The Joys of Strategic Planning (Yes, We Mean ‘Joy’)

If we told you that there are plenty of reasons to feel quite positively about higher education strategic planning, you might not believe us. And, yet, it’s the truth.

Maybe it wouldn’t even cross your mind to wonder if it could be a positive experience beyond something to grit your way through every time there’s a presidential transition. Maybe you’re not even completely sure what a strategic plan should entail, no matter how many times you have been through the process of contributing to one.

We see a lot of strategic plans in the course of our work. For instance, when we develop, design and execute a communications plan, we draw on themes and goals in an institution’s strategic plan to generate text and images to invigorate those aspirations. Requests for proposals are littered with references to strategic plans. 

Through our executive counsel and organizational  assessment services, we often serve the role of truth-discoverers and truth tellers. Some truths we tell clients may include how their organizational structures block their progress on strategic efforts, or that there are different strategic efforts that are better fit for their current structure.

Last year, a thought struck RHB Vice President for Marketing Leadership Rob Zinkan: these plans are everywhere. Every institution probably has one stashed on its website somewhere, possibly behind a credentialing system so it’s out of sight. But it’s there. This plan is in some regards a magical document that is supposed to conjure…results. Stuff. Things. Enrollment. Donations. All supposed to burble out of an ether of abundance and effort.

Does anything burble out? Which leads to an even more basic question: what is it?

To find out what it is, Rob, Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy graduate student Connor LaGrange and I undertook a comprehensive study of 108 strategic plans (reading every word). We wanted to answer two important questions: What are strategic plans for? Who are they for? 

In our study, we examined plans produced by private and public institutions representing nearly all 50 states in the USA. We studied the strategic planning literature to learn the difference between strategy and tactics. We compared their timelines, goals and titles, the creation processes detailed within them and the KPIs that would measure their completion. 

This genre of document which seems to direct priorities, money, attention, discourse and ever-so-much more is both an expected product and director of higher ed administration and leadership activities. And yet, there is tremendous variation in whether these plans even contain strategies, which are changes in behavior and involve making choices that others are not.

In answer to our questions, we are getting ready to launch an executive summary of the study written for broader audiences and a longer, more-detailed full report to assist presidents and chancellors, executive cabinets and others who are about to be or are in the thick of the strategic planning process. We couldn’t wait, though, to tell you about the best and most serendipitous result of our efforts—finding new reasons to be excited about strategic plans and about higher ed in general. 

We’ve been doing the same things everyone else as right now: we’re remembering the moments we lurched up that first hill on the COVID-19 rollercoaster and hurtled off down a track whose terminus always eluded us. We’ve been happy to learn that for some institutions, their strategic plans laid the tracks for a gentler journey through the crisis. There is much to learn from these plans, and also joy to be taken in the fact that plans can indeed live up to their potential.

Think about the plans you’ve read or even written. In how many of those plans are there really prompts toward changed behavior? How many efforts and goals are common across institutions? What seems true is that many plans are operational in nature. That means they are guides to doing more of the same—but enhanced! Plans also urge doing things that everyone wants to do and which seem to rely on deploying the same tactics to achieve, like conjuring increased enrollment.

It’s easy to be cynical about a process that might seem to be largely the same everywhere and of suspect utility.

But now: the positivity part.

Our research introduced us to 16 plans which seemed the most strategic, including, but not limited to, these characteristics:

  • As part of an inclusive, transparent process, plans contained a description of a process of brutally honest self-examination and a genuine desire to engage challenges.
  • There was an intent to involve marketing and communications functions early in the process as fundamental agents in creating stakeholder engagement.
  • The plans envisioned a detailed and holistic perspective toward diversity, equity,  inclusion and belonging goals and metrics. 
  • Roles for accountability and process management were assigned, often as job duties for a cabinet-level staff member charged with oversight of the execution of the plan.
  • The plans took an audience-centric perspective: audiences for the plan were defined early in the process, and the plans were written to be both pleasant to read and practically useful.
  • Leaders led in the way that was most authentic to them, with the discernment to assess when to be visible in the process and when not to.
  • Student success and wellbeing was as fundamental an aspect of the plans as the institution’s.

Now, about that whole COVID-19 aspect. We all know on some level that whatever shape the unknowable future is to take depends on the possibilities we create today. It would be entirely reasonable to assume that as the novel coronavirus threw everything into disarray, that everything includes your strategic plan and everything you hoped for the future. 

One of our interviewees noted that crises like this don’t reveal new problems. They reveal the truth about the problems that already exist, the ones we should have been aware of already. Well-designed strategic plans excelled in pointing toward solutions to problems highlighted by the pandemic. The initiatives in those plans included creating more inclusive and equitable access to higher ed like revamped curricula, increased stable wireless internet access and innovative student success and wellness services. These went a long way toward filling the needs of students that were made more visible during the pandemic and contributed to a sense of stability and shared station across the institution. 

For us, our ultimate lesson is that there are perhaps-overlooked sources of positivity to be found—through strategic planning, no less. When we undertook this research, we were not expecting to come out the other side feeling so inspired about the potential waiting to be made reality through the strategic planning process. That’s the serendipity of qualitative research for you. We are looking forward to launching our aforementioned executive summary and book-length treatment in the next couple months. We are also excited to spend more time in conversation with our clients about how to set a strategic path forward in their marketing, communications and executive leadership efforts. We are a quick message away when you want to talk more about what we’ve learned, what we can help you discover about yourself and where you can go from here.

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Aimee Hosemann

Aimee is a Writer at RHB.