HLC 2014 – Effective Strategic Planning for Disruptive and Challenging Times

Higher education is facing some very interesting time – challenging and disruptive times. Although virtually all colleges and universities engage in strategic planning, the way they approach strategic planning is ill-suited to the when markets, stakeholders, students, technology, and regulations are changing as rapidly and predictably as they are now. In effect, there’s too much plan and not enough strategy in higher education strategic planning.

My presentation today to HLC 2014 conference (embedded) and more summary below the fold.

(if embedded presentation doesn’t display properly, download the presentation here).

Typical approaches to strategic planning are too episodic. The plan development occurs maybe every five years and results in a detailed, to-do list of planned actions – a “blueprint” for the future institution. These document-centered approaches yield documents that technocrats love, but are end up sitting unused and ignored on shelves.

I try to outline five suggestions for how to approach strategic planning with an emphasis on developing a strategy to meet challenges and a strategy that will actually happen. Always remember, a mediocre innovation that actually gets implemented always trumps the most brilliant idea that never leaves the plan document’s pages. I suggest emphasizing:

  1. Continuous, evolving thinking – strategizing never ends.
  2. Think of the strategy as Guide, Directions, and Principles for future decision-making.
  3. Engage in rich, deep, broad and Conversations and Dialogue, particularly with your own people.
  4. Focus on really, deeply understanding the Challenges facing your institution first before developing solutions.
  5. Develop a strategy as a story or narrative – a way to think going forward.

Your strategy, after all, is really the hero’s tale of how your institution is going to thrive in the face of the challenges facing it.  To do this, it is necessary to de-emphasize some aspects and activities that have traditionally been the centerpiece of higher ed strategic planning.  I’m not saying do away with them or ignore.  These aspects will be needed, but they shouldn’t command center stage. They are:

  1. De-emphasize the periodic document.  The document isn’t the important part. It’s how your people think that’s important. Update it and revise it at least annually.
  2. Don’t think of the strategic plan as some kind of “blueprint” or detailed to-do list of action projects.  When times are changing rapidly, you can’t foresee what exactly you’ll need do in 1, 2, or even 3 years, let alone 5.  But the direction, the story of how you will succeed can be stable.
  3. Don’t let “experts” and technocrats drive your planning process. This is the time for leadership and full participation. When times are changing rapidly, there are no experts.  Experts only know the past.  But smart people can figure out the future and smart people are all around you.
  4. Instead of having a retreat to establish lofty goals or engaging in processes such as “appreciative inquiry”, focus on the challenges first.  Appreciative inquiry might be appropriate if your organization has low self-esteem, but it tends to build on what you currently do well.  It builds on the past without regard to whether that’s what you need in the future.
  5. Finally, don’t get tied up in documents and data.  Data has its place.  But data can’t drive change.  People with ideas drive change.

I hope tomorrow I can post and some tips about advanced techniques that prove especially useful in planning for disruption and innovation.