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These past months, I’ve had conversations with a handful of presidents of colleges and universities across the diversity of American higher education who have each reported that their strategic planning efforts are proceeding nicely. You know the drill when it comes to the steps they are taking: 1) create a committee, or many committees, 2) conduct a SWOT analysis of the institution’s strengthens, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, 3) hold many meetings with a variety of stakeholders, 4) articulate a five-year plan (or be bold and go for 10) with goals and objectives, and 5) develop a set of metrics to hold someone accountable.

That’s a very conventional type of strategic planning. When times are uncertain, humans tend to seek familiarity, and so do institutional planners. But is this really the best vehicle for intentional, institutional change, especially given the context in which higher education is now operating? One president said he asked ChatGPT to develop a strategic plan for his campus. In less than three minutes, the robot came up with approximately the same plan that the campus community spent six months collectively crafting.

The uncertainty of the pandemic and technology should have taught us a few things related to strategic planning. Be prepared for your institution to do something different, as the past rules of what works may not be relevant guides going forward. Don’t let the familiar be a constraint on innovation. Understand that people are tired, overloaded and dealing with burnout. They need energy, motivation, a purpose. Finally, recognize that asking the same questions through basically the same processes begets the same answers. And are those answers really going to move most institutions forward in the ways they now need?

Old Approaches Worth Questioning

The fundamental implication for colleges and universities is that, today more than ever, they really should stop planning in the conventional way. They should start to rethink and rectify some of the common problems with how they think about and conduct strategic planning. I’ve described a few of those problems below.

Strategic plans are based on outdated assumptions. At the heart of the conventional approach is the assumption that the future is readily and easily knowable. ChatGPT, anyone? Record low unemployment as the primary higher education competitor? A possible new cold war with China?

Institutions tend to develop strategic plans that look out five years. They start with today and project forward and often do so quite conservatively. Is the future knowable, and why for five years? What is so special about five? Plans tend to be built on the assumption of predictability and stability, which are increasingly less likely. Most institutions find themselves facing a high degree of uncertainty, which means predictability and stability are false idols to pursue.

Additionally, the strengths and weaknesses that institutions identify through that SWOT analysis probably won’t be the same in the future as they are today. Will residential campuses and small seminar classes, for example, be strengths or weaknesses in the future? Basing the future on an understanding and interpretation of our lenses of the present seems somewhat imprudent, if not overconfident.

Conventional strategic planning forecloses options rather than raises questions and identifies opportunities. Too often strategic plans are controlling rather than freeing. They set out relatively narrow priorities, talk about “alignment” and call for metrics. Given the volatility and ambiguity of the environment, might an approach that asks questions, tests hypotheses and encourages experimentation be more helpful than one that dictates direction based on short-term predictions?

Strategic plans are a mix of strategy and operations. That’s often unintentional yet frequently confusing. Strategy, as my co-author Cathy Trower and I defined it in a previous essay, is different from operations. Strategy focuses on how institutions connect their missions with the realities of external environments. It’s about how they secure resources and compete, how they deliver on their mission given the environment in which they operate.

Operations, in contrast, are the means to deliver strategy. They are the capabilities and institutional know-how needed to get things done. One test I learned from Julie Wollman, a colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, is to ask if an action is something the university needs to do to remain open. If it is, it’s part of operations, not strategy.

Just because something is important does not mean it is strategy. Ensuring up-to-date technology, offering effective mental health support, graduating students on time—each of those activities are important to most institutions. But they are not strategy and shouldn’t be part of strategy documents. Rather, such priorities should be part of operational plans that support and advance the articulated strategy.

Strategic plans aren’t motivational. Fewer than a handful of people at any one institution log in to their laptops or go to their offices each morning wondering, “What does our strategic plan encourage me to do better or differently today?” What institutions need is an agenda for change and innovation that encourages, excites, advances. What is your shared theory of change at the institution, and how can your strategy efforts benefit from that theory for forward progress?

Further, too many plans assume that first we plan, then we implement—that those are two distinct steps in the process. (Worse is the assumption that first we plan, and then others implement.) A common indicator of that problem is the frequency of the term “buy-in.” Implementation starts with development, if not before. If the right people are not immediately involved in ways they expect, if they aren’t answering questions that matter, if they don’t see their fingerprints on the proposed trajectory or feel left out of the process, most institutions don’t have the resources to buy the needed buy-in. It is much better to think of implementation as development and development as implementation.

Strategic plans use questionable metrics and mechanisms for accountability. Such metrics are too often based on a promissory note of what you once thought was important, but, again, the future isn’t as predictable as we usually hope. Plus, metrics are rarely motivational. It would be far more effective to have people be responsible for continuing impact or outcomes than accountable to metrics created three or four years ago.

