Colleges are almost always planning. The Admission Office is planning for the next class, Development is planning for the next initiative or campaign, Faculty are planning the next class or research project and students are planning all manner of things. Then, every so often, like Halley’s Comet or Brigadoon, the Strategic Planning process appears.
Strategic planning isn’t new, but there is a sense of urgency today. Once thought immune to the cultural conversation reserved for public elementary and secondary systems, higher education is now under the same scrutiny. There is new pressure to demonstrate outcomes and prove why students and families should make an immense personal and financial investment for a degree. Strategic Planning offers the hope of a targeted effort to review and renew the institution, identify key strengths and threats, and address those issues with the goal of improving student outcomes. By outcomes, some mean a well-rounded education, and some mean getting and keeping a job.
Except, even the best college strategic planning efforts fall short of expected measureable outcomes because the human factor makes it impossible. Higher education values discussing issues over the pressure of solving problems. Its mission is to imagine possibilities, not deliver certainties. The whole system is not well positioned to be measured for deliverable outcomes. At worst, the strategic planning process is no more than a pageantry of consultation that leads to nothing more than the production of a mission statement or an unread report. At best, directions are chosen and hope for change is renewed, but will likely be unrequited.
What’s the answer? Quit the charade? Create State and Federal mandates for planning, testing, and outcomes? The focus on outcomes misses the point. Success comes from playing to the strengths of the institution, not expecting it to do something that it can’t. The process determines the result, not the other way around; just not the same process as is popular now. The whole machine needs to be re-designed. If the same measures and accountability that are sought in the outcome are embedded in the process, life would imitate art.
- Ask what do you actually do? This isn’t a mission question, but what you do, day to day. Measure your assumptions about yourself. If you can’t measure the small things, you can’t measure the big things. Be specific, and don’t let yourself off the hook. Create a way to measure if it isn’t easily found.
- What are your goals? If you make them measureable, they will be measurable. Is Strategic Planning about staying the course and clinging to your market position, or is it about measureable progress? If it is about progress, then you’re modeling exactly what you want students to do – examine and get better, instead of doing only what you need to do to look good and get the “A”.
- Create a system for planning that is organized, transparent, participatory, and data driven. If the process itself can’t be measured, it cannot produce results that can be measured, or trusted. Everyone gets to see, but not everyone gets to vote or win. This is hard for the college culture that values conversation and democratic ideals, but the “paralysis of analysis” that comes when too many people are involved takes the strategic right out of the plan.
- Finally, when the process matures to its conclusions, do something that makes real change. Maybe it is only one thing, so make it count. Strategic doesn’t mean huge. You’re more likely to realize return on a few substantive changes in the right place than a plan that tries to please everyone – and doesn’t. You’ll only be able to do this if your plan reviews the outcome of your decisions, regularly, transparently, and with an eye for change.
It all comes back to the way you start – if the assumptions and components of your plan are measureable, what they produce will be measureable. If you’re concerned about all of the outcome talk in higher education, get out ahead it. Determine your own measures and outcomes before someone does it for you. Put your dreamers to work on ideas, your do-ers to work on implementation, and your measur-ers to work on outcomes.