Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail

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Those who fail to plan, plan to fail, or at
least plan not to improve, according to the
management literature. Look at school
improvement, and there’s similar agreement
pretty much across the literature that the
schools that improve are the ones that plan.
They establish a clear educational vision and
consequent shared mission; identify goals
or objectives that enable them to achieve
that mission and thereby realise that vision;
audit themselves, thereby identifying areas
for improvement; and develop and implement
educational programs on the basis of
leadership 57
that audit that address areas for improvement
in ways that help them achieve the
mission. That process, much of the literature
suggests, is recursive or cyclical.
The key in the school improvement literature
seems to be that there’s a first step,
identifying your vision and shared mission,
that then informs the next step, the planning
process of identifying goals or objectives
aligned with the vision and mission.
Whether you look at the management
literature or the school improvement literature,
at its simplest, goal setting is a way of
asking what do we want, do we have what
we need so that we can develop and implement
what we plan, do our various goals
relate to one another or are any in conflict,
and is there anything we’ve overlooked,
including internal and external blockers?
There, in 200 or so words, you have the
whole easy-peasy school improvement planning
story, and can stop reading and go and
get that coffee right now.
Or not.
The problem, if you’re still reading, is
that planning and goal setting can sometimes
lead to fragmented, uncoordinated
programs with conflicting objectives that
actually work against one another. Yes,
setting specific, challenging goals, and
developing and implementing educational
programs to meet them can drive school
improvement, but as Adam Galinsky, author
with Lisa Ordóñez, Maurice Schweitzer and
Max Bazerman of ‘Goals gone wild,’ in the
58 teacher june/july 2009
Journal of the Academy of Management
Perspectives, told the Boston Globe’s Drake
Bennett, goal setting ‘can lead to crazy
behaviours to get people to achieve them.’
‘We contend,’ write Ordóñez, Schweitzer,
Galinsky and Bazerman in ‘Goals gone
wild,’ ‘that goal setting has been over-
In particular, we argue that
goal setting has powerful and predictable
side effects. Rather than being offered as an
“over-the-counter” salve for boosting performance,
goal setting should be prescribed
selectively, presented with a warning label
and closely monitored.’
Tunnel vision
To be fair, Ordóñez, Schweitzer, Galinsky
and Bazerman have their eyes set on performance
management, and its tendency to
an outcome orientation like a defined sales
target, say, or reduced time spent on a process,
rather than school improvement, and its
tendency to the systemic development and
implementation of programs.
Nonetheless, people in a school who want
to improve it will end up setting, or having
set for them, some kind of performanceoriented
goal. The message from Ordóñez,
Schweitzer, Galinsky and Bazerman is that
they should pursue that goal with care.
Let’s consider why goals, as Ordóñez and
colleagues put it, go wild.
The first reason, they argue, is that a goal
might be inappropriate or so specific that
in pursuing it, people ignore important elements
of their behaviour, and maybe even
their attitudes and values, that are not
specified by the goal. ‘Suppose that a university
department bases tenure decisions
primarily on the number of articles that
(academics) publish,’ they write. ‘This goal
will motivate (the academics) to accomplish
the narrow objective of publishing articles.
Other important objectives, however, such
as research impact, teaching and service,
may suffer.’
Worse, say Ordóñez and colleagues, referring
to Barry Staw and Richard Boettger’s
‘Task revision: A neglected form...
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