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From Plan to Action

Even the best laid strategic plans can go awry. Here, from the trenches, some sound advice about how to turn the vision into reality.
University Business, Jul 2004

University of California at Santa Cruz Chancellor Martin Chemers speaks frankly about the strategic plan that didn't happen. Right up until last fall, says Chemers, he and a crew of his vice chancellors were embroiled in the formulation of a major strategic plan that they had already spent two years developing. Then, in November, the school received word that incoming governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would be slashing funding to the University of California system in an attempt to defray the state's $28 billion debt. Where Chemers and his team thought they were on the brink of realizing long-range goals that had been painstakingly plotted, they suddenly found themselves in crisis mode. Chemers admits that the first casualty of battle turned out to be the school's incipient strategic plan.

Today, as the planning document sits on a shelf behind his desk, the chancellor notes that he's busy merging 23 different campus business centers into one--a Herculean task even with the most dazzling of strategic plans in tow. And he's attacking the challenge on the fly. Strategy, as he puts it, "has been thrown out the window," in favor of survival.

Of course, the sudden yanking of funds by budget-slashing political newcomers is not the only ill that can befall a well-intended strategic planning process. Sometimes, the process hums along quite nicely for years, only to be permanently stalled by lack of an action plan, faculty pushback, or other gremlins. At Ithaca College (NY), Shelley Semmler, VP for Institutional Advancement, admits that after a perfectly satisfactory and productive strategic planning process, she and her colleagues initially struggled with how to use the plan, noting they had trouble incorporating it into everyday decisions. And at Wesleyan University (CT), Vice President Peter Patton reveals that his challenge turned out to be changing the culture among administrators and getting them to accept a new approach to just about every aspect of campus life. Even at Purdue University (IN), Director of Strategic Planning and Assessment Rabindra Mukerjea admits to "strategic disconnects"--instances in which reality simply fell short of the goals laid out in the school's strategic plan.

Certainly, laying out goals is the first order of any solid strategic plan. And unless that initial task is handled well, administrators can run into no end of roadblocks later. Some schools aim for realistic goals from the get-go; others look outside the box and then seek ways to make dreams reality.

First, think big. At Wartburg College (IA), for instance, President Jack Ohle says the only things that had hindered planning at his institution were the limits of imagination. So, after previous planning experiences left him frustrated by stakeholder shortsightedness, Ohle told committee members that they were "not permitted" to discuss whether their recommendations were financially feasible. In this way, says Ohle, he could motivate committee members to "think big," and eliminate the caps on their imaginations. The no-holds-barred approach is a central tenet of constituent-based planning, says Ohle--a process in which the needs and desires of all constituents are stirred into the pot before a planning document can emerge. That kind of up-front planning can not only forestall problems down the road, he maintains, it can mean the difference between a good strategic plan and a great one.

Connect the dots. At Wesleyan University, the goal was not just to think out of the box, but to effectively connect any number of plan components and then secure faculty and staff buy-in to ensure that overarching goals were met. When Doug Bennett came on board as president in 1995, he assessed the university's larger challenges and then encouraged officials to investigate how Wesleyan matched up against other liberal arts institutions of similar size. School officials soon discovered that Wesleyan was losing top-quality students to competitors. With Patton's help, Bennett devised a multi-pronged strategy that would incorporate internal benchmarking to improve student services, revamp financial assistance packages to include more grants and fewer loans, and move student-to-faculty ratios to 9-to-1 from almost double that ratio. The strategic planning team then spent almost 18 months rounding up faculty support. In 1997, a scant two years after planning lift-off, school officials presented board members with the "Strategy for Wesleyan," a document that incorporated all of the measures into an overarching, seven-year plan. According to Patton, the plan ( has changed everything, and much of the success was due to the careful integration of the plan's many facets, and the scrupulous up-front analysis of overarching goals.

"It's safe to say that this school has come of age largely because of the measures we proposed as critical to our strategic development," says Patton. "I'm not so sure Wesleyan would be what it is today without sitting down and asking ourselves where we wanted to be at this point."

According to Semmler, Ithaca's process was similar and focused on the unification of myriad priorities. There, strategic planning began with the arrival of President Peggy Williams in 1998. In researching a "unified vision" for the future, Semmler says she and Williams put together a committee of 24 faculty members, staffers, and students, and convened the group monthly to discuss goals. The committee settled on nine basic priorities ranging from academic programs and experiential learning to resource development. Committee members then recruited additional stakeholders to help flesh out suggestions for each of the individual areas. Finally, near the end of the 2001 school year, an institutional plan ( was born.

