Plans rule our lives as educational leaders. We spend considerable time building plans for a variety of stakeholders: principals, teachers, federal and state departments of education, governing bodies, even for each other.

After that first, often arduous writing of the initial draft, many leaders struggle with how to revise the plan in meaningful, engaging ways.

Chuck Bell (Twitter @Chuck_Bell_), a second-year superintendent in Elbert County, Georgia, created his system's first-ever improvement plan then ran his summer leadership retreat and was stumped with what to do next. He chose to model a process that school leaders could immediately lift and use in their schools.

Aligned to his goal of creating a culture of improvement informed by data, he began with a data-driven dialogue. This structured conversation, called a protocol, provided the leaders a chance to resist the gut response to a data set: immediately diagnosing the problem and building solution sets. Instead, this process spends time describing the data, making sure the data truly says what we think it says.

With that rich, shared background, it was time to assess the current improvement plan and gather feedback on completion status. Each leader used a Google form that had been populated with objectives.

Leaders needed to choose an interval of 10 to indicate the percent completion (e.g., 10 percent, 20 percent, etc.). Not only did this provide a rich perception data set to use in the next step, but Bell was also assured that each leader had just re-read (or frankly, read for the first time) the plan.

Bell entered his retreat with a common assumption of educational leaders: Every participant should be involved in every piece of work on the agenda.

Instead of succumbing to the low-engagement strategy of reviewing or "going over" each goal one by one with the entire group, Bell created goal-specific groups that integrated central office and building-level leaders. Their task required them to examine multiple data sets, including the results of the data-driven dialogue and the perception data collected through the Google form.

These small groups were highly productive, creating the following for each goal:

  • Keep it
  • Stop it
  • Change it

Each leader then engaged in a gallery walk, examining the various posted products with the following two questions:

  • How manageable is this plan for 2014-15?
  • What's missing that needs to be attended to next year?

Post-its were used to provide feedback around each posted product. Groups then talked one last time, assessing the usefulness and depth of the feedback to decide if any more changes needed to be made.

As the energy of the group started to wane, Bell implemented his last step of the plan: ask for one principal representative to collaborate with two central office leaders to draft the 2014-15 plan. This collaboration would compile the work of each retreat group, to be completed in time for the group to examine the document one more time before seeking board approval just prior to the 2014-15 school year.

This agenda modeled a number of best practices in school improvement and adult development. School principals could lift these exact processes, building a more pervasive culture of continuous improvement and collaboration.