Tips and Tricks for School Leader Decision Making: A Tool

School leaders are faced with a variety of decisions each and every day, from the most fraught and challenging decisions navigating COVID-19, to day-to-day decisions pertaining to operational management. Some decisions feel easy and minor, informed by past experience and quality data. Other decisions are more daunting, requiring leaders to make difficult calls with incomplete information in a context that is rapidly changing.

This is especially true today. For instance, a decision about whether to buy devices to support remote instruction could go off-track if the manager of the I.T. department and the school executive director both think the other has the final say on which devices to purchase and how many are needed. And it’s not hard to imagine a well-meaning leader soliciting input from a multitude of stakeholder groups about how best to make meals safely available to students, and then feel overwhelmed by the volume of conflicting viewpoints. 

I’ve created a simple tool to share how to tackle strategic decisions for your organization, and offered some details and examples to support you and your team as you build your decision-making muscle. You’ll note that the process I map out is deeply aligned with a couple of planning toolkits my colleagues and I have shared over the past several months. I’ve chosen an example that is likely familiar to many school leaders for the sake of clarity, but the recommendations below are especially applicable in the current moment. In addition to the details and examples below, you can also download a simple, printable version of these steps here.

STEP ONE: ARTICULATE THE QUESTION & IDENTIFY THE GOAL

Articulate the question:

  • EXAMPLE: How can our charter network streamline our hiring process?   

Identify the goal/objective:

  • Always return to your mission, vision, values, and reason for being.  As you think about goals for the decision, be sure to connect them to your strategic plan and core values.   
  • EXAMPLE: Ensure our hiring process reflects our charter network’s ethos and optimizes the investment of time and resources — for candidates, our talent team, and our school leaders.  

Document both in a shared place so you can refer back as needed.   

STEP TWO: ASSIGN ROLES & RESPONSIBILITIES

Define the decision-making process and assign roles and responsibilities, ideally using a tool that is familiar to your team.

  • There are numerous decision tools out there, and the most important thing is to have a tool that meets your needs and that is understood across the organization. Earlier in my career at Bain & Company, I learned their RAPID® decision tool, which outlines five key roles for the decision-making process: Recommend, Agree, Perform, Input, and Decide (our attached 2-pager here further outlines RAPID).
  • Always do this up front, as it will save time down the road if different perspectives need to be reconciled or managed. Note that one individual may play more than one role in the decision-making process, and not all decisions require all roles (see graphic below).

  • EXAMPLE: The Director of Talent will be responsible for the Recommendation as well as the Performance of the decision. In fulfilling their role, the Director of Talent will gather Input from a number of sources, including school principals as well as others with direct insights, such as newly hired team members. The charter network’s Executive Director will be responsible for making a Decision and, if a decision has implications for organization-wide policy, then the organization’s governing board may have the responsibility for Approving the decision. Once the decision is made, the Director of Talent will be responsible for Performing it.

STEP THREE: IMPLEMENT THE DECISION-MAKING PROCESS

Clear and efficient decision processes are necessary but not sufficient. Especially for complex issues with high degrees of uncertainty, the implementation of the decision-making process also matters.

To implement the “I”

  • Exercise empathy and seek to understand the user perspective. Reflect on who will be impacted by the decision or for whom the decision will be made, whether you are considering what they need or what you think they need, and interrogate whether you have collected enough input from varying perspectives. 
  • EXAMPLE: The Director of Talent (responsible for the Recommendation) should seek to understand “user” perspectives. This could include Input from candidates the organization is and isn’t attracting or collecting the perspectives of recent hires. It could also include Input from school principals, who are typically responsible for school-level hiring decisions. 

To implement the “R”:

  • Analyze the situation. Evaluate the internal and external contexts that may affect your recommendation, including the capacities of your team, the priorities of the organization, and the practices of other organizations similar to your own.
  • Define and assess the possible options. Write down each of the potential recommendations you could make, and how they are distinct from one another. Identify the pros, cons, assumptions, and risks behind each.
  • Synthesize your perspective. Ground your recommendation in the original question and goal, incorporating input and option analysis. 
  • EXAMPLE: The Director of Talent (responsible for the Recommendation) should think through and write down answers to questions like: How competitive is the landscape for talent, how does the organization’s hiring process compare to others with whom they are competing for talent? What data do they have about how their process compares to others? How many candidates are they screening? What are the demographics of those candidates? How fast is their process? How efficient is their process at elevating exceptional talent and moving them to hiring? The Director of Talent may identify several options, such as: 1) stay the course, don’t change our process; 2) deploy an applicant tracking system to better capture data and help eliminate bias; or 3) streamline the process and deploy new technology to support that effort. 

To implement the “D”:

  • Make a decision. Sometimes it is enough to review the recommendation and make a decision based on the original question and goal. Sometimes the person responsible for the Decision may want to understand the thinking behind the recommendation, including the input collected and the options identified and assessed.
  • Reassess as you go. It is important to capture data to understand the effectiveness of your decision, so that you can learn from the decision, act on new data, and continue to improve.
  • EXAMPLE: The Executive Director (responsible for the Decision) may concur with the Director of Talent’s Recommendation to deploy an applicant tracking system to better capture data and help mitigate bias, but they want to understand the rationale for the recommendation, as well as trade-offs and risks. The Executive Director may also ask for a reassessment of the hiring system after the next big hiring season to understand the impact of the decision on candidates’ and schools’ experiences.

To implement the “A”:

  • Check for dealbreakers. Ensure the decision does not expose the organization to undue risk or create compliance issues with internal policies or public rules and regulations.
  • Stay in your lane. It is important that the person with the responsibility to Approve a decision does not use approval as a way to reshape the decision itself. Not approving the decision acts as a “veto” and sends the decision back to the team to develop a different approach. 
  • EXAMPLE: The Governance Board (responsible for Approval) of the organization may review the new applicant tracking system to ensure it does not run counter to any organizational policies or human resource laws. It should not, however, reject the decision and impose its perspective that a streamlined hiring process is needed. 

To implement the “P”:

  • Clearly communicate the decision, rationale, and implementation expectation. Once the decision is made, ensure the person/team who will be responsible for implementation understands the rationale, decision, and implementation expectations.
  • EXAMPLE: Once the Governance Board approves the decision, the Director of Talent can begin implementation. 

As you make high-stakes decisions on behalf of your community — potentially sitting alone and working virtually from your kitchen table — take a moment to map out these steps and strategies. It’s worth the extra time and thought to make the best decisions possible, and will help build a stronger organization in the long run. (You can download the printable version of this resource here.)