Monday, January 14, 2013


There’s Planning, and There’s Planning

I read somewhere that the mark of an educated mind is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time.  If that’s true, then I’m feeling particularly educated of late.

In a discussion about planning for the next several years, I realized that I’m stuck believing two very different ideas.  

On the one side, I accept that good forward-looking plans are relatively concrete, with measurable goals and specific ways of getting there from here.  That’s what distinguishes them from daydreams.  In “strategic plans” as such, they’re usually written as “we will increase graduation rates by x percent by year y, by using the following interventions.”  The prose is ghastly, but the idea is to tie budgeting to some sort of conscious purpose in a deliberate way.  At that level, it’s hard to object.  As dreary as they are to read, plans like these can prevent good intentions from coming to grief on the shoals of unconscious incrementalism.  Tying strategic planning to budgeting offers the prospect of actually putting money where it needs to go.  This is no small thing.

On the other, though, I’m increasingly convinced that the real issue is less about improving this percentage or that one by a few points, and more about recognizing and coming to terms with much larger changes in higher education.  Given the reality of Baumol’s cost disease and increasing political friction around student debt, how should we revisit the ways we use various online resources?  What would a competency-based system look like, as opposed to a credit hour system?  How can we change the academic calendar to help students be more successful?  

The problem is that in practice, the two ways of thinking tend to conflict.  (They don’t have to definitionally, but they tend to in practice.)  It’s hard to specify in advance concrete, measurable outcomes to such speculative questions.  You can’t nail down the future like that.  But time and energy spent on one set of questions typically takes time and energy away from the other.

I’ve heard that some tech companies -- 3M and Google, famously, but I’m sure there are others -- set aside time within certain employees’ workweeks for working on speculative projects.  (I think that’s where Google Docs came from.)  I’d love to have some sort of venue on campus for something like that, but it would be easy for it to fall prey to hobbyhorses.  To work, the discussion would have to be both relatively constrained in terms of topics -- the first ground rule would be “no nostalgia” -- and relatively open and rigorous in terms of treatment.  In other words, no “brainstorming” in the traditional sense -- people would have to be able to raise objections, poke holes, and refine.  

I’m not quite sure how to translate something like that to a community college setting.

Wise and worldly readers, has anyone seen this done well in a campus setting?  I’d love to get responses in the comments, but anyone who’d rather reply privately can email me at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.  This seems like the right moment, but I’m having a hell of a time figuring out the mechanics.  Any wisdom born of experience would be welcome.
I’d hate for our plans to miss tectonic shifts because we were too focused on things we could define, and measure, in advance.

I'm afraid I'm a bit of a cynic where strategic planning is concerned.

The best advice I can give you is here


What you need is a gemba walk with your frontline staff.

I'm only half joking.

The more I learn about lean processes and the toyota production system, the more I'm convinced that it would solve many of your problems. In healthcare, it has allowed us to go from "let's get the number of people with bloodstream infections below 'x' percent" (which still leaves some "acceptable fraction" infected and possibly dead) to lets have our error rate be zero by following a set protocol.

Healthcare - the other industry dominated by people with doctorates who were given no training in how to not be the artisan of the moment - is now embracing those principles because of the decreasing resources available to serve more people.

Demming. Kaizen. I think these would marry your metrics to your values. Just come up with some sort of disguise so people don't think of it as coming from Corporate America (it's all Japanese anyway).
Isn't the point of allowing people time to work on independent projects to allow them to develop their hobby horses? The innovation comes from letting people direct themselves, not from asking for advances. 3M is a good example- When McKerney was CEO (ca 2000-2005), he instituted six sigma across the board, including the elimination of 3M's 15 percent time. They -did- see process improvements and cost reduction, but generally creativity and innovation were stymied.
If you do it, make sure you include staff at all levels. Too often I see faculty working on one side of the house, and it's usually a specific set of faculty and then staff on the other side. Again a specific set of staff.
The point of "Strategic Planning" eludes me.

Operating under increasing budgetary constraints for the past five years or more, medium and long-term planning have been neglected.

Every year there is the formulation of goals and objectives, but there is never any review of them to verify whether they were met or, if not, to learn so we stop making the same mistake in the future.

I once was bold enough to venture outside of my area to try to fulfill some computer programming needs of my institution. The higher administration gave me the time to go ahead, but the middle managers seemed resentful and did not cooperate at all and my programs were only used in my small dept.

Fast forward four years, and, there it is, the need is still there and now it fits the goals of the new strategic planning. Now the same middle managers approach me to "see" what I did so they can integrate it into their software.

Strategic planning should be about creating the enviroment where increase enrollment and success rate are unemcubered.

When the planners say we need to increase this and that by x%, they are planning strategically in the past-- the next years students are not the existing students.

People involved in Strategic Planning should be required to study the Calculus. Algebra and Trigonometry, yes, THAT is strategic planning.

An example of a "LEAN" university
The last comment, plus some experiences at my college, lead me to suggest that you start by ASSESSING ideas, goals, initiatives, strategic plans, etc from the past decade and see if the efforts were a net plus for the college. (If you can't assess them because there was never any objectively measurable outcome ... well, you just learned one thing to avoid. If you could, but no one ever did, ditto.) The answer will tell you a lot about what kinds of planning work in your situation.

It might even be that you already have some good plans, but they were never executed.

Finally, I'll repeat my earlier rhetorical question that "Five Year Strategic Plans" are popular because they worked so well for Mao and Stalin?

Besides, can a strategic plan alter the demographics (how many 8th graders are in your feeder schools) or economics (recession or boom time) that are 5 years or so in the future?
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