Nothing can bring forward more coordinated moans from faculty members and administrators alike than the mention of a new strategic planning process.  It portends endless meetings, maybe more endless arguments, and imminent frustration that the final product does not reflect “my university.”   I will acknowledge that we have reached a point where state funding (or trustee/alumni support in the case of a private institution), regional accreditation, or programmatic accreditation will not be forthcoming without a strategic plan.  Furthermore, few of us would argue with the Cheshire Cat’s admonition that “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there!”  On the other hand, if strategic planning has become such a frustrating process, is it really the solution to all academic problems?

My experience with strategic planning is wide-ranging.  Besides having been involved in the development of strategic plans at every university, business school, and department that has been a part of my career, I have participated in the same process in every external board of which I have been a member.  As a consultant, I’ve helped a number of organizations through the process; and of course as a management professor, I’ve taught many undergraduate and graduate students the strategic planning process.  Nonetheless, I could not help but nod in agreement this summer when a friend who’s been the president of two universities remarked that we should be developing strategic initiatives not strategic plans.  What might he have meant?

Let’s begin with what he did not mean:

  • You should forsake analysis and research about your internal and external environment—Whether or not you are frustrated by the structure of a SWOT analysis, acting without a thoughtful analysis of your university’s strengths and weaknesses and the opportunities and threats of your external environment deserves Cheshire Cat skepticism. Such analysis is not going to happen without a committee and some serious research.
  • You should undertake developing strategies without getting external perspectives—In academe, we live in a special world. It provides the opportunity to think, to speculate, and to be creative.  Unfortunately, the classroom, the department and the college can be isolated from what is happening in the rest of the world.  While medical schools integrate teaching, practice and research quite effectively, the gap between academe and practice in other areas can be quite wide.  It is essential, therefore, that, whatever you call your process, it involves individuals from outside of the university.  The process needs to involve the opinions, observations and understanding of your constituent groups—students, parents, businesses, and others in the communities that you serve.  Diversity is important, but diversity of opinion is just as important as ethnic and other types of diversity.
  • You don’t need to write any of this down or communicate it—Unless there is some kind of document that can be disseminated and discussed, there is no point to the process. The resulting document should not be hundreds of pages in length.  It must provide guidance as to future action.  You should be able to be summarize it into a couple of pages of bullet points.

How could strategic initiatives replace a strategic plan?

Roger Martin argued in a recent Harvard Business Review article that strategic plans are often “simply budgets with lots of explanatory words attached to them.”  Alternatively, I have seen many strategic plans that ended up in a one-page set of goals that were worthless in informing action by individual departments or colleges.  To be useful, the planning document has to identify areas where the university will focus its efforts within the identified period of time (usually 3 to 5 years).  It must represent choices—the university will do this and not that—and guide choosing between alternative actions.  It must be more than a collection of initiatives—it should represent a coherent approach to using and developing the capabilities of the university (or unit within) and responding to the challenges and opportunities of the environment that the university serves.  It provides an answer to the question of how the university will survive and thrive in the future.

The guidelines for developing a planning document based on strategic initiatives are simple and straightforward:

  1. Conduct a SWOT analysis combining a wide spectrum of on-campus and off-campus perspectives. Vetting the SWOT analysis is a key to the effectiveness of the entire process.   If there is not an agreement on these planning assumptions, there cannot be an agreement on the plan itself.  Furthermore, differences hashed out at the planning assumption level are considerably less personal than the clash that occurs over actual programmatic choices when the decision becomes whose ox will be promoted or gored.  If agreement can be reached over planning assumptions and the initiatives flow from those assumptions, the development of a set of strategic initiatives and a plan becomes infinitely less conflictual.  The SWOT analysis/planning assumptions development should occupy as much if not more time than the remainder of the process.
  2. Solicit options for strategic initiatives. More options are better than fewer options at this stage.  Strategic initiatives, however, are not narrow or limited to single departments.   Any action of importance undertaken by a university consists of a number of projects that will take place over time and involve multiple departments.  A research center on infectious diseases is an specific initiative.   It might be one part of a university’s strategic initiative on regional public health.  The distinction is important.
  3. Engage the campus and external communities in using these options to adopt a set of strategic initiatives.  Make sure that there is a clear link to the SWOT/planning assumptions.  The challenge will be in making the perspective of each strategic initiative sufficiently broad.  Compromises and adaptations will need to be made.  Realize going into the process that there are some initiatives on your campus that will not survive.  Everyone will not be happy with the final product.
  4. Develop a comprehensive document along with a strategic summary and make it the basis for more campus-/community-wide discussions. If this document just fills the pages of a regional accreditation report, you have wasted a gigantic amount of time and money.   The document should be a constant touchstone for decision making.  Colleges and departments should repeat the process linking their discussions and initiatives to those of the university.
  5. Revise regularly. Just as the document should not sit on the shelf, it should not be written in stone.  See it as a living document that is constantly assessed for its relevance for current realities.

Universities are difficult organizations in which to plan.  Faculty members, in many ways, are independent agents loosely held together by programs and curricula.  We are the quintessential cosmopolitans of Gouldner’s distinction between cosmopolitans and locals.   As such collective planning is challenging.  The reality of modern organizations is that you must and you should plan.  Why not plan effectively?