Strategic planning is at the heart of successful schools. Done correctly, the strategic planning process energizes the school community, engages and creates stakeholders, solves problems, identifies solutions and propels the school forward to its next phase of growth and development. Strategic planning through Appreciative Inquiry has incredible power to harness enormous potential. It can clarify vision and direction, and inspire people to work together in new and innovative ways to achieve common goals. A strengths-based approach to organizational development, Appreciative Inquiry is a powerful alternative to traditional strategic planning. When the school community is engaged in strategic planning using Appreciative Inquiry, the energy and commitment to achieve major goals flows naturally. It is a “gift that keeps on giving” as long as strategic thinking and planning continue.

The Appreciative Inquiry approach to strategic planning focuses on strengths, opportunities, aspirations and results (SOAR). The process is dynamic and ongoing, and involves the entire system. Through strategic inquiry, schools identify their greatest strengths and the best opportunities. Then they align strengths with opportunities. Next, Appreciative inquiry is used to envision and discuss the ideal future or aspirations. And finally, it is essential to identify measurable outcomes or results.

There are various ways to conduct a strategic planning process using Appreciative Inquiry. Clearly, it is essential to determine who will participate in the process. So the first step is to identify the stakeholders and the best ways to engage them in a strategic planning process based on Appreciative Inquiry. While it is not necessary and probably not possible nor desirable to engage all members of the community, it is important to include stakeholders from as many school constituencies as possible, e.g. faculty, staff, board, parents, students, alumni, etc.

The next step is the inquiry into strengths and opportunities. By engaging members of various constituencies, it is possible to identify many strengths and opportunities throughout the school and larger community. This process will also reveal the conditions that lead to success in various areas of school operations. It is important to identify unique strengths. Threats and weaknesses are not ignored. They are reframed and analyzed through the lens of possibility. The focus is on how to achieve goals.

The third step is to dream about the possibilities and identify aspirations. Of course, it is also necessary to be realistic. In this stage, schools create a compelling vision centered on high aspirations. The vision is based on the school’s mission, best traditions and successes of the past, while also charting a new course for the future.

Finally, the strategic planning process must focus on implementation and results. Action plans for each goal are essential. Individuals must step up to the plate. People must organize into teams and commit to working together to achieve the goals. Critical to an effective strategic plan is the ongoing process of evaluation and adjustment to navigate the inevitable bumps in the road. To be successful and valuable, strategic planning must be a dynamic and continuous inquiry.