place of synergy sooner rather than later creates an experience that is positive and productive for all involved. When co-constructing work sessions and resources for the Instructional Technology Department, Heather and I have found synergy by committing to:

  • Carving out dedicated time for strategic planning work;
  • Building the team’s background knowledge of strategic planning terms and the process;
  • Using protocols to foster collective inquiry, transparent practice and reflective dialogue; and
  • Fostering continuous feedback from the department leader and members of the team in both the strategic planning process and products.

Make Time for Strategic Planning

Having enough time during each strategic planning work session was necessary so that the entire department could participate in various protocols that set them up to co-construct the department’s strategic plan. A plan that includes a shared vision, a mission, goals, objectives, strategies, key performance indicators (KPIs) and tactics. Heather and I started with ninety-minute work sessions that provided a fair amount of time to dig into the work; however, we learned it was not enough. At the end of ninety minutes, it felt like the team could really turn the corner together with more time which is why we adjusted to three-hour work sessions instead. This turned out to be a wise decision and allowed for more momentum and team engagement in the process.

Build Background Knowledge

In order to create the conditions that allowed Heather and the rest of the team the ability to lean into the strategic planning work, I took time in each work session to build their background knowledge about the key components and steps in the strategic planning process. As a consultant who was facilitating the strategic planning process, I needed to pull out information more than I pushed it in when working with the team; however, if the team did not understand the key terminology or the strategic planning process, it could hinder them from creating an effective strategic plan for the department. To accomplish this, I would carve out around ten minutes per work session to build the team’s background knowledge, and I scaffolded how and when they received more information about the terminology and process during each work session. This part of the process might also include having the team read a short article ahead of the work session to prepare them for this part of the work session. By taking a little bit of time out of each work session, the team grew confident in their strategic planning knowledge and found ease in accessing the process.

Use Protocols that Foster Collective Inquiry, Transparent Practice and Reflective Dialogue

Designing work sessions that positioned Heather and the team to construct the department’s strategic plan in stages needed various processes that allowed them to socially construct their learning, ideas, and the plan. In my experience of empowering teams to be active contributors rather than passive consumers of developing action plans, choosing or creating protocols that fostered collective inquiry, transparent practice, and reflective dialogue positioned members of the team to design, create, and solve problems together. In the strategic planning process, there are certain protocols that I suggest teams utilize in various stages of the process to match to the purpose of the specific parts of the work. Some of the key protocols that were used as is, modified or provided inspiration for an entirely new protocol included but was not limited to:

  • Back to the Future
  • Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats (SWOT)
  • Affinity Mapping
  • Start, Stop, Continue, and
  • Tuning

Both Heather and her team grew accustomed to using protocols very quickly. In addition, they found comfort in having structures that fostered creative thinking and collaborative dialogue which can be the magic behind choosing or creating intentional protocols. Heather stated, “The protocols were open-ended enough to allow us to think creatively and be visionary while at the same time keeping the focus on the correct aspects of the work.” The protocols did their job of helping to guide the team without boxing them in or constraining their ideas.

Promote Continuous Feedback 

As a consultant who truly wanted to honor my role as Heather’s planning partner, I used feedback constantly and solicited it from her and the team. In order for the strategic planning process to foster ownership along the way, I needed to ensure that the experiences designed for each work session met the different needs of the members on the team. In addition, it was essential that the work was relevant as well as it needed to be challenging but accessible based on the readiness level of the group. In order to provide this customization, I used the feedback I received after each work session to guide the next steps in the process which I collected in a variety of ways using simple surveys, quick reflection activities during the work sessions, and debrief meetings with Heather.

Of course, receiving the feedback was the first part of the equation while using the feedback was the second part. It was in using the feedback in ongoing planning sessions with Heather that we found synergy time and time again. She knew her team and district while I had knowledge of the different phases in the strategic planning process and various protocols. Putting that combined knowledge to use when we planned together supported the development of work sessions that were highly customized and helped the team to move forward together in the strategic planning process with a certain cadence that created momentum.

Time will always be a precious resource, and district leaders will always be pulled in many directions to serve a variety of stakeholders. Although it does take time for a leader to work with his/her team to create a common vision and focus the work, it is helping to make the work more purposeful and manageable within the given time each day. Instead of not having enough time to do this type of visionary work, taking the time to do it and return to it at scheduled intervals helps to better use the time we have and ultimately lead to more impactful outcomes through the use of strategic and collective actions of the team.

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