Tuesday, August 29, 2006


Strategic Planning

Have you ever been involved in a 'strategic planning' process that actually worked?

I've been through it now at two colleges, and from several different angles. It usually runs something like this:

1.Debate airy abstractions so platitudinous that nobody can even fake caring
2.Break out those abstractions into measurable 'metrics'
3.Reduce those metrics to variations on what you're already doing
4.Pile on the gerunds
5.Assign 'point people'
6.File and ignore

They're awful to read, since they're always written in outline form, as if to imply some sort of deductive logic. In some cases, any proposals from below have to refer to actual numbered goals in the strategic plan (“bringing my graduate advisor to campus as a speaker will help the college achieve goal #4, fostering an active intellectual community”). Savvy practitioners of internal politics get good at defining terms to mean what they want them to mean, entirely independently of any planning process. And serious institutional self-criticism is verboten in a strategic plan, so ideas conceived as remedies for particular problems outlive the problems they were supposed to solve, taking on weird lives of their own. Nature abhors a vacuum, so folks will invent reasons for policies that lack them. Those reasons, in turn, will lead to new strategic plans.


I'm becoming more convinced that strategy from the top should be simple and clear – set no more than two or three priorities, dedicate some resources to those priorities, and set the internal incentives accordingly. Let the organization spend its time getting the implementation right, since that's where things usually fall apart. If the incentives are right and the goals are clear, those who are capable of learning will respond, eventually, and those who aren't will become less relevant over time. If you spend your time parsing six missions and twelve visions, and the internal incentives don't move, you're wasting your breath.

In academia, of course, tenure (and chronic cash-poverty) makes setting incentives uniquely difficult. But that's no reason not to try. Even in a tenured and unionized setting, I've found that some people will respond to simple and clear messages, especially when the few goodies that are available are lined up accordingly. (Most won't, of course, and some take a perverse pleasure in using their bulletproof status to claim the moral high ground against any change whatsoever. I can understand loafing, but claiming the moral high ground while loafing still pisses me off. Sigh.) The temptation to default to unthinking conflict-avoidance mode – that is, to pacify the loudest whiners – will always be there, but once you go down that road, there's no end to it. A little intestinal fortitude upfront will pay off over time.

Moving to discussion of actual execution of the plan, the next inevitable move is blame-shifting. Why is enrollment sliding? It's obviously the fault of admissions/financial aid/proprietary schools/sunspots/tectonic plates/unforgiving demographics/market trends/kids today, so they have to change. Once they fit what we consider proper, then we can talk.

Uh, no.

It's about adapting. Which, I think, is what's so frustrating about strategic plans as they're usually done. With their superficial rigor, they aspire to a level of control of reality that they'll never have. A simple plan, well-executed in changing ways, is far superior to a long and complicated plan with subsections and three different synonyms for 'goals.' The more complicated the plan, the more time will be spent parsing its verbiage, rather than paying attention to the outside world.

Here's a measurable goal: no college's strategic plan should be longer than the Constitution of the United States. Colleges can be complicated, but sheesh.

Have you seen a planning process that really worked? I'm honestly asking. If there's a method out there that has actually worked, I'd love to steal from it.

I read your blog every day and you should consider me a decicated fan (though I'm an assistant prof at a state university, not a cc, the issues are nearly identical). But today: wow. I'm not averse to change, but I'm practical. And a minimalist. Plan to do what can be done, reasonably. Anything more is a waste of oxygen and time.
I have to disagree. I work at an R1 which is in it's second five year "Academic Plan". I happen to really admire it (the work on it was done before I came here). What it does is institutionalizes priorities (priorities which were arrived at by general consensus). The administration then has the task of helping the faculty live with said priorities.

For instance - we are a school that tends to specialize in science (you can tell by the number of Ph.D.s in the sciences we produce); thus, as part of the academic plan, increased funding for several new sciences was made an "action item"; when the state had a budget windfall and the U received several million extra dollars, most of it went to sciences. No one was surprised, since it was part of the plan.

Do people complain? You bet - the humanities especially, but every five years everyone gets a chance to make their case again (anthropology, for instance, was able to get a new Ph.D. and English a new MFA through the last round of planning).

No system is perfect, but I've been impressed at how well this one works....
From the reading I've done, a strategic plan is the province of schools which are not in budget-induced crisis mode. Schools like what your school appears to be have to roll the dice on relying on high-level leadership to steer them through the storm, then reorganize to fix the blind spots induced by this once money starts coming back in.
I'm on the strategic planning committee here at my institution and it's a total joke. Nothing ever gets done. In 4 years we have re-written our mission statement and drafted a few new objectives. Otherwise it's an excuse for me to chit chat with other committee members and then write out busy work, for example grocery lists, as the meeting chair drones on. What a complete waste of time.
What is this word "windfall" that you use?

Seriously, given "several million extra dollars," it isn't hard to make any plan look good. I'd like to try that, sometime...

