How to Diagnose and Soothe Strategic Planning Fears

The study of 108 strategic plans that my colleagues Drs. Aimee Hosemann and Rob Zinkan conducted this year couldn’t be more timely. Their review of plans from public and private colleges and universities representing all 50 states occurred during one of the most disruptive years in world history, and certainly one of the most pivotal years for higher education. Strategic planning likewise can be disruptive; in some ways, it is intended to be so. Strategic plans often change course for an institution in order to fulfill missions in the midst of changing markets, economies and societal norms.

Often, with change comes fear.

We were in a conversation this week with leaders from one of our university clients currently in the middle of introducing a new strategic plan to their internal constituents. As is often the case, the strategic plan included elements of change. As we read internal comments in reviews of the plan and interviewed community members, we could hear the fear. “This is really different.” “Who’s this for?’’ “Why do we need to change?” “This is going really fast. I can’t keep up.” “This doesn’t seem like us.” “We’re very traditional; this isn’t traditional at all.”

Change is unsettling, especially for an institution as a whole. And particularly for an educational institution where deep investigation, pursuit of the best right answer, thorough research, thoughtful consensus-building, and community engagement is of highest order. I began my career working on a college campus; I remember well the intensity of faculty gatherings, community-wide meetings and fair representation on all committees (generally, all of these happening in a single physical space). It was like a giant ship on which all the crew and passengers moved slowly together at the behest of a captain and a cruise director who made certain everyone felt safe and informed. I’m describing life on campus more than 40 years ago. That was then…

Why change is scary

I was reminded this week of Buckminster Fuller’s theory ( Critical Path, 1981 ) that the doubling of knowledge accelerates with increasing speed. He suggested that at the turn of the 20th century, knowledge had doubled approximately every 100 years. By the mid-twentieth century, knowledge doubled every 25 years. Today, I am told, we double the world’s knowledge every 13 hours. The speed of knowledge creation overwhelms. Relatedly, Moore’s Law, suggested by the founder of Intel more than 50 years ago, predicted that the size of a microchip would increasingly shrink given that the number of transistors that could fit on one would double every two years, meaning more data in smaller space. Now, cloud computing has all but negated Moore’s Law. So technology—particularly the internet—accelerates our access to the knowledge that is being created exponentially by the minute. The speed at which knowledge expands and, accordingly, the technological capacity to contain it, should offer some insight about how the campus environment of the ’70s and ’80s is completely out of sync with contemporary systems. At the current pace of change, it’s no wonder that many campus community members (many of whom were getting their start and shaping their expectations about work in the ’70s and ’80s) run scared of the strategies they see in planning documents. These new strategies do not seem familiar. Or comfortable.

Back when everyone could meet in a room to hear from the president or dean about new initiatives or perhaps even vote to approve them, the perception of engagement was entirely different than today. Community meant something different than it does today. Community meant you were in close proximity and relationship with others on campus. You shared coffee breaks and meals. You exchanged ideas, news and gossip when you met. You were, for the most part, in the know. On many campuses, you could see what was going on.

Most campuses, even small residential colleges, no longer reflect that picture. Schedules have swelled in ways that reduce casual engagement. The advent of new technologies from email to video chats nearly eliminate group gatherings. Remote learning has reshaped the sense of community. The pandemic has only elevated our dependence on technology to sustain what we understand by the words classroom or campus. We behave far more asynchronously than ever before mostly due to the independence afforded by technology.

At the same time, economic and societal climate changes have further altered our perceptions of the university experience. Once reserved for the wealthy, a college education, particularly in the liberal arts, adhered little consideration to accessibility. Today, institutions invest heavily to attract and retain diverse student populations given greater awareness of the power of education to transform people, societies and cultures. Those investments reflect a shift to meet market expectations regarding outcomes of higher education—that is, whether a college degree will, in fact, yield a better opportunity for self-support. And while faculty and staff members on campuses give priority to transformation, most students and parents come to college with a transaction mindset. They come with the intention of earning (buying) a diploma that will lead to a good job. In an attempt to achieve their missions, colleges and universities must attend to the interests of their constituents (students and parents). And unless the needs of these constituents are met, campuses will have no students to serve.

