strategic planning process

Lessons Learned on the Front Lines of College/University Strategic Planning

When I think back over a 35-year career in higher education, the prevailing theme in one way or another has been the critical differentiation between integrated strategic planning as an institutional cultural attribute vs. an institutional strategic plan.

During that three-decade-plus journey, I’ve learned as much or more from the failures as I have from the successes. So, with a tip of the hat to David Letterman (remember him?), here are my top 10 of the hard-won lessons:

Lesson 1: Eisenhower was right.  Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.

Anyone can write a plan. And it will be obsolete almost the instant it is unveiled. It’s far more difficult – and ultimately successful and sustainable – to build an institutional culture of planning that is integrated and ongoing to help you and the institution deal with almost perpetual uncertainty and changing circumstances.

Lesson 2: You don’t write a strategic plan so much as you engage a community.

As a bold, courageous and action-oriented leader, you have a vision for the institution. All you need is a plan to execute that vision, right? Wrong.

What you have is your vision. It doesn’t matter how well-crafted the strategy, goals, tactics, program initiatives, and key performance indicators if those people you expect to support the effort don’t have a shared understanding of all the factors leading to your choice of destination, let alone agreement on the destination itself.

The better predictor of success is the process of engagement with the institutional community. Given the opportunity to access the same information, to discern its meaning and consequences for making choices, and to create shared understanding, the wisdom of those broadly engaged will yield a set of choices and direction that will likely move the institution forward towards that “beacon on the hill” that you envision as the preferred future.

Lesson 3: When it comes to engaging the community, LBJ was right, too. 

And here’s the less scatological explanation of that: Don’t shy away from including your most vocal critics in the process. You’d rather have at least one representative of divergent points of view inside the tent “doing their business out of the tent” than outside the tent “doing their business into the tent.”

At the end of the day, it’s not so important that everyone comes to the same conclusions and recommends the same choices. But it is important that divergent voices are heard and believe they’ve been heard.

Lesson 4: It’s not about the destination. It’s more about the journey.

If you’ve already decided what the results will or should look like, you’re wasting the time, talent and energy of those you’ve engaged in the process. And when your “plan” emerges, it will be your plan and not likely one that is owned and supported by those you may need most to help you execute.

Instead, be a patient “long-term investor” and trust a process in which everyone is looking at the same sets of information, the same compilation of external and internal factors, allow smart and engaged people to come to different conclusions, and let them struggle with that reality. 

Good planning is about making good choices. Theirs may not be the same ones you might reactively go to, but then again their choices may reflect a wisdom you hadn’t considered.

Lesson 5: If you’re the president, you’re perhaps the least qualified to lead the strategic planning process.

Issue the call to action, champion, support the process: yes, by all means, as president that’s your appropriate role. But actually lead the process and facilitate the engagement: no. And here’s why:

As president, you will need to be the recipient of the community’s engagement, and to be viewed as an honest player in this journey of discovery you will need to display objectivity and some detachment from the richly nuanced conversations that will need to take place.

As president, you occupy a position in the power dynamic that changes the nature and substance of any conversation once you enter the room. In most cases, the conversations become more guarded, more risk-averse, and less open and honest. Resist the temptation to get involved in the inner workings of the process, but by all means keep an eye on whether the process overall is moving forward.

If your chief academic officer or provost is experienced, available and up to the task, tap her/him to lead the process. If not or the CAO/Provost is more inclined to play a participatory role but not lead the process, consider outside facilitation.

Lesson 6: If the process doesn’t produce vertical and horizontal alignment throughout the institution, you’ve failed.

Ensure that the planning process provides for a cascading set of connections between the overall institutional strategy and school/department/unit level plans, and that those school/department/unit level plans are mutually supportive.

Lesson 7: If the process isn’t linked in a meaningful and transparent fashion to how you operate and allocate resources for those operations, you’ve failed.

That which is a priority gets funded and what gets funded should be a priority. This is straightforward and disarmingly simple, yet many institutions are unable to sever themselves from initiatives, programs, goals that no longer serve them well, with the net result that what becomes available to execute on strategic planning becomes more an afterthought than a priority.

Lesson 8: Many, if not most, boards are composed of individuals from the for-profit corporate sector and many of those individuals will want to impose a “corporate planning process” on the institution. Resist those efforts mightily.

It’s not that corporate planning processes are inherently flawed. In fact, many of them are quite sophisticated. But those processes are designed for corporate culture and environment, and not for the complexities and ambiguities of a higher education institution. I strongly endorse the integrated planning process approach of the Society of College and University Planning (SCUP), an approach that was designed specifically for higher education.

Lesson 9: If you want honest recommendations from those you engage in the process, be prepared to receive them. 

This is a corollary to the adage don’t ask the question if you’re not prepared to hear the answer. I’m given to recall the instance in which a president convened a much-heralded planning committee and, upon receiving their recommendations (which didn’t comport with his preconceived notions of anticipated outcomes), declared the process a “failure” and attempted to restart. The university community was sufficiently jaded – and burned – by the previous experience that no one trusted any process going forward and the institution continued to limp along year to year.

Lesson 10: Most often, the best solution to any set of choices is the one that works.

There is no such thing as the perfect plan, with perfect choices laid out in precise linear fashion. But there is ongoing planning that demonstrably enables the institution to understand its changing context, anticipate what needs to be done in response and maintains a dynamic and living planning culture.

Written by

Strategic turnaround consultant and writer.

2 thoughts on “Lessons Learned on the Front Lines of College/University Strategic Planning

  1. Hi Skip! I enjoy reading your work on strategic planning. Thanks for the shout out to SCUP. We appreciate it.

    Nick Santilli

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