Current Location: Your Visionary Destination Needs a Starting Point

We all know people who refuse to use a map. Their confidence in their sense of direction precludes their need for reference. In their minds, they’ll get there eventually—and the adventure of the journey is part of their fun. A few wrong turns don’t phase them. The strategy of “winging it” works pretty well when you have all the time in the world to arrive at your destination. Such is not the case right now for higher ed. We need maps and we need the shortest routes.

If you follow our writing, you know I’m fond of the Global Positioning System (GPS) as a metaphor for the process you need for reaching your ambitions coherently. Frankly, I’m pretty much in love with the name since it describes precisely what the process does: position you on a global map of your competitors. Your position is your starting point.

Maybe you’ve logged into the map on your phone or tried to search for dinner on your Yelp app. You’ve probably seen a message that includes the phrase, “current location.” The GPS has discovered your current location as the intersection of three satellites, and knowing that information, your map app can create a map to your destination/restaurant of choice. In order for the GPS to give you the information you want, it must begin with knowledge of where you are.

The same is true for institutions set on becoming something more/better than they perceive themselves. Dissatisfaction with “current location” or current positioning serves as motivation to move up the ladder in the minds of the market. Often, some type of unsettling such as low enrollment, poor giving, weak name recognition, or new administration triggers the need for a new strategic plan or vision to reignite the morale of the community sufficiently to motivate them toward constant improvement. These endeavors of strategic planning often are accompanied by launches of new logos or capital campaigns that are sometimes informed by the discovery in the planning process. Rarely do these efforts begin with assessment of “current location.”

Many times, when we begin our work with a client, we are introduced to a new strategic plan that serves as an action plan for the vision the board, officers, leaders and the community hold for the institution. Sometimes the strategic plan serves as the impetus for our being retained; often a visionary goal includes ramping up image or increasing enrollment and giving. We welcome these documents as they help us gain insight about our tasks of marketing. The strategic plan outlines how our clients intend to move forward in the course of a designated time period and describes the end goals or outcomes to be achieved and measured.

Vision serves as a beam of light guiding stakeholders toward a brighter future (or at least a sustainable one). Vision pulls everyone involved forward and keeps energy alive (without a vision people perish, correct?). In my career, I’ve had many opportunities to read vision statements and strategic plans. Some of them inspire and many do not. Some are clearly built on data, others fail to consider them. Some address attainable goals, others are only lofty dreams. Yet, very few are built upon the perspective of the current situation.

Strategic plans and vision statements serve as destinations—the place you want to get to. But in order to draw a path to your goals, you also need a starting point—the place you intend to leave. If you want to map your route, you need both a starting point and a destination.

Being very clear about your current market position, problems, challenges, opportunities and perceptions of your audiences is your starting point to help you draw a map to your dreams.

“I’m not sure where I am, but I know where I want to be.”

Merely describing your destination won’t get you there. Vision is awesome, but vision alone isn’t your ticket. When we’re planning vacations, I envision glorious experiences—tours, meals, sights, naps(!)—that we’ll enjoy. I can describe these in detail. But my ability to envision those experiences won’t get me there. I need to plan a way to get from our house to our vacation wonderland. I need to figure out the distance, the means of transportation, how long it will take, the best timing, the people I’ll need for assistance, how we’ll keep our energy up, any side trips—all of those details that make a vacation successful. I can’t just will myself to the vacation spot.

Without knowledge of where you are, you are lost. You cannot draw a map to your destination without knowing first your starting point. Even if your keen instincts help you sense the direction of your dream, you can easily get off course without solid strategy to arrive at your destination.

It’s not sufficient to simply ignore your current circumstances and try to move on. Just trying something new or different will not serve your purposes without clarity about what’s going on right now. Without analysis of your situation and an understanding of why you are where you are,you may attempt a new strategy that isn’t suited to solving your problems.

RHB’s proven strategy for identifying “current location” answers three critical questions:

  • What is true about us?
  • What do we say is true about us?
  • What do others believe to be true about us?

Taken together, the answers to these significant queries shed light on your current market position. With these data in hand, you’ll be able to articulate with confidence where you currently stand in the market. You may or may not be satisfied with what you find.

  • Of course, you can stay where you are right now without no change and determine if it’s viable to stay as you are for the longer term.
  • If you are satisfied with your current position, you may wish to set goals attached to strategies for constant improvement, identifying ways to get better at what you already do. You may undertake a visioning process to imagine an even more viable future. Remember that it’s possible to make changes and still not be viable. Vision wisely; discover what is viable and move in that direction.
  • If you are dissatisfied, you have opportunity to choose one of at least three paths to identify a picture of a better you.
  1. You may be doing all the right things, but your audiences don’t know about you. You likely need to fix your promotion problem.
  2. You may be doing all the wrong things, and you will need to make drastic change in order to find a place in the market. Failure to do so, is both irresponsible and life-threatening. You probably have a product problem compounded by price and place issues.
  3. You may be doing some things well, but the wrong things you are doing are impeding your potential to thrive. You may have one or more problems with product, price, place or promotion that must be identified and repaired in order to succeed.

From honesty with your starting point—your current location—you can begin to solve your problems and chart a direct route to your vision. Without being clear about where you are today, you won’t arrive where you wish to be tomorrow.

You don’t start at your destination, you arrive at your destination.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.