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2. Don’t fall down the rabbit hole: the importance of strategy

Part 2 of CJK Associates Autumn 2022 blog series #schooltrustcentralservices

‘Which way ought I to go from here?’ asked Alice. ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.’ said the Cat. ‘I don’t much care where – ‘ ‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go’ ‘- as long as I get somewhere’ added Alice, as an explanation. ‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough”. Lewis Carroll

This blog series will focus mostly on central designing services within school groups but before we get to that, this week I want to talk about the importance of framing that design within a clear strategy. Otherwise, like Alice, we run the risk of not having a clear aim in mind.

Strategy thinking of the 1960s (and rebooted in the 1990s) favoured finding the best market position (lots of customers, little competition), and then organising to deliver to that goal. In the noughties there was more focus on core competencies, i.e. identifying what gives the organisation a distinct advantage and building from that.

Adapted from 'The right to win', Cesare Maindardi

The 2010s saw the growth of ‘capability driven strategy’[1] which advocates iterating between your intended goal and your current capabilities to develop a growth plan. I have noticed that successful leaders of school groups tend to adopt this ‘capability driven strategy’ approach, although probably not using that term, as it combines ambition for the future with a clear-eyed view about the present.

In practice that means considering four choices[2]:

A framework for school group strategy

1. What is our strategic intent? School group vision, mission, values, culture, objectives

2. What is our focus? The phases, locations, types of schools or contexts of students where we can make a difference

3. What is the role of the school group? What we do as a group of schools that individual schools cannot do by themselves

4. What is our operating model? Performance objectives, organisation, capabilities, governance.

This is a powerful process for planning, as it reveals the internal developments to the operating model that will be needed in order to reach the destination. However, these choices need to iterate up and down the four questions, because if the gap between capabilities and strategic intent is too big, we might need to adjust our intent to something more achievable; or to have an honest discussion about the investment and risk inherent in aiming for the strategic intent.

School groups are in my view usually very good at strategic intent, and there is lots written about it[3], so I won’t say more here. Schools groups are also generally good at knowing where to focus (although it can be tempting to pick up shiny new schools/ geographies opportunistically rather than with a link to overall strategy).

Many groups could however, benefit from thinking more explicitly about the role of the school group before designing the operating model, and this will be the topic for Blog 3: ‘Let’s not agree to disagree’.

[1] [2] This choice driven approach can be attributed to ‘Playing to win’ by A.G. Laffley and Roger Martin, and is advocated by Ambition on their programmes for leaders [3] see for example,


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