School Leaders Can’t Screw Up Like the Fyre Festival Organizers Did

If you’ve heard anything about Fyre Festival, the failed luxury music event co-founded by Ja Rule and Billy McFarland, you have a sense of what a debacle it was. In May 2017 festival-goers arrived on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma expecting to spend a weekend enjoying live music, private cabanas, and gourmet catering; instead, they got prerecorded EDM, soggy tents, and cheese sandwiches. A few hours into day one, the festival was canceled and everyone went home. In the aftermath, two tell-all documentaries have been released, nearly a dozen lawsuits have been filed, and countless internet postmortems have exposed the salacious details behind the misadventure.

So what does the Fyre fiasco have to do with a school’s approach to strategic decision-making? What can school leaders learn from the Fyre founders’ mistakes? While there are many reasons Fyre Festival flopped (unchecked greed and blatant fraud chief among them), a common theme was the lack of strong decision making. It’s clear that the festival organizers didn’t have a process to regularly pause, review, and decide whether to move forward with the event.        

This process is also known as greenlighting, a core concept we cover with schools and networks looking to expand their impact. In our context, greenlighting refers to the process by which school leadership decides to move forward with plans to serve more students (or make other significant investments of time and resources). It is a tool to aid decision making. We have found that seasoned schools and networks use a greenlighting framework to honestly and iteratively answer two questions:

  • Are we ready to move forward with our plans to grow?
  • If yes, what are the key milestones we must hit to ensure success?

School leaders with ambitions to grow need to carefully define how and when they will answer these two questions. These decisions will be an important ingredient in any organizational strategic plan. While specifics may vary, most greenlighting frameworks have three primary components:

  • Criteria. The factors or indicators you will consider when deciding whether to proceed with growth plans.
  • Metrics. For each criterion, the unit of measurement you will use to assess whether you are ready to grow.  
  • Thresholds. For each metric, the level of performance or progress that would cause you to proceed with plans, pause for further discussion, or delay growth.

For example, consider a K-8 charter school in the northeast, which presented greenlighting metrics to its board in the latter stages of their strategic planning process. Their plan entailed opening a second K-8 campus, so they drafted a mix of metrics to both assess the performance of their existing school (e.g., academic outcomes, teacher retention, student wait lists, etc.) and gauge progress against critical milestones to open a second school (e.g., new staff hiring, fundraising success, community support, etc.).  In this instance, the school team chose to engage the board in designing a greenlighting process to determine whether to proceed, discuss, or press pause on plans.

An example of greenlighting metrics the leadership of a charter school in the northeast presented to its board

It bears noting here that your greenlighting framework is not a simple algorithm you can program to spit out the “right” answer. A thoughtful framework can provide parameters for discussion, but it can’t make decisions for you. We view greenlighting as a mix of art and science; the framework helps facilitate decisions, but is no substitute for good judgement.   

Once you have a decision-making structure in place, we recommend aligning the timing of greenlighting discussions with significant decision points identified in your plan. For example, if you propose to open a new school campus, you should prepare to revisit your greenlighting criteria before purchasing a building or signing a lease agreement. These are major decisions that will have long-term ramifications for your school; your greenlighting framework should provide space for your leadership team and/or board to pause, reflect, and make course corrections as needed.  Importantly, greenlighting is an iterative process; once an initial “greenlight” decision has been made, the process may repeat at predefined points to ensure your plans remain on track for success.

Through our strategic planning processes, we have the privilege of working with incredibly talented school leaders who have ambitious plans to serve more students. We emphasize the importance of greenlighting because a rigorous, structured approach to decision-making can help leaders and their teams mitigate risk and prioritize quality while growing. In fact, one primary risk of growing is the temptation to sacrifice quality to achieve scale. This is essentially what happened with Fyre Festival; the event organizers sold an ambitious vision to thousands of people and then under delivered in spectacular fashion.  

The Fyre failure affected thousands of people, most of whom have since recovered. The wealthy investors who underwrote the festival’s losses have moved on. The jet-setting twenty-somethings who got stiffed still have disposable incomes and active Instagram accounts. Many local vendors who were never reimbursed for their services have at least partially benefited from GoFundMe pages set up on their behalf. Even Ja Rule has bounced back and is apparently planning another music festival.

For many kids in the U.S., particularly those we strive to serve at Bellwether, second chances like these are much harder to come by. The effects of a rocky school opening or botched growth plan on students and families can be profound and long-lasting, which is why we believe in the fundamental importance of incorporating a strong greenlighting process into your strategic plan.