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Monday, April 4, 2016

WhereAre You Going? What is Your Goal?

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement reflecting my professional experience. I had prepared this manuscript for publication but time eluded me. The blog posts advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.


     “If you don’t know where you’re going,

any road will get you there.”

The Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland

(Lewis Carroll)

If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favorable to him.”

The Philosopher, Seneca



     A friend of mine was recently touring the back roads of New England. He is a rifle instructor with an ROTC marksmanship group. As he rounded a curve in the road the sight of several targets covering the side of a large barn surprised him. Each target had a bright red bullseye. And, smack dab in the center of each bulls eye was a bullet hole.

     His curiosity aroused, he pulled in the driveway and made his way to the farmhouse, intent upon receiving advice from the accomplished marksman responsible for the excellent target shooting. Certainly this information would help his students.

     An elderly man greeted his knock on the door. Brief introductions revealed that the old man was the sharpshooter. The man accepted my friend’s invitation for a demonstration.

     Moments later the farmer emerged from the house, grasping a rusty bucket in one hand, and an unimpressive, outdated rifle in the other. The man faced the barn, checked the wind, raised the gun, (though my friend could not see any target) and blasted a shot. Then the elderly man sauntered over to the barn with his bucket and calmly painted a target around the bullet hole he had left in the side of the barn.

     “Works every time!” exclaimed the farmer.

The Starting Line

     Does the school where you work establish targets in the same manner that the farmer in this story did - identifying goals after you've already acted? It is both accepted and expected that the staff member's goal, or “reason for being,” is the vague but noble declaration -"for the kids." This guiding statement, handed down through generations, entrusts school workers with a tremendous responsibility without specific direction. Ask the first 100 people who enter a shopping mall what they think the goals of public school education should be and you may receive nearly 100 different perspectives.

     This fallacious practice appears successful and is exercised by all too many organizations. Author and business consultant Tom Peters calls it “the Ready, Fire, Aim” strategy. (Peters and Waterman, p. 142) The trouble with this technique is that it seems to work when you consider the finished product. However, this process fails miserably as a plan to meet goals. Leaders of public agencies who indulge followers in such a “pin the tail on the donkey” effort would be irresponsible.

     These targets should serve as helmsman in navigating through the choppy and changing waters of the open sea, inextricably linked to the vision, the lighthouse beacon shepherding the ship, and the mission, the harbor of destination.

Results Versus Rules

     Armed with good intentions we set out in search of a purpose. The words of philosopher George Santayana come to mind, "A fanatic is someone who loses sight of his objective and consequently redoubles his effort." (Weiss, p. 3) We are in danger of becoming fanatics engaged in educational orienteering on a political terrain of fiscal constraints, accountability, interest groups, state mandates, and much more. One of the obstacles encountered in our development of goals is the tendency to plot a predictable, prudent, and precise topographical map on a terrain that may change as frequently and randomly as the desert sands.

     Rigid rules are an example of such an inhibition to creating appropriate goals. In discussing the change process in his book, What America Does Right, Robert Waterman asserts that principles, rather than rules, shape progress in empowerment, employee satisfaction and decision-making in successful companies. (Waterman, pp. 162-163) This thought is echoed by Osborne and Gaebler who encourage a “focus on results, not rules.” (Gaebler and Osborne, p. 19)

     Then how can we craft goals that are appropriate and motivating? Now that we have a shared mental picture of the vision, a commitment to the mission, and an appropriate database, we must establish goals.

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