More meetings, more movement. At Purdue, administrators needed to assess goals and move the strategic planning process forward even more quickly than at Wesleyan and Ithaca. Desperate for the kind of formalized strategic vision they had not had before, in early 2001 school officials recruited Rabindra Mukerjea (a professionally trained architect and Iowa State University professor of architecture) as director of Strategic Planning and Assessment. Mukerjea, a strategic planning wiz who had been involved with strategic planning procedures at a number of higher learning institutions, arrived in March of that year, and almost immediately convened a 28-member committee consisting of academics, school officials, and students to discuss the future. Instead of meeting quarterly or even monthly, the committee met once a week, every week, from March to October, vetting the document until they compiled a draft for presidential approval. The draft, a bold, 10-page manifesto titled "The Next Level: Preeminence," received formal approval in November, less than nine months after Mukerjea was hired. Among other things, the plan detailed goals for aggressive fundraising, physical expansion, and dramatically improved student-teacher ratios. Save for minor tweaks here and there, Mukerjea says that the plan ( has gone relatively unchanged since then, and it has been actionable.

"Typically these processes take at least two years," he says. "But here at Purdue, we wanted a crisp, succinct document that linked the big picture to action. We wanted it quickly, and those were the goals that drove us throughout the entire process."

To make sure the university continues to move the plan components into action, Purdue officials deliver an annual Strategic Planning Progress Report utilizing three types of metrics to gauge just how well the institution is meeting its goals. If the school is meeting expectations, the plan moves forward as is. If the institution is falling short on its goals, something is immediately changed--either the practice or the plan itself, says Mukerjea.

Though some schools seek to incorporate strategic thinking into more conventional growth plans, again, many seemingly disparate elements must converge to make the growth a reality. As it does for so many higher ed institutions, at Christopher Newport University (VA), strategic planning dovetailed with a sizable ($250 million) capital construction effort to overhaul the physical campus. And as it is for so many colleges and universities, this kind of plan is no short-term affair; for Christopher Newport it began back in 1996. At that time, President Paul Trible kicked off the effort as a drive to make the school "one of America's preeminent public liberal arts universities." Though his mantra was broad, Trible focused on issues such as freshman retention and improved internal standards to raise SAT averages by an ambitious 200 points. An international design firm (Arlington-based Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall; was brought in to make major upgrades to the tiny, 10-acre campus and redesign various components of the school's exterior. Renowned architect I.M. Pei was commissioned to design a $54 million center for the arts. Dormitories were redesigned and the school's perimeter was extended, pushing campus right up to the side of a major thoroughfare so that passersby could see that Christopher Newport was on the move. The plan, says Trible, made a "world of difference" in establishing credibility in the community, and the school is slowly but surely attracting students with better SAT scores, and climbing up the ranking charts. "Everything we did was connected [to our vision for preeminence]," he says.

In 2002, officials at Middlebury College (VT), also embarked on a more conventional long-range strategic planning process, but the college's goals are not conventional at all. There, biology professor and strategic planning consultant Robert O'Hara reveals that the institution recently set out to reorganize administrative leadership into a five-school residential college system. Physical decentralization of the campus is following a strategic decision to decentralize leadership, as well. As part of the plan, Middlebury is building five new quads--one for each of the residential colleges. The campus philosophy that "efficiency comes in many different forms," and that the traditional design of a college campus isn't always the best one, is moving the strategic change forward, says O'Hara.

Still, the Middlebury plan will only be as successful as it is actionable. "I've been around long enough to know that strategic plans do not exist in a vacuum," O'Hara says. "Unless we have a sense of what the outcomes are, we have no way of knowing whether our plan is working or not."

Matt Villano is a freelance writer based in Moss Beach, CA.

Phyllis Grummon, Director of Planning and Education, Society of College and University Planning ( Ann Arbor, MI

"I don't encourage people to have a plan in a notebook that everyone is supposed to go back and consult. Instead, I encourage them to think strategically and ask a lot of questions: What is your strategic vision? What are the different situations in which you want to carry out that vision? What do you think about the way your vision appears in those different scenarios? If you're involved with strategic planning today, these are the questions you should be asking yourself, if you want to devise a plan that works.

"Get the message to
the ears of those who
will spread it."

"I also find it helpful to introduce concepts around change management. If you're thinking about strategic planning, you're thinking about changing the campus in some way. What are the conversations you need to have in order to create the change you want? Which are the social networks influential in bringing about change? Which nodes of communication on campus will help you broadcast your message? Make sure the message gets to the ears of the people who will spread it. Then, like any good marketing effort, through repetition, repetition, and more repetition, people who hear your message will begin to own it and act on it.

"Finally, strategic planning is as much politics as it is planning. Politics means people. You want input from as many stakeholders as you can muster, but any time you start this process, it's helpful to lay out for everyone what their input parameters are. Some decisions the president and provost will make independent of everyone else. Other decisions will incorporate everyone, and as long as you make that clear, everyone will feel involved and there won't be any surprises along the way."

Anthony Knerr, Managing Director, Anthony Knerr & Associates, consultants ( New York City

"As I see it, it's critically important to draw distinctions among strategic thinking, strategic planning, and the strategic plan. Thinking is what leadership should be doing all the time, looking out on the horizon. I believe institutions should have a big, bold aspiration. My experience is that the institutions that are thinking big are the ones that also think on a day-to-day basis about how to achieve that. Planning is something schools should be doing with some regularity but not on a rote basis. It may yield a document, or it may not, but it's taking the strategic thinking down through a three- or five-year period. Last, comes the plan--a good thing to have, but not always necessary. As you can