Independent School Boards make decisions all the time- at every meeting and throughout the year. Some decisions are more critical than others, yet all are important and impact the school. Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, Boards are being asked to make decisions that they probably hadn’t considered before. Issues of privacy, strategy, legality, and mission are being discussed. Some small schools, with their lean budgets and often fragile enrollment streams, are even having to consider the most basic questions of whether and how they will survive. Thoughtful, planned, and self-reflective decision-making practices are called upon now more than ever.
Decision-making in Independent School Boards often goes like this: A problem is identified (e.g. there is a global pandemic, the country is likely going into a recession, and unemployment has skyrocketed- will we have the enrollment we need to survive?). The members of the Board and the Head of School talk through their concerns. They may try to gather some information from their current families (Will you be returning? Will your financial aid request change?) or from outside sources (other school heads, associations, etc.). And then they move to problem-solving mode: What should we do? How should we respond? Ideas are presented and debated. The solution that is most persuasively argued is chosen, actions are agreed upon, implementation is begun, and Board members cross their fingers and hope for the best.
Scholars who have studied decision-making would suggest that this type of process, called the advocacy approach- where ideas and positions are debated and advocated for- limits the ability of organizations to make the best decisions. Instead, they advise using an inquiry approach, which is “a very open process designed to generate multiple alternatives, foster the exchange of ideas, and produce a well-tested solution.” (Garvin & Roboto, 2001). Inquiry is a well-known concept in the education world- promoted as a progressive strategy that supports the constructivist pedagogy. Yet we rarely hear of school leaders being encouraged to utilize inquiry methods. If engaging in inquiry is best practice for students why isn’t it used by adults as well? How can Boards apply the inquiry method to make better decisions?
In his book Labyrinth: The Art of Decision-Making, Pawel Motyl, who promotes inquiry decision-making, recommends a series of decision-making steps for business leaders. I’ve modified them here as a series of questions Board members can ask themselves as they approach a significant problem. While the inquiry decision-making process involves more steps and more questions, these can serve as a starting point.
The whole world is working to understand, respond, and cope with the ramifications of the current pandemic. Like school administrators and teachers, Independent School Board members have had to make decisions that have significant impact on students, families, and faculty & staff with little time to pause, collect data, test assumptions, and consider strategy as promoted in the inquiry method. Nonetheless, these steps can be practiced and implemented moving forward as school Boards help chart the “new normal” for Independent Schools.
Acies Strategies provides Board Development and Leadership Coaching for leaders and Board members of small schools.
Writes about small school leadership and governance