It sounds like what your admin did right was to focus attention on one big thing, i.e., we are a science school. Clarity is the key, so kudos to them for doing that.
Let's see. We have a strategic plan with 10 outcomes to be achieved by 2010 (which is a year or two after our chief campus adminnistrative officer retires...). The strategic planning group (which I quit about a year ago) seems unable to focus on a small number of truly important results. So what we're doing is basically what we've always done, the laundry list of strategic projects.

And we wonder why nothing happens...
Ah, "strategic planning" and implementation. It reminds me of an exchange I read once:

Employee: "We need to focus our resources on a few key areas."

Boss: "Can't we focus our resources across the board?"

I hate this crap.
To be fair, the "several million dollars" came four years after the plan was approved, so while some with psychic abilities might claim to have seen it coming, it really was somewhat unexpected.

That said, when it did happen, I simply admired the way the administration stuck to its guns (in the face of some pretty loud arguments).

We're in the planning stages of our third academic plan and faculty are starting to get the hang of things (i.e., that you need to have your projects prioritized within the plan for them to have a chance to move forward).

I understand your frustration - I've spent the past several years as a program administrator - without any department or college structure to help me out, and it's difficult to run a program that depends upon the good graces of a faculty with other priorities - but strategic planning, done by an administration able to make some difficult choices (i.e., not caving to the screaming department chair who doesn't care about the Academic Plan or the governor who decides his pet programs should get priority) can serve to neuturalize (sp?) some of this - my current position works, in some respects, because it's part of the plan and my office can help other departments and colleges work on aspects of the plan that they are charged with fulfilling.

I agree that done wrong it can suck (take a look at the lack of planning that GM and Ford have done - did they really think that people would continue to buy SUVs forever?), but it doesn't have to be so.
Strategic planning in academia usually doesn't work because of the vast asymmetries in the sense of what's important. Building a shared vision can only really occur when people are willing to learn about each others' priorities, and in the absence of incentives (as you point out) many faculty just don't see the value in the process.

On the other hand, as Lowe suggests, there's great value in getting people to have a shared sense of what the organisation is doing, and this isn't going to happen the first time through, or the second. It starts to happen when staff begin to see that their input into planning leads to changes that affect their work. I think most faculty's experience of strategic planning is that nothing ever happens, so motivation is low. Not to mention that the exercises are dry and boring. But to me, that's not a reason to assume it doesn't work - otherwise you just assume that Faculty's experience doesn't have a role in setting strategy, and I think that's a dangerous road over the long term. Sure, you might be fairly sympathetic to the classroom experience, and therefore make realistic decisions, but from an institutional perspective, they can't rely on you to be there in the future. A good plan linked to resources, is a great asset.

The best planning book I've read is High Impact Tools and Activities for Strategic Planning: Creative Techniques for Facilitating Your Organization's Planning Process (Ring-bound) by Rod Napier, Clint Sidle, Patrick Sanaghan. Shelling out a hundred bucks for a ring binder might seem a bit rough (I was shocked when I got it in the post!), but it's got more great content than all the planning books I've read, and gives a great combination of philosophical/organisational insight and actual processes/recipes that you can adapt to suit. Importantly, it realises that planning's not an abstract, linear process but has a number of dimensions that will be more or less important in different situations.

Overall, I think you need to make a call whether you're prepared to involve all your staff in the planning process. If you are, you have to accept that developing the capability of your staff to think strategically will require a lot of work, take time, and probably won't be an off-the-shelf solution.
I wrote a Strategic Plan for my cc. Two years later, new president, new planner = new strategic plan. Things we're doing different strategically? Zero. I was naive enough to think Strategic Planning made a difference, at least in the beginning. By the time I wrote the plan, we just needed a Plan out there for the world to see, but not necessarily a document we would actually consult in long term visioning. Same thing now.
I'm going to be anonymous here. I have participated in one very effective strategic plans--one for a high school.

I am now participating in one for a k-8 school.

The first one, we flew by the seat of our pants. The planning team included board, faculty, and parents.

The second one is faculty and board members only (but about half the board members are alumnae parents). It's harder here to get measurable objectives in place -- too many platitudes.

So far the one good thing that's come out of the process is that the board is adopting Chait's governance model.

Here's an article on Chait's work:


Thanks to Danny for the reference.
The research is pretty clear - strategic planning doesn't work (see Birnbaum's Management Fads in Higher Education and another great book, Hard Facts). People love it because it is intellectually engaging and fun to outline a plan for how a college should work. But colleges are not machines; people, with all their imperfections and viewpoints, inhabit them.

I agree with you 100% - a college should decide on 5-10 areas with three to four areas for each one. If the plan is more than two pages, it shouldn't exist.
And, so. If a college should decide on 5 or 10 things, how would it accomplish this without a strategic plan? Someone in a back room with a pencil and a brown paper bag on which to affix these goals? Birnbaum never said it wouldn't work, he merely pointed out the obstacles to making it work. Sounds like much personal baggage here without reference to what can make things work.
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