time to pivot strategic planning

5 Key Factors to Successful Pivots in Higher Education

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” – George Bernard Shaw

Remember when St. Joseph's Baby Aspirin was for babies rather than older adults with circulation and heart problems?

Or when Old Spice was a top choice of fathers - or at least their children around Father's Day and Christmas?

Or when Starbucks only sold roasted whole beans, and didn't sell beverages?

These are just a few examples of a business 'pivoting' - shifting their initial focus onto something different because the opportunities available are perceived to be greater.

This is a highly appropriate strategy for organizations that are:

  • Operating in a rapidly changing market
  • Struggling to consistently achieve its goals and objectives
  • Competition is intensifying

Sound familiar?

Well, in higher education, pivoting could be:

How to Pivot

The first thing to know about successful pivoting is that it is based on data, information, and analysis that identifies opportunities and threats so you can develop the "Pivot Plan".

This means say "NO!" to "The Spaghetti Test" which is grab something and toss it against the wall to see if it sticks.  This approach may deliver a winner but all too often is just wastes resources and creates a mess.

Here are my 5 key factors for successful pivoting.

Understand Your Key Audiences

This would include current students, alumni, faculty, staff and administration, local community leaders and partners.

Ask them what they feel are your strengths and weaknesses? What do they feel you are doing that they have little, if any, need?  And what aren't you doing that they really wish you were because they need it?

From this insight, you're on your way to identifying possible pivot opportunities.

Understand Your Market

This includes those in your market (geographic area served) that are pursuing their education objectives elsewhere as well as your competition, government/politics, environment, economy, society and technology.

With those pursuing their education objectives with the competition, you would want to understand their wants, needs, expectations and perceptions of your institution and the competition.  You would also want to know what they like and dislike about their current experiences.

As for the competition, check out this article on the subject.

And as for the remaining external market factors, check out this article.

Set Realistic Goals and Objectives

Tying back to the two previous factors, this means you need to gather the data necessary to know what is and isn't realistic.

So, when someone asks "...how many students wil be graduating high school in your target market in the class of 2020", you have a specific and accurate respose because that's a key data point needed to create new student enrollment forecasts.

Even with this insight, there are some that will want to set the goals and objectives higher than what can be realistically expected.  This concept, known as 'stretch goals' can cause a great deal of problems, causing the pivot to fail..

Organizations that would most benefit from them seldom employ them, and organizations for which stretch goals are probably not a good strategy often turn to them in a desperate attempt to generate breakthroughs. Neither approach is likely to be successful. This is what we call “the stretch goal paradox.” Source: The Stretch Goal Paradox

And this leads right to the next factor...

Have the Necessary Resources for Strategies & Tactics

Everyone has limited resources - but the successful institutions focus on how to best leverage what they have while the less successful can be heard saying "....we will just have to work smarter and harder..."

Do you have enough people to executive the plan? Do those people have the necessary experience to execute the plan?  Do you have the dedicated financial resources to execute the plan?  Do you have the technology to execute the plan?

This means training the staff on the new technology - and making sure that new staff get trained rather than just those employed at the time of purchase, as well as on-going training so that updates and new features can be successfully utilized.

This also means that when you outsource something, you have the expertise necessary to identify and select an appropriate vendor and your have the resources necessary to manage their performance.  Hearing "...we hired them to do that..." is not an acceptable excuse.

Know If & When to Call It a Day

As I wrote in "Why You Need to Consider Failure",

Leadership is about handling these difficult times with a clear vision, and that makes planning for potential failure important. And let’s be honest, no one enjoys those highly emotional “the sky is falling” meetings where everyone is reacting. They are meetings that are seldom productive or effective.

The key here is a process that directs everyone involved through the steps necessary make the decision - keep going or close it down.

Pivoting should be about improving performance and this approach helps you remain focused on improving performance by not allowing you to shift from one underperforming option to a new underperforming option.

Closing Thoughts

None of this should seem new or like extra work.  Change in the market has been around since the dawn of time, and understanding your audiences and the market should be part of the fabric of your institution.

Learn to adjust yourself to the conditions you have to endure, but make a point of trying to alter or correct conditions so that they are most favorable to you. --William Frederick Book

Written by

Strategic turnaround consultant and writer.

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