As those efforts find expression in initiatives found in strategic plans, many internal audiences respond with fear that what was once familiar is forever changed. They wonder how (or if) they can adapt to new circumstances. As programs are phased out and beloved peers are no longer part of the community, they question if they’ll be next. Without regular in-person exchanges, they’re uncertain about their place in the community. They no longer know most everything that’s going on. Worse, change occurs without their voice or vote. They feel left out or that they’ll be left behind—and that can be terrifying.

Even though they might like the ideas presented in the strategic plan, they cannot bring themselves to a place of consent because the new ideas displace what is familiar.

The double whammy of mindset shift

If you haven’t noticed the shift in strategies being implemented by campuses to become more entrepreneurial, you’ve been taking a nap of Van Winkle proportions. The past 18 months have only accelerated the willingness of campus leaders to consider alternatives to their offerings, systems and methods. As online learning moves to the fore, even the holdouts to that technology have been cornered to adopt distance learning via technology this year. And the word on the street is that no one plans to go back to the way things were before the pandemic. Clearly online learning, while still seen as a stop-gap measure for many institutions, has also uncovered some advantages. Add to that the experimentation with MOOCs and non-degree credentialing programs that have made their way into curricula delivery of most colleges and universities. Stop for a minute to bring to your mind institutions who are leading the way in these arenas. You can name dozens. I’m guessing you included Southern New Hampshire; SNHU comes to students in their own bus.

Likewise, the constant conversation about the increasing shifts in shared governance strongholds demonstrates new interest in administration that is more nimble, less encumbered and more market-influenced. Further, the expanding presence of for-profit enterprises partnering with non-profit institutions opens even more windows and doors to entrepreneurial behaviors. Think Purdue’s partnership with Kaplan; Noodle and Tulane, or Salesforce and University of San Francisco. These entrepreneurial behaviors are de rigueur. In fact, it’s difficult to name a major corporation or university without some crossover partnership in place.

Still, while we were speaking with representative members of the community at the client I mentioned at the start, we heard concern about the focus on experiential learning and engaging with organizations outside the academy to generate new resources.

Here’s the thing about an entrepreneurial mindset: for non-entrepreneurs it is scary. Entrepreneurs are weird in so many ways (I am at liberty to say this with confidence.) They have a different time track; it’s not measured in hours or days. They welcome risk. They’re okay with failure. They have little fear of experimenting. They measure success in a big-picture way. They balance many endeavors simultaneously. They move quickly (and often, are onto the next thing before the first thing gets started). They connect dots quickly to see possibilities and seem to have a sixth sense about opportunity. Dan Sullivan, who has studied and coached thousands of entrepreneurs worldwide suggests: “Entrepreneurs are risk-takers and the creators of things that are valuable to other people—an essential role for the growth of society.” Entrepreneurs are constantly on the lookout for ways to meet the needs of those around them. They see vacancies in products and services that people need and they find creative ways to fill them.

Read that list again; it doesn’t sound like most colleges and universities you know. I described higher ed as a big ship earlier; it moves more slowly, deliberately and with clear direction. It’s calculated in its travel, based on careful measurement. You can quickly see how adopting an entrepreneurial mindset for the campus can be unnerving for the community. It feels antithetical to long-held practices (note: practices, not mission, not values).

Back to your roots

When you think about it, however, the founders of your college were entrepreneurs. They saw a need and envisioned a solution. They took the risk of investment not knowing for certain it would succeed. Whether you were founded to replenish the market demand for preachers or teachers, or were established to prepare tradespeople, or ensure access to education for specific groups—often religious—or locales, your early leaders stepped out with courage to start something new. In truth, there’s no college or university around today that doesn’t have some measure of entrepreneurialism in their DNA.

Consider the way academic programs have evolved. While early institutions may have focused on what we like to call the liberal arts, most have added a plethora of programs to equip professionals. Harvard, the bastion of American higher ed, though founded to prepare learned preachers, is far better known today for churning out lawyers and business leaders.

Still, Harvard has a mission: The mission of Harvard College is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society. We do this through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education. My guess is that their mission has been in place for a very long time. Even so, they make investments (to the degree they are highly criticized for their business acumen and enormous investment portfolio) in all types of endeavors in order to achieve their mission.

