In an environment where presidents, on average, serve for barely longer than the typical lifespan of a strategic plan, it is essential that these plans are not driven solely by personality. Hard questions should be addressed, worst-case scenarios should be floated, and innovative ideas should be considered. Strategic planning offers an opportunity to think differently—not merely plan to plod along the same path at the same pace, unless an institution’s situation dictates that. Over the course of five years, stakeholders can and will change—but the plan should be rooted in the best interests of the institution, not the individuals composing it.
A well-designed strategic planning process should lead to a shared understanding of both the opportunities and potential threats facing an institution, including political ones—especially in today’s “age of uncertainty.” So, why then is strategic planning viewed so negatively by many campus stakeholders? The undertones in complaints and concerns surrounding strategic planning tend to understandably emerge from general skepticism or distrust in the process.
While the end result of a strategic plan is a final document, it is the conversations, research and visioning that allow progress to actually happen. Overcoming the acquired cynicism of stakeholders requires a strategic planning process that is inclusive, collaborative, transparent and responsive. When a committee is brought together to draft a plan, all constituencies need to be considered and represented—administrators, board of trustees, staff, faculty, students, alumni and even community members.
More importantly, when this group comes together to work, they all need to have equal say. A trustee or president serving on the committee, for example, should not be able to shut down discussion on a topic because of personal attitudes or feelings. All members should look to collaborate with one another and with the larger bodies they represent in their work. And, senior leadership should have the ability to honestly note early on concerns with possible implementation before the campus community becomes energized about an idea that likely will not come to fruition.
Beyond being inclusive and collaborative, the work of a well-designed strategic planning committee needs to be both responsive and transparent. To receive buy-in, be meaningfully implemented and truly succeed, a strategic plan needs to be built on the ideas of the entire campus community. As a result, town hall meetings, focus groups and surveys must be conducted to generate ideas. And, results should be shared throughout the plan’s development—but it should be recognized that responsiveness does not mean every idea will be enacted, or even considered. Instead, it means the committee should communicate reasons behind what is and isn’t being put into the strategic plan, so that all stakeholders have a transparent explanation and shared experience with the process.
Strategic planning has to confront budget realities and expectations; trade-offs will inevitably be made; and leadership transitions will cause wrinkles to emerge throughout—and all of this should occur in full view of the larger campus community. An intentional process focused on inclusivity, responsiveness and transparency ensures a strategic plan reflects both campus culture and the input of all constituents. Yet, if the completion of the plan is celebrated as an end as opposed to a beginning, potential progress will never be realized. It is essential that the conclusion of the written document be synonymous with the launch of its implementation.
Intentional planning processes, after all, lead to a campus that is informed about its direction, how it decided this was the appropriate direction, and how it can achieve its mission and reach its goals. With this level of transparency and shared understanding, a common desire for quick action can also develop. Unnecessary delays allow for a well-reasoned turn back to pessimism for some stakeholders. Months of collaboration and planning must result in more than a high-gloss marketing tool with little actual teeth on campus.
While strategic planning may be viewed by some stakeholders as irrelevant and disconnected from their day-to-day needs, meaningful to only an inner-core of administrators, and unlikely to do little more than collect dust on the shelf, this is a symptom of poor process and execution—not a meaningful attack against the potential benefits of good strategic planning.
After all, while even a worst-case scenario conversation during the strategic planning process won’t prepare a campus to potentially lose nearly half its budget two months before a semester begins, it can help prepare campuses for other unexpected shifts by creating a culture where all stakeholders feel informed and involved in setting a path forward.
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