Just about every higher education institution periodically engages in strategic planning. Some of this planning is part of the fabric and culture of a college, but many campuses engage in planning only when required by accrediting agencies or mandated by statewide system offices, or after a crisis. Regardless of the motivating factor, challenges with the planning process result in too many campuses failing to achieve their original planning goals even when a great deal of time and effort are invested
We wanted to find out what made strategic planning work on campuses and initiated a series of discussions with presidents, faculty and senior administrators of institutions that believe in strategic planning and embrace it as a cultural practice.
We also spoke to a handful of campus leaders and faculty who were unsure about the importance of strategic planning. While these presidents conduct planning in order to comply with a variety of mandates, they question the value of the process and indicate that plans are rarely utilized once developed. These postures of resistance to planning are as valuable as hearing from those who truly believe in its value. In fact, both perspectives are needed.
The following advice might provide some helpful information to administrators and faculty as they think about crafting their institution's strategic planning process and connecting it to the life of the campus.
1. Visible and committed senior leadership is essential. The president needs to be seen as visibly and meaningfully supporting, but not exclusively controlling, the planning process. If campus stakeholders believe the president is engaged in the planning process, they tend to participate more. If they don't witness this engagement, they will question the credibility of the process and meaningful participation will be minimal. In fact, if the president is resistant to planning or in any way intimates that the plan will not be utilized once developed, campus stakeholders will pick up on this and will have limited or no investment.
On many campuses today, there are senior-level administrators whose titles include planning or planner. While these individuals are responsible for carrying out the planning process, in no way should they be the sole drivers of the plan. Rather, these administrators should be ensuring that the information needed to develop the plan is readily available. They should also ensure that all of the planning processes are transparent and that there is widespread engagement in the process. While many presidents may be tempted to divest themselves of the planning process and allow the "planners" to take the lead, this is a mistake. A president must be the leader of the planning process and use the designated "planner" as a key resource.
2. Authentic faculty involvement and engagement will make or break a strategic planning process. Without the meaningful engagement of faculty in the strategic planning process, the resulting plan will not get carried out. Top-down, administrative planning simply won't work any more. There was a time when senior leadership, along with the board, created a strategic plan and "sold" it to the campus with limited results. Those days are gone. In fact, faculty should play a key role – often in concert with the president and any "official" planners on campus -- in designing the process.
Presidents also need to organize a planning task force of highly credible leaders throughout the campus and make sure a majority of the task force consists of faculty. On many campuses this task force will emerge from – or morph into – a standing committee that is responsible for monitoring the implementation and assessment of the strategic plan.
Campuses should seriously consider the benefits (and challenges) of having such a standing committee. On the plus side, it does ensure that a wide swath of the campus has ongoing engagement with the strategic plan. It also increases the likelihood that the plan will be subject to rigorous assessment if a group is formally charged with carrying it out. A potential negative consequence, though, is that the campus community may view this standing committee as the group responsible for the plan when, in fact, the plan is owned by the entire campus community. If such a committee is in place, one of their explicit directives must be to engage all campus stakeholders in the planning process.
Again, faculty should play a leading role in this process. The president and senior leaders need to talk openly with the faculty about the strategic planning process and its importance to the institution. Most importantly, they need to listen to the hopes and concerns of campus stakeholders, especially faculty. If they listen well, they will have access to vital information many senior leaders never hear.
3. The board of trustees needs to have a balanced role in the strategic planning process. Having faculty and other campus community stakeholders lead the strategic planning process may be difficult for some trustees to hear as they often take seriously their charge of setting the trajectory and strategic priorities of the institution. This is a trend presidents across higher education are reporting. Of course, trustees need to play a prominent and informed role in the planning process. However, while they are responsible for ensuring the plan is carried out and strategic goals accomplished, the day-to-day execution of the plan happens on the campus.
In fact, regional accreditors discourage top-down planning and instead emphasize collaborative, participatory planning processes. The board is responsible for ensuring that an intelligent, disciplined and inclusive planning process takes place for their institution. Trustees need to charge the president and senior leadership with conducting this kind of process and hold them accountable.
4. It is important to avoid "listening to yourself too much." Attention to the external environment is an ongoing necessity and practice. Faculty and administrators need to pay attention to what is going on regionally, nationally and internationally. They need to be well versed about program enrollment trends, student demographics, parent expectations, broad financial trends and issues, employment demand, technological innovations and new teaching strategies. Just think about how much change we have experienced over the past five years.
The next five years promise to be equally complex, fast-paced and challenging. Campus stakeholders throughout the campus, not just the senior level, need to understand the big picture and changing context of higher education on an ongoing basis. This type of engagement can only happen if the president and senior leaders create opportunities for people to convene and discuss the events, trends and issues facing their institution. This is not a one-shot thing. There should be multiple opportunities throughout the year for these important and strategic discussions. These internal SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analyses are a vital component of the planning process and remain equally critical once the plan is implemented in order to ensure assessment of the plan is realistic and ongoing.