Look at your history and you’re likely to find all manner of examples where faculty and campus leaders thought out of the box to create new revenue streams to sustain your important mission. Service learning, study abroad, financial aid leveraging, guaranteed internships, student life programs and services, residential benefits—climbing walls!—all with the intention of securing the necessary resources to fulfill your mission. Even when those investments seemed uncorrelated to the mission, the ambition, in most cases, was to sustainably resource the university.

Let’s be honest; some folks on your campus don’t buy into those investments. They would prefer budgets be assigned differently. Their taste for climbing walls over new lab equipment may be at odds with budget-empowered colleagues. They’re unimpressed with unproven entrepreneurial investments. And their negative response to your strategic plans may harbor anger about your value judgment over theirs. Still, even that anger may stem from fear of losing ground or, worse, failure.

Looking fear in the eye

I’m writing this during the Tokyo Olympics. I’m completely fascinated with the courage required to attempt the feats those athletes achieve. When athletes step up on the starting block, or walk up to the plate, or wait for the starting gun, you can see the determination in their eyes. They’re ready. They’re confident. But as I’ve watched interviews, I’ve heard the athletes express their fears of the competition. With all that confidence, there’s still fear.

Overcoming fear to the degree it’s not self-defeating is critical to Olympic success; overcoming fear means giving everything you’ve got, using every capacity you’ve trained for. As we’ve heard athletes like Michael Phelps and Simone Biles testify of the mental stress that accompanies the intensity of the competition, we’ve been reminded of the critical importance of coaches, families, teammates and friends to help athletes confront the fear of failure and the stress it creates.

Your campus community is no different. For the most part, everyone wants to succeed. And they may feel equipped to deliver on the mission. In challenging times, however, they need colleagues to offer genuine reassurance. When faculty, staff or students feel threatened by change, they need to be reminded that they’re part of a community that has a history of adaptation to cultural, societal, economic, political and market shifts. Count the number of programs you have added since your founding as but one example. At the same time, it’s likely your college has invested in a startup program that didn’t fly. In our client portfolio, we can point to many examples of well-considered programs that didn’t survive past a couple of years for any number of reasons (some not so good). In addition, most campuses have experienced drastic personnel shifts due to the same external forces. Colleagues have seen their best friends displaced by early retirement offers or elimination of programs due to shifts in market demand. Change is scary business and those who aren’t calling the shots can’t help feeling as though they or their program will be next in line.

What you can do

Address the fear and be transparent about your plans. Communicate clearly, thoughtfully and often. Repeat yourself. Simplify. If you’re an entrepreneurial leader, be careful not to drag your team into the weeds with you. Cast vision but offer more specifics than you require of yourself. Focus on the big goal, i.e., achieving the mission.

Host a virtual conference. Ask questions that allow your team(s) to reflect on the big picture. Give time for questions and answer them with clarity but not burdensome details. Create a regular podcast or newsletter. Record a video of your current ideas and directions. The point is, communicate. Let everyone in on your thinking. As an entrepreneurial leader, face the reality that you are an oddball. Build trust by opening yourself to questions and criticism.

Reach out to others genuinely. Don’t ask if you don’t care, but choose to care. As you make choices that affect other humans, remember the power you hold to do good.

Believe in the capacity of your colleagues to enliven your ideas and bring them to fruition. It’s likely you don’t have all the details worked out in your head. Find trusted implementers who will give roots to your wings. Offer encouragement and the support they need to make your ideas real.

If you are not addressing all the concerns of your constituents immediately, explain your prioritization process. Be sure to reflect that you have heard the interests and needs of your community and project a timeline for addressing or fixing problems that are voiced, especially if there will be delays.

As the leader, you can compartmentalize all those ideas and possibilities floating inside your mind. No one else can see what you are thinking; your ability to convey your perspectives will help provide assurance and confidence as you lead others through the process of change. You don’t need to—and shouldn’t—spill everything going on up there but bring some order to your thinking and share that openly with your colleagues. Your wisdom and thoughtful transparency will be the balm that soothes your campus’s fears and allows it to move forward as the unified body it needs to be.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.