New Approaches Worth Considering

Colleges and universities often develop conventional types of strategic plans because they are familiar or expected. Different approaches are hard sells. They challenge convention and expectations. But done well, new ways of thinking may well help create the positive forward momentum an institution really needs.

A strategic plan can take a different form. It could be a strategic visioning document or a social compact between the institutions and its stakeholders. Such a document is based on a different set of assumptions. It appreciates the uncertainty and fluidity of the external environment. Think compass and not road map. (The roads keep changing even as our missions remain steadfast.) What would happen if a strategy asked targeted questions to pursue, rather than presented binding pathways to take (reinforced by those accountability metrics)?

Strategy can reflect the level of centralization or decentralization of the institution. The University of Pennsylvania is a very decentralized institution, thus institutional strategy probably will be a composite of school-level strategies. The business school, for instance, has a different strategy than the med school. Broward College, in contrast, will have a more centralized and coordinated framing document reflecting its organizational structure and culture.

One element essential to strategy is that it reflects both who we are as an institution and what we can become. Well-articulated strategy bridges the present to the future. The present state creates a sense of familiarity grounded in the shared identity of who we are as an institution. It becomes the foundation for progress. The future, well framed, provides the motivation and energy. Miss either, and efforts stall. If the strategy is too far ahead of the present, people can’t connect with it. If the future state isn’t motivational, people won’t be excited about the possibilities.

Strategy can balance flexibility with focus. Yes, make some bets about the future, but at the same time, build in the flexibility to respond to new opportunities to advance your mission. Traditional plans don’t allow for much flexibility, which is often why they are ignored as the world evolves. Instead articulate a set of decision rules that guide future choices—rules that are grounded in a mix of mission, capacity and competitive advantage.

When I was running leadership programs at the American Council on Education, we developed a set of decision rules to help us decide which opportunities to pursue or not pursue. We asked questions like: Does the opportunity involve all sectors of higher education, not just community colleges or elite research universities? Is the issue of concern to senior managers or emerging administrative leaders? Can the work be accomplished by convening individuals, calling attention or providing information (the tools in our association toolbox)? Do we have the organizational skills and capacities to deliver, and can we do so in ways that are affordable compared to others in the marketplace?

These rules helped us develop the comprehensive leadership agenda for provosts as they began and moved through their careers, hopefully into presidencies. Our decision about “where to play,” as Roger L. Martin phrased it in the Harvard Business Review, focused on provosts at different developmental stages of their careers.

Campuses need both strategy and operational plans. Too many institutions have one vehicle (the plan) trying to do both strategy and planning. Separate them. Create a strategy or visioning document without a firm time frame and then develop a companion document that outlines the operational activities to deliver on the strategy. The operational plan should span multiple budget years, articulate the needed capacities to deliver and be, well, operational. Metrics can live here, but they should support progress, not dictate it. This is also where the budget conversation occurs to support the strategy.

Best Strategies on Strategy

Higher education deserves a different paradigm for strategy and planning. For too long we have done the same things that often result in the same outcomes. Institutions can and do change, often with spectacular results. But these results don’t typically come from strategy planning as most colleges and universities pursue it. A different approach might yield different meaningful outcomes.

To that end:

  • Don’t get stuck in planning for planning’s sake, but think strategy and institutional change. The strategy product should be the starting point and not the end. It should be energizing, not be something that is looked at as finished and shelved once drafted.
  • Language matters and is tricky to get right. Move away from the language of strategic planning, as it conjures up a narrow framework in higher education of what a plan should be. Talk strategy, not planning.
  • Be conscious to separate operations from strategy. Two documents, two purposes, two time frames.
  • Not everything important or even essential is strategy, but all strategy should be essential. Fiscal responsibility is important, but it isn’t strategy. Strategy is how to get there.
  • People need to see themselves in the strategy as well as to be inspired by it. It must be familiar and inspiring if not challenging.
  • The strategy should be able to accommodate a university’s overall priorities as well as those of its individual colleges and schools, particularly at highly decentralized institutions. That said, complex research universities have an opportunity to develop an institutionwide strategy that captures work that single colleges or schools can’t individually advance and works in parallel with their strategies.

Few institutions have the time, people and money to squander on processes that yield little results. By asking new questions and taking new approaches, institutions can hopefully create different and more effective paths to institutional change that lead to increasingly better outcomes.

Peter D. Eckel is a senior fellow and director of leadership at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. He is leading a new online executive program in global higher education management.

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