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What Architects See – The Importance of Strategic Thinking in Christian K-12 Schools

By Jeffrey Ganthner, AIA

This scene occurs all too often across organizations. It has been deemed that a new building, a new campus, a major renovation is needed to bring new life to old, to grow, to expand, or to serve more customers (students). An architect is commissioned to design a new building and immediately gets started based on the top administrator’s set of directions: “We want to expand our student body by 25% over the next 5 years – we need a new building to accommodate this growth.” Ideas are shared – plans are started and then confusion begins. Completion of plans are delayed as it is sadly discovered that growth by 25% means something to one part of the organization and something completely different to another part of the organization. Confusion leads to frustration as everyone begins to share their own independent ideas around a conference table with a set of building plans as the focus – which is completely the wrong focus.

It is easy to focus on the building plans after all they are often interesting and creative. It is something that a volunteer board of directors can see and comment on. It fits nicely into a review slot at a board meeting. It allows focus on the tangible physical attributes of a building as opposed to tackling the harder issues of where do we see or organization, today, next year, five years from now and so on. It avoids dealing with a failing department or process. It avoids having to implement organizational change. It is the safe play.

Architects often find themselves caught in the middle of competing organizational interests as they develop concept designs, move into schematic design and eventually develop the construction documents. Often wishing they could challenge their clients to first think strategically about their organizations – to undergo an organizational development process – prior to launching a building program. This is analogous to putting a coat of paint on a piece of rotting porch trim – looks like you solved the problem in the short term, but instead you only delayed the eventual failure.

Strategic thinking about who the organization is and where it is going is a critical first step prior to the design of any building. Commissioning an architect to design a set of plans is a very expensive way to discover that your organization lacks a clear direction about its future – as plan revision after plan revision leads to more change order costs.

In her book, Strategic Thinking and the New Science, Irene Sanders discusses Edward Lorenz’s research in making weather forecasts and how small differences or changes can have a much larger impact than at first realized. For example, a new teacher joins a school of over fifty teachers and begins to teach differently. At first, no one thinks of the implications until her students begin to dramatically do better on standardized tests than others. Her teaching processes are reviewed and eventually after several semesters the school has transformed its entire teaching model. One teacher joins the school and the entire school changes.

Or how about an adjacent elderly property owner to a school decides that it is time for him to sell his land and he approaches the school with the opportunity to purchase the property at a significant discount. Most schools do not perform land deals every day so it falls to the role of the Administrator and volunteer Board of Directors to review the opportunity. Since it is a “deal,” they decide to purchase the land paying little attention, at first, to what it will mean to the organization other than knowing that it will allow for future physical growth. Unfortunately, the land purchase stretches the very finite resources of the school further than they initially thought and now they

face the need to either sell the land, cut services, or raise tuition. Not to mention the fact that the land purchase was a big distraction and other organizational issues have now developed due to lack of attention.

In both of these examples, the impact of hiring a teacher (a fortunate success) and a land purchase (a fiscal failure) were not considered a possible risk to the health of an organization. However, if the discipline of strategic thinking was implemented prior to making decisions – both small and big – the organization would set itself up to have more planned and predictable success.

Sanders goes further to discuss the impact of initial conditions on organizations. School organizations have the unfortunate dilemma of having a long memory of how things have always been done. They resist change within the organization. The Principal/Teacher organizational model is expected and understood to be the only way to organize a school. What if a school was organized like a business would be around the student (customer) and thus create a dynamic learning environment to resemble its new organizational model. What if instead of having classrooms organized into wings by grade or subject that we organized them into every changing neighborhoods reflective of the how the school was managed and run?

Implementing the discipline of strategic thinking into a school organizational structure would make it very easy for an architect then to design for 25% growth because the growth is already defined. It would make it easy to see the type of dynamic teachers needed to reach kids these days and to win them over in the battle for their mind. It would show why the land deal being offered is not the right move for the school. And, most importantly, implementing strategic thinking as an intentional process would keep the school focused on its organizational health and in making the changes needed to remain vibrant.

Schools and their Boards often pay a lot of attention to developing and communicating their mission statement. “Offering Every Child a Christian Worldview” comes to mind. However, very little work, and that is because it is very hard work, goes into long term strategic thinking. After all, a school may say that we have students here and now to educate. Or we get trapped in allowing the past determine the future. We grow 3% a year because that is what we have done every year for the last ten years. School growth is not a straight line. Opportunities do present themselves. As Sanders, further discusses, a straight line is not a reality. Reality is that a new teacher does drop in looking for a job, that a property owner presents their land for sale, and school organizations do change. Strategic thinking helps ensure that you can better handle both the planned and unplanned impacts of reality on your organization.

Strategic thinking that is intelligent enough to plan for the present and future and flexible enough to accommodate change should be the goal. Can your school communicate to an architect and answer their exposing questions on what it means to grow your organization? Does your organization invest in strategic thinking first?

Jeffrey W. Ganthner, AIA is a member of the RENEWANATION Board of Directors. He is an accomplished architect and business leader that often advises organizations on how to address their ever changing needs. Contact him at


Sanders, T.I. (1998). Strategic Thinking and the New Science. New York, NY: The Free Press, Simon & Schuster, Inc.


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