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.