5. You need to make extraordinary efforts to communicate with stakeholders throughout the planning process. Too often there is some kind of an official kickoff to a strategic planning process and then things just seem to fade away until the plan is launched, when another big event may be held. This is poor process. Instead, the strategic plan needs to be a part of the fabric of the community, from the time it is being developed until the time it is concluded. While many campuses believe periodic e-mail updates about the plan are sufficient, it is important to use a variety of communication vehicles that include both high-touch (e.g., town hall meetings or "chews and chats" where stakeholders congregate over a breakfast or light lunch to discuss institutional issues and receive updates about the planning process) and high-tech.
High tech has its place (e.g., electronic newsletters and updates) but don't make technology your primary vehicle for communication. It may be efficient and convenient but we have found that face-to-face interactions keep the planning process alive. This is especially important during the planning process when you are trying to gather campuswide input into the plan priorities. Rich dialogue can help unveil hidden aspirations that are easily ignored or passed over when using electronic communication tools. Utilizing a variety of communication tools enables participants to choose their most comfortable level of engagement and increases the likelihood you will hear from a variety of perspectives.
6. Trust is the most important factor in a planning process. This was the pervasive theme in all of our conversations. It kept coming up over and over again. Trust is one of the most enduring and fragile elements in institutional life. With a great deal of trust you can accomplish many things, even if there are scarce resources. Without a fair amount of institutional trust, every detail becomes a debate; conversations quickly become contentious and things move at a glacial pace. Without trust, a “perfect” plan will be sure to fail. Campus leaders need to know how to build and nurture institutional trust if they are going to carry out their strategic plan. They can build campus trust by creating an inclusive, transparent and participative planning process.
7. Planning is not a linear process. There is a myth that lives large in higher education that there is a perfect process. This myth is driven by the belief that facts, data and quantitative information are all you need to create a strategic plan. Although good information and clear thinking are essential to effective planning, people's hopes and aspirations, fears and doubts all play an important role. People, not perfect data, develop and execute plans. Great care should be taken to avoid the "plan to plan" syndrome where there is way too much research, planning, analysis and synthesis in an attempt to do planning perfectly. In these instances there is a lot of thinking but little doing. The plan never really lifts off the ground. Perfection should never be the goal for either the planning process or the plan. Rather, campuswide engagement, a shared vision, and ongoing feedback about achieving goals is the priority.
The linear approach is an attempt to control the future, which simply cannot be done. Intelligently responding to and influencing the future, however, is possible. We need to build agility and resiliency into our strategic planning process given the changing and complex environment we live in. Recognizing this early on in the planning process will ensure work is done rather than merely thought about.
8. Visionaries are a dime a dozen. Those leaders who can actually execute important things are as rare as blue diamonds.
It is not difficult for really smart people to create beautiful pictures of the future. But beautiful ideas won't matter unless things are actually accomplished. Senior leadership needs to be committed to paying attention to the process, rewarding and recognizing accomplishments, and resourcing the strategic plan. Implementation is the hard part of strategic planning but essential to its success. If the campus culture lacks rigor and discipline, and is unwilling to hold stakeholders accountable for shared aspirations, implementation will falter.
9. Campus stakeholders need a way to keep score. People need to see and feel that they are making progress toward the goals outlined in their plan. This can only happen if processes and protocols are established that keep people informed and updated. At a minimum, senior leadership needs to commit to a series of yearly "report outs" to the campus community about progress toward institutional goals. This holds stakeholders accountable for implementation and communicates to everyone that the strategic plan is an institutional priority.
It is essential that leadership reports shortcomings as well as successes, especially in dynamic times. It helps build transparency, credibility and faith in the planning process, especially in low-trust environments. If a campus has been less than successful in accomplishing their stated goals, senior leadership can communicate why certain things did not occur and share what they will do moving forward. These report outs also further the premise that the campus "owns" the strategic plan, not the president, a planner, or a committee.
10. The danger of doing too much. When it comes to carrying out the strategic plan there is often an attempt to do way too much in the first year. People want to see progress toward the plan goals and often try and move on all fronts. This well-intentioned effort soon becomes exhausting rather than creating momentum and energy. Pace and manage the implementation process in chewable chunks. Ongoing communication about achieving goals, no matter how small, is key to keeping the momentum of the plan alive.
Taken together, the above ten points suggest that the most important elements of planning are around connectedness. Connecting colleagues across the campus in the development of a shared vision and shared plan. Connecting in multiple modes – face-to-face and electronically – to gather robust feedback and support. Connecting our individual institutions to the broader higher education landscape. Connecting the planning process and the subsequent plan to the daily operations of the institution. Connecting realistic goals with shared aspirations. And, finally, connecting what we do with what is measured and valued on our campus.
These connections are led and facilitated by the president and extend up to trustees and down to faculty, staff and students. The plan becomes a reflection of the valuable – and valued – connections needed to thrive.
Patrick Sanaghan is president of the Sanaghan Group, an organizational consulting firm that works with leaders in higher education.
Mary Hinton is vice president for strategic planning and institutional effectiveness at Mount Saint Mary College.