Shooting for Par: The Power of Purposeful Indicators

“Golf has too much walking to be a good game, and just enough game to spoil a good walk.”

— Henry Leon Wilson, 1904

A couple of weeks ago, I shared a brief anecdote of how tackling a problem like mosquito bites can help us better understand school improvement.  That story shed light for many on the recurring pitfalls that leaders tend to encounter in the process of strategic planning for organizational change.

Such a story might be a helpful way of thinking about reaching goals in the short term, but what if the goal is more long-term?  Like perhaps…school improvement for student success?  Or even…getting good golf scores?  Can employing the thought behind strategic planning help a duffer like me start to shoot for par?  And more importantly, can describing a focused approach to becoming a better golfer really help to reframe strategic planning for school improvement?

After more than a few good walks spoiled, I’m willing to give it a shot.

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I’m far from a good golfer.  Up until this past spring, I rarely played.  But for some inexplicable reason, becoming better at the game has been on my to-do list for years.  Call it a beaten pride, a thirst for learning, or one too many spoiled walks: after my annual round this Spring Break ended up in the mid-130s again (60+ shots worse than the par of 72, for those unfamiliar with the game), I felt a need to improve.

But how would I get better?  So far, all I knew is that my goal was to get better golf scores, and my strategy was to get better at golf.  That statement could neither be more true nor less helpful.  It didn’t help me know how to act.

I decided that I needed some short-term goals, and some indicators of success toward those goals.  Up to that point, the only thing I “tracked” on the course had been my score, the number of times I struck the ball on each hole before hitting it into the cup.  So I downloaded an app to help me keep up with more than just my scores (MyCaddie Pro, for those interested in a great app that doubles as a GPS course map), and tried to decide what to start looking at.

One of my former students happened to be (and still is) a stud golfer, and he gave me some advice years ago that suddenly came to mind: “If you want to improve your score and you can only practice one thing, practice putting.”  Remembering that my last round felt as if it had far too many putts, I decided to use that as my short-term goal: hit fewer putts per round.  More specifically, my goal became to get my average number of putts per round near 36 (an average of two per hole).  Naturally, my indicator was number of putts per round.  While I had no strategy to reach this goal, at least I had a goal, one that felt attainable.

And then, I went to play.  And over the next three rounds I played, I noticed I still had pretty high scores, without any clue as to how to improve them. After averaging around 43 putts per round (7 higher than my goal), how was I supposed to get any better?

Looking at my scorecard, I noticed an interesting trend, one that helped me recognize that perhaps I was viewing my goal all wrong.  (How often does that happen in the process of school improvement?)  In a classroom situation, I would give you a copy of a couple scorecards and let you look for any trends in putting scores yourself.  Why not do the same now?

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Instead of revealing my own thinking, I’ll share another set of scorecards, all collected after having reframed my putting goal (and thus shifting the indicator for success accordingly).  Notice anything different about the putting scores?

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Well, for one thing, the scores are lower: 5 putts better per round, on average.  I’m sure that a large part of that improvement has to do with continued practice.  Personally, I attribute that success to one thing: I reframed my goal based on trends I saw in the data.  I started this experiment with the short-term goal of getting my average number of putts per round to 36 (an average of two per hole).  In the first group of scores, I noticed that I had far too many holes with more than two putts.  I realized that I would never reach my goal until I eliminated those 3-putt and 4-putt holes.

I have now reframed my goal: to reduce the number of holes where I have more than two putts.  As a result of the reframed goal, my indicator of success is the average putts per round the number of holes per round where I had two putts or less.

It may seem like a semantic difference, but this clarifying change has brought to light a strategy that has helped immensely in my putting.  Since my goal is now to reduce the number of holes where I putt more than twice, I have taken to the strategy of not necessarily trying to make the first putt.  Instead, I now imagine a hula-hoop up to 5′ in diameter surrounding the hole; my strategy is, with my first putt, I try to hit the ball into that imaginary hula-hoop.  My thinking is that I’m not realistically going to make too many 20-foot putts.  How many of those 20-footers can I get within three feet?  Because I can tap in from three feet without a problem.  It sounds a little hokey, but this strategy has helped me to hit far fewer 3- and 4-putt holes, while still knocking down the occasional long-distance shot on the first putt.

What does ANY of this have to do with School Improvement?

Playing golf is one of my breaks from thinking about work, and yet I find myself thinking about work a lot while playing golf.  Funny how that happens, isn’t it?

In the process of School Improvement, it is so important not only to have a goal, but to have the right goal, one that is clear and “actionable” (if that’s even the right word for this context).  In this golf example, I had a fine goal, but it wasn’t until I reframed that goal that an effective strategy became clear.  In school improvement, how often do we settle for the first goal, instead of thinking long enough and hard enough to find the right one for right now?

Also, just as in my mosquito example from the last post, the indicators here are directly tied to the goal in question.  I don’t keep data on how far back I pull my club while putting, or where I put my feet relative to my hands.  Instead, I tie the indicator directly to the goal: number of putts per round, number of holes per round with more than two putts.  Just like the importance of the clarified goal, there was a certain power in landing on a more purposeful indicator, one that more directly measured the issue I was seeing in my game.  While keeping up with the number of greater-than-2-putt holes may be a bit more challenging than tracking total putts, it is a much better indicator for the issues in my game.  In school improvement, how often do we settle for the indicator that’s easy to measure, instead of thinking long enough and hard enough to find the ones that are important and purposeful enough to measure?

Finally, while I keep those indicators on my scorecard in front of me at all times, my focus on the actual course stays on the strategies I have chosen in order to impact those indicators.  While playing, I’m not thinking about getting par; I’m trying to hit a solid tee shot.  On the green, I’m not concerned with reducing my number of 3-putt holes; I’m trying to putt the ball into that imaginary hula-hoop.  Sometimes, strategic plans take on a life of their own, causing those involved to forget that the purpose of the plan is to help us know how to act.  After choosing a path, schools must put their energies into fully implementing the strategies they have identified in their plans, while keeping their eyes on the chosen indicator to see if their work is having the desired effect.  It seems like both the most difficult and the most important part of strategic planning: studying the right combinations of actions and results to see if our work leads to the desired outcomes.

As for me, so far I’m happy with the results of my little “hula-hoop” strategy, and I am confident that it will help me get better golf scores (the long-term outcome, in my case…aside from having fun, of course).  Next, I’ve decided to start tracking the number of fairways I hit with my tee shot.  After one round of tracking, I’ve noticed that I miss to the right of the fairway A LOT.  Like, “missed-right-of-all-but-one-fairway-in-a-whole-round” a lot.  While I have no strategy as of yet on how to get the tee shot going straighter, I’m hopeful that keeping track of it will help me enjoy a few more good walks in the future.