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Higher education is obsessed with strategic planning. And it’s not difficult to discern why. The strategic plan has become the symbol for stability and legitimacy in academia. Boards expect them. Accreditors quote them. And presidents feel a need to (over-) sell them.

Given their pride of place, you would think strategic plans function as success machines. But the results suggest otherwise. Most strategic plans fall within the FOF zone:

  • Fizzle strategies start with great fanfare. But instead of strengthening over time, they weaken and eventually wash out due to a lack of sustained progress. They quietly migrate from the desk to the shelf to the storage closet.
  • Orphan strategies are crafted entirely by the C-suite. Since only a few top-level leaders create these strategies, they fail to get adopted by the rest of the organization. High on lip service and low on elbow grease, orphan strategies devour lots of attention but deliver little impact.
  • Fragile strategies look sound on paper but collapse in practice. They are too stiff to bend, too slow to pivot and too sure to self-correct. They can’t survive the inevitable setbacks that come with an ever-changing environment.

Be assured the FOF zone is a feature, not a bug. It’s the reliable result of being caught in the strategy trap. What is the strategy trap?

The strategy trap is easy to explain but hard to escape. It operates by prioritizing strategy and deprioritizing the strategist. Translation: strategy is the rock star that gets idolized; strategists are the roadies that get ignored.

Skeptical? When was the last time you read a book on strategists, not strategy? When was the last time your higher education institution invested in strategists, not strategy? How many academic programs center on strategists, not strategy?

Year after year, strategists get downplayed. And it’s a short trip from downplayed to deprioritized. That’s why the strategy trap is so insidious. It not only prioritizes strategy over the strategist, but it also makes the strategist seem irrelevant.

You Decide: Strategy or Strategist?

But here’s the breakthrough insight: things don’t have to be this way.

Your organization can break free from the strategy trap with one deliberate decision: focus, first and always, on strategists.

How so? Activate them. Train them. Support them. Resource them. Multiply them. And trust you will never hear your president, provost or dean say, “I wish I had fewer strategists at my disposal.” Why? Because the best way to generate more and better strategies is to cultivate more and better strategists. Full stop.

Regrettably, too many organizations claim they can’t find enough strategists to promote from the inside or hire from the outside. This alleged drought is a mirage of their own making.

Every organization has leaders and followers. And every leader and follower is a potential strategist. They only need to be activated and supported.

The Five Habits of the Strategist

Where do you start?

Five habits differentiate strategists from nonstrategists.

  1. Strategists lead time; others manage it.
  2. Strategists impose clarity; others hope for it.
  3. Strategists think in questions; others idolize answers.
  4. Strategists push upstream; others camp downstream.
  5. Strategists see around corners; others simply react to whatever comes next.

Sure, every institution should want their president to embody these five habits as a sound and savvy strategist. But here’s the bigger, bolder opportunity: every president should be obsessed with growing more and better strategists at every level of their organization.

That’s the only way to graduate strategy work from the precious few to the empowered many.

The Pivot to Strategists

Once you pivot from strategy to strategists, several challenges start to fix themselves.

Chief among them is the strategy outage.

Changing presidents? Most higher education institutions wait until the new leader is ready before launching a strategy build. Hiring a strategy officer? Most institutions put their existing strategy on hold until the new expert takes the reins. Closing out the current strategy? Most institutions take an extended break before starting the strategy process anew. Depending on the situation, such strategy outages may range from weeks to months to longer.

But strategy outages are no longer a threat when you have an army of strategists layered throughout your organization. Why?

Strategists give discipline and direction to your institution, even and especially during times of transition—when the horizon is hard to see. Strategists don’t need a formal plan, stated permission or ideal conditions to be themselves. Nor do they need to be told to keep strategizing on your organization’s behalf.

Strategists are self-motivated and self-sufficient. Strategy is not what they do; strategy is who they are. Since there’s no off switch to their identity, there’s no interruption to their impact. Strategists are always on.

Call to Action: Strategists First

I wrote Strategists First: How to Defeat the Strategy Trap because I believe it is time to see strategy for what it is, not for what it claims to be.

In reality, strategy fails far more often than it succeeds. Strategy is tired. Strategy is adrift. Above all, strategy is overmatched for the complexities that lie ahead.

The 18th-century political strategist Thomas Paine wrote, “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” For the past 50 years, the world has not been thinking of the strategy trap as wrong. This default setting has given the strategy trap the superficial appearance of being right.

But strategy’s wicked habit of sabotaging the strategist is bankrupt. And the time to save strategy from itself is long overdue.

Strategy must stop breathing its own exhaust and adopt a new reason for being. And that’s to serve strategists, always and in all ways.

Make no mistake: putting strategists first is the only way strategy unlocks its full potential.

Ryan Hays is executive vice president and chief innovation and strategy officer at the University of Cincinnati. This article derives from Strategists First: How to Defeat the Strategy Trap.

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