SMART Planning for New Beginnings

Feb 3, 2021

FWIW, from my POV, I don’t see the ROI vis-a-vis these KPIs for the SIPs. IMHO, that plan is MIA, if not DOA.

Let’s just get it out there— educators love using acronyms. As a former district suit myself, I recall an arcane code of letters used to describe projects, teams, and plans. Whether it was part of school PLCs—that’s professional learning communities for those who don’t know—or district initiatives, it often felt like a plan or project wasn’t legit until it had its own set of letters. As we look forward to the new calendar year, I’m keeping that spirit alive by dusting off a familiar acronym for planning—SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time bound).

Accepting Change. Navigating Transitions.

As schools continue to face rapid and unexpected external change, educators are struggling to manage the transitions brought upon by the pandemic and its effects on schools. One of my organizational change heroes is William Bridges who made a distinction between change and transition. Bridges defined change as external, something over which we have no control. By contrast, transition is internal. Transition is what we choose to do (or not do) in the face of change. Bridges’s distinction was more than semantics. He suggested that everyone in an organization has his or her own process of transition that includes three phases:

  1. Losing and letting go. This phase is defined by emotional pain (fear, anger, denial, sadness) that is much like grieving.
  2. Neutral zone. This phase is an uncertain space between old and new with disorientation, confusion, anxiety, and resistance.
  3. New beginning. This phase is marked by acceptance, optimism, and reengagement.

As we reflect on the impacts of the pandemic on our schools and systems, these descriptions likely sound familiar. Navigating transition is about visioning a future state and making plans toward what Bridges calls the new beginning. The challenge is that everyone goes through transition at a different pace. Educational leaders not only have to recognize the very real feelings and uncertainty that educators experience, but also ensure that planning for what’s next is shared, clear, doable, and sustainable. As educational leaders seek new beginnings, a smart plan is to begin with SMART goals.

SMART Goals for Moving Forward

“What often is overlooked in the goal-setting process is the science and strategy of how to design goals that motivate people to raise the bar and reach the next milestone in the path to success. In education specifically, it is very important that the goals we set for increasing achievement consider critical challenge areas, contextual factors that either support or impede the work, and the timeline for change.”

Excerpted from the FRS SMART Goal Setting Guide

Future Ready Schools® (FRS) has created a user-friendly toolkit for conceiving and creating SMART goals. The FRS SMART Goal Setting Guide provides a turnkey tool to help district leaders identify and define goals that follow the SMART formula: specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time bound.

While SMART goals are not new, in these times of uncertain transitions, using this familiar and proven planning protocol can focus the work of educators and school leaders.

  • SMART goals are intentionally explicit, transparent, and ideally shared among stakeholders. This helps educators and teams identify and understand concrete targets and outcomes in the midst of uncertainty and anxiety.
  • SMART goals are time bound, which helps educators define timelines even during disorientating transitions.
  • SMART goals are conservative in the sense that they focus on actionable, relevant, and measurable outcomes rather than open-ended strategic aspirations.
  • SMART goals promote compact and discrete outcomes to help leaders and stakeholders identify smaller, but doable successes.

CREATE Conditions for Success

  • SMART goals are perfect for defining clear objectives and targets. The next challenge is implementation. As a district leader, I learned that identifying enabling conditions is a necessary complement to goal setting. Here are some of the key considerations I make to define enabling conditions:
  • Collaborators: Who are necessary friends and partners in the work? This may include both existing and potential (or necessary) leaders, thought partners, or allies.
  • Resources: What are the necessary inputs to get to your desired output? What assets already exist that can be brought to bear and what additional needs does the goal require?
  • Expertise: What knowledge, experience, or skills are needed to implement your goals? What research or human capital is necessary?
  • Attitude: What are the current beliefs, mindsets and mental models that exist to support or resist this goal? What is necessary to build shared understanding, consensus, and identity in the work?
  • Time: While a SMART goal defines a deadline, it does not assess how much time is needed to achieve the goal. It also doesn’t include building a timeline for the goal to be operationalized. Clarifying these variables as part of the SMART process are essential.
  • Everything Else: What other enabling conditions are necessary to achieve your SMART goal—space, permission, engagement with external stakeholders, communications and marketing, or something else?

Finding Your Own Way Forward

None of this is rocket science, especially for experienced educational leaders. But school and district leaders are not exempt from the phases of transition and the effects of the pandemic on their schools and systems. Like their peers, they struggle with letting go of past ways of working and managing. They feel frustration, anger, and uncertainty. As leaders, they face internal or external pressure to restore focus, optimism, and engagement within their communities. Much like the emergency exit lighting on the floors of airplanes, educators and leaders need a simple and clear path forward.

SMART goals will help you and your teams make sense of the transitions and begin finding a shared path forward. Meanwhile, if you CREATE a checklist for enabling conditions you ensure that you can meet your goals and guide your teams through this current transition toward a better future. You can call it a new beginning or just one good thing done well. Either way, it’s a “W” in the win column.

Mark Ray is a former chief digital officer, district administrator, and teacher of the year from Washington State. He is an advisor for Future Ready Librarians®.

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