Lessons from Basketball

I had a great high school basketball coach.  Mind you, he benched me my senior year and it took me a few years to understand why (now it is painfully obvious how wise he was) but he took a ragtag group of hicks from the sticks and fashioned them into a powerhouse in our little corner of New York State.

Awhile back, I stumbled across one of his mimeographed team manuals.  He seemingly covered everything from defense to offense, jump balls, drawing offensive fouls, calling time outs, shooting foul shots, boxing out for rebounds and how to make a fast break work.  No mention was made of the three point shot but he did mention how we were not allowed, by rule, to dunk.  Never a problem for me.

What fascinated me was his emphasis on the division of labor AND on the team.  We all had to do our very best individually but performed within the context of what others were doing.  If I decided to double-team someone who was nearby me (a team exercise), I needed to be sure that the one I was supposed to be guarding was covered.  If I merely did what I felt like doing, it would have been disastrous.

There was the leader; the coach.  There was the game plan that spelled out the strengths and weaknesses of the competition.  Then, there were the individual assignments for each player; even those who would come off the bench.  If someone went off on their own, the plan broke down.  For some of our competitors, it seemed as though they operated with no plan at all.

Higher education tends to emphasize planning, particularly of the strategic nature.  I would argue, however, that we have not been all that effective in making that plan a team exercise.  Many of the strategic plans I have seen are full of platitudes and dreams.  Various groups get their oar in the water to add this or accomplish that for a narrowly defined purpose. 

Strategic planning is actually a subset of longer term operational planning.  There are areas where the institution believes it must emphasize in order to gain notoriety or a beneficial distinction.  There may be areas where operations are substandard and need attention to make them better.  Certain markets may merit some exploration so that the institution can expand.  All of these are good exercises but do not trump the need to be certain that the core operations are maintained and improved on a continuous basis.

That is, new markets are wonderful, unless the investment in them is extracted from serving the current markets that make up the bulk of our constituency.  A new program initiative is wonderful, unless it causes another, successful program to suffer from reduced resources.  New debt and new buildings are always exciting, unless no new revenues are landed to cover their costs.  The interconnectedness between dreams and daily work cannot be diminished.  Though something new seems appealing, if it causes an existing stronghold to become weaker, it had better be successful in more than replacing what will be lost.

These ideas, forged through 18 years of higher education experience, formed the basis for a comprehensive forecasting model that I released in April.  This multi worksheet approach to institutional planning provides a way for component parts (the players on the team) to introduce their piece of the game plan.  The roll-up of all the inputs leads to forecasted income statements and balance sheets, complete with prospective ratios.  It is a planning process grounded in outcome assessment.

If the plan is to build a new facility in three years, the financing and fund raising for that cause is laid out.  Enrollments are projected into the future with annual inputs for incoming first year students.  Institutional financial aid is projected as well, with inputs for first year discount rates and price increases.  The system has been designed to project current year and coming year revenues as early as the end of September.

Central to the process is the interactive conversations that accompany the submission of each sheet.  Enrollment, financial aid, development and facilities own particular worksheets.  The others tend to be managed by Finance but their inputs are governed by the team, led by the President as coach.

I recognize that this sounds self-serving but I have yet to see a more comprehensive and cooperative approach to planning than what exists in this model.  I am happy to offer it to you just for the asking by sending me an email at jeff@cfocolleague.net .  Of course, this gesture is not totally magnanimous. There is a good chance that you will need some help from me in making this work for you and the best time for that assistance is the fall semester.  I stand ready to work with you toward a move in the direction of comprehensive planning. 

In the end, my hope is that you will increase the effectiveness of your planning efforts and build a stronger team through the process.  Let’s talk.