What an Old Experiment Teaches Us about Strategy
Many of us that work on strategy with client organizations frame the strategy-making process as one of making data-informed “bets” on what it will take for the school to be successful in the years to come. Armed with a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis, we push school leaders to address the most severe threats yet still find room for chasing opportunities. Newly emerging conditions may force a revision to the strategies, but the core assumption behind the process is captured in the aphorism, “those who fail to plan are planning to fail.”
Once in a while, a board member or administrator will say something about the futility of strategizing for an essentially unknowable future. How can leaders predict, so this line of thinking goes, what students and teachers will need in five or ten years, much less in a couple of decades? Today, strategy skeptics are likely to invoke the COVID-19 pandemic as a case in point; e.g., if we had been making strategy in September 2019, the global pandemic and lockdown would certainly not have been envisioned, yet COVID has changed almost everything for schools since January 2020.
Fair enough, but I am not sure a once-in-a-hundred-years event proves that strategy-making is unimportant or futile. This article in the April 25 New York Times got me thinking anew about just why we strategize in the first place, and it may offer a loftier notion of purpose than merely trying to maximize our odds of success. The article describes an experiment in plant biology begun at Michigan State University (MSU) in the United States in 1879, 142 years ago. Back then, a faculty member named William James Beal buried bottles of seeds and shared a map of their location with colleagues. The idea was to dig up the bottles, one at a time, every few years to study which seeds remain viable.
MSU scientists have perpetuated the experiment by passing along the map and rigorously preserving the secrecy of the undisturbed bottles’ location. Much has changed in the intervening years; for example, Professor Beal did not know about DNA when he buried the bottles, yet DNA analyses on the seed samples, conducted at ten or 20-year intervals, has been extraordinarily revelatory to our understanding of plant biology (read the article for more). Through the strategy of this experiment (a bet he placed), Beal sent forward an opportunity that would not otherwise have existed, even though I am sure that it has taken a very different course than he might have imagined.
This is the job our clients take on in making strategy. A good strategic framework, in effect, buries seeds for those who come after us to use in whatever form education takes tomorrow