Strategic Planning – Observations, Thoughts and Recommendations

I don’t know exactly when the move toward creating strategic plans began. I’m thinking it was higher education’s response to the quality emphasis that industry had embraced in the late eighties and early nineties. At any rate, a process was created and certain outcomes expected. A series of long meetings were held, resulting in thick notebooks, leading to the requisite outcome of a vision statement, goals that were deemed strategic and a number of action items to support those goals.

Those who bestowed accreditation on private institutions added the strategic planning process to outcome assessment as fundamental elements of a successful institution.

With all of that management science in support of the process, one would think that those who invested time, money and effort into it would be better off today in so many tangible ways. Why is it then that the very institutions that celebrate twenty years of successive strategic plans are wondering how they will survive the next five years? Based on my reading countless plans and conversations with various coordinators and their leaders, there appear to be some patterns that are common to these plans. I’m not suggesting that these are the reasons for less than optimal performance but suspect there could be some conversations worth having.

1. The vision statement is self-centered
The greatest challenge for an institution might be enrollment but you wouldn’t know it from the vision statement. So many represent wonderful platitudes of excellence and prowess amongst peers. It would be better to pen the true aim of such statements with a formal declaration that we can’t brag about much right now but would love to receive a coveted award for excellence at the next CICU gathering.

Some institutions are actually quite good at what they do but are similarly bad at creating a compelling reason for students to choose them. They may have wonderful programs with top-rate faculty but have substandard facilities and allocate resources based on what disciplines the President likes versus the ones that students are demanding. The reasons are many but the point is that the vision has to incorporate winning over what is the greatest challenge confronting the institution. If not, most faculty and nearly all staff will see the process as irrelevant.

The vision should state the obvious.

2. A battle is engaged – on ten fronts. defines “strategy” as: 1. “a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal, usually over a long period of time.” and 2. “the skill of making or carrying out plans to achieve a goal.”
Notice that the word “goal” appears in both editions. Put more bluntly, strategy could be considered the devising of a plan that wins the game. I find it fascinating how an institution can have multiple strategic goals – even ten or more. How does anyone know which goal is most important or which one will better achieve the vision (provided the vision is worth pursuing?) Unless resources are plentiful, which goals will be funded?
Better to have three well-defined goals that grab the attention of all constituents and truly set the place apart.

3. There is rarely much in the way of strategy in the plan
Those institutions that have enjoyed success have devised compelling reasons for students to choose them. It could be in the form of programs that are not available elsewhere. Perhaps it is found in extracurricular activities that set them apart. The campus may be newer or situated in an attractive location. A professor might be well-known in national circles or a graduate has achieved a notoriety to the point where studying in the same program that they did has great appeal to the seventeen year old prospective student. The distinctives are identified, celebrated on campus and proclaimed to all comers

Winning, defined by achieving the vision, requires accomplishing something truly noteworthy; something that others cannot lay claim to and that will become a known distinctive of your institution. Strategic goals should embrace that notion.

4. There is no operating plan
If anything was learned from the quality movement, it is that continuous improvement has to become an integral part of institutional life. In the case of many strategic goals, my reaction is that the institution should be doing these things anyway. Evaluating programs for effectiveness? Seeking ways to enhance revenues streams through a greater emphasis on philanthropy? Addressing deferred maintenance? Paying staff and faculty competitively? The list goes on.

An operating plan focuses on doing things better. A strategic plan focuses on doing better things. I am amazed by how few institutions articulate an operating plan. There are budgets prepared, of course. But, where is the plan for near-term success articulated. What are its goals and desired outcomes?

I recommend that strategic planning participants ask if the proposed goal represents what a well-run institution should be striving for anyway. If so, it belongs in an operating plan and one should be devised. If a goal is designed to set the institution apart, to create a compelling reason for students to choose you, it is clearly strategic. Without an operating plan, some less than strategic initiatives might be funded with resources needed to operate the institution effectively. So, we cut financial aid counselors to add more career counselors. Such a move hardly sets us apart and might make it more difficult for students to get the help they need. Retention then suffers and revenues decline. So goes the cycle.

5. An overemphasis on spending
The specificity of action items that demand financial resources is impressive. Conversely, revenue initiatives tend to be generally described. Of course we need more annual fund donations. For most institutions, more students can be accommodated in classes and dorms and we would surely welcome them. Some lip service is paid to proposed rates of return for new programs but there is rarely an exit strategy spelled out if the plans are not realized.
Simply put, most strategic plans are about spending more. Getting the funds to accomplish desired outcomes is a matter of working harder, coupled with a few marketing initiatives here or there.

Unless the institution has resources spilling over the floodgates, I recommend strategic goals that specifically target improving the revenue stream. These should represent two-thirds of the plan. Those that don’t enhance revenue might be appropriate for an operating plan or could just be too expensive to attempt at this time.

6. Concluding thoughts
I know I have been somewhat harsh on the current state of strategic planning but must reiterate my discouragement at how poorly this industry is faring, some twenty years after these ideas were first trotted out. We need to rethink strategic planning before it becomes just a perfunctory duty that no one believes in. For now, it appears to be an exercise in appeasement, focusing on spending money, with minimal attention paid to monitoring progress and subsequent evaluation of initiatives.

Put a solid forecast and operating plan together, with participation by both the sectors that generate revenues and those who spend them. Make the strategic plan truly strategic, with no more than three goals, two of which that target revenue enhancement.

Otherwise, the next twenty years will be much less kind than the last twenty.