Setting aside uncertainty in strategic planning

Uncertainty. It describes not only the economic reality that higher education institutions are facing, but also an emotion generated by that reality ― one that often prompts leaders to resort to short-term plans instead of minding important long-term strategies.    
setting aside uncertainty in strategic planning
Those leaders who do take a longer-term perspective and seek to truly plan often ponder questions such as these: What impact will current economic and demographic changes have on the next few years’ enrollment? What will the business climate be like in three years, and how can we begin now to position our fundraising efforts? In formulating a successful strategic plan, leaders must also realize that an analysis of external factors is just one component. At least as valuable are comprehensive internal and competitive assessments, perspectives on potential outcomes, and the ability to adapt to change.

All of these components require flexibility and a keen eye on trends. Until recently, boards and executive management did well to rely on long-standing strategic planning techniques, but in a dynamic environment giving rise to serious revenue challenges, these techniques need to evolve.

Consider these emerging approaches during the design, implementation and execution of your institution’s strategic plan:

1.    Holistically assess the state of the internal and external environment.Institutions of all kinds have a tendency to focus on immediate operational challenges, primarily during the assessment phase of a strategic plan. In recent times, this has led to prioritization of enrollment management or other factors that can affect revenue generation. These factors certainly should not be ignored and do carry significant weight, but they can also encourage a short-term focus. It is critical to take into account other important aspects, including leadership competencies, competition for personnel, cost structures, program development, technology capabilities, risk profile, mission and culture.

2.    Contemplate potential changes to the initial assessment.The higher education sector no longer operates in a static environment. By the time an institution understands and documents the current state, the environment most likely has changed. It is difficult to prognosticate, but a thorough process needs to postulate a variety of outcomes or scenarios to stay nimble during the implementation phase. Often, bringing external perspectives from peer institutions or outside experts is helpful in providing a well-rounded viewpoint of the future of the sector.

3.    Be wary of consensus during strategy formulation.Human nature is such that it is easy to adopt insular thinking. When individuals share similar experiences within the organization, discussions and decision-making can become groupthink, resulting in a more-of-the-same view of the appropriate way to progress. This can lead to a narrowly focused strategic plan and a limited ability to identify when course corrections are needed. To avoid this, welcome into the planning committee a variety of individuals with differing functional responsibilities and perspectives. Make sure to have the input of opinions contrary to the norm.

4.    Link your strategic plan to your operational and tactical plans.An institution has plans that are much less encompassing than the strategic plan. They include annual academic, enrollment, campus master, budget, IT and institutional advancement plans, to name a few. Often, day-to-day activities in support of these annual operating plans take place independently of strategic priorities. Either these activities are in accord as contemplated with early strategic planning formulation, but as time goes on, they drifted from the original intent, or they are reactively executed in response to nonstrategic priorities. To ensure that resources are expended on strategic imperatives, periodically evaluate operational plans to ensure that they are fully aligned with the strategic plan.

5.    Keep in mind that executing the plan is not linear.Agility in execution and monitoring is as important as the actual plan. Development of a strategic plan is time-consuming — one of the main sources of failure is the “collective sigh of relief” that sometimes occurs after the initial plan is developed. Too often the plan is developed, put on a shelf and not revisited for the duration of its time horizon. Periodic monitoring of the environment (and your plan) helps to determine when changes to strategic priorities and goals need to take place. In light of the current dynamic environment in which colleges and universities now operate, this monitoring is critical as significant changes in the level or use of resources or changes in strategic/programmatic direction may be needed in the strategic plan. Consider forming a strategy analysis response team to both monitor the strategy and lead the charge for identifying when modifications need to be addressed.

Strategic planning has always been a vital component to the long-term institutional success. Given the broader context of change in the higher education competitive landscape, a realistic, flexibly designed, closely monitored strategic plan has become fundamental to ensuring financial sustainability and success.

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The State of Higher Education in 2016