On the limits of planning (or, It’s all about the pants)

May 10, 2013

Merrill Vargo

There is a great, but also deeply challenging, story in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Mandela had been working to end apartheid. There is a warrant out for his arrest, he goes underground, but eventually is caught, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment at Robben Island. No one has ever escaped from this infamous prison. This is the end. There is no possible plan or blueprint that leads from here forward. But when Mandela gets to the prison, he notices that while white prisoners wear long pants, black prisoners must wear shorts. This strikes him as wrong, and he goes to work on the pants. And, of course, his work on the pants issue ultimately – via a completely unplanned and unpredictable path – leads to freedom and ultimately the presidency.

Unlike Mandela, who had no plan but only a vision of what he and his fellows were trying to create together, educators generally have a plan for every program and purpose. We’ve internalized the thought process of planning: Do a gap analysis, develop a vision, set measurable goals, define a set of activities, implement, collect data, reflect and refine.

This works well when the task is implementing “best practices,” and in the world of NCLB this kind of planned change yielded some very real benefits. There will always be a place for this kind of planned change. But, as the Mandela story illustrates, when the path forward is truly unclear, there is no point in developing a three-year plan. The only thing to do is to choose something that matters and start.

The imperative facing public education today is innovation: We need to teach it and we need to do it. As we embark on this process, we have outrun our research base. There is no set of best practices we can implement, because this work is new. We’ve started to call these new, promising but untested ideas “next practices.” Once we are in the world of next practices, we are no longer in the world of blueprint-type planned change.

Working in the world of innovation and next practices is both exciting and terrifying because it is profoundly different.

First, leaders of innovation processes must embrace the idea that nobody can assign anybody to be creative or innovate, and certainly nobody can “hold someone accountable” for innovating. So leading innovation is an insecure process – it means embracing the idea that leadership is letting go of control.

Second, in the world of next practices, data collection is no longer about checking for implementation and it is not always about assessing impact. In the world of innovation, data is collected as part of a “rapid prototyping” process whose goal is to find out quickly what is not working. Remember the Silicon Valley advice: Fail fast.

Finally, remember Nelson Mandela and the pants. When you truly don’t have a plan – but do have a worthy destination in mind – stop planning and just start. The world is full of opportunity.


Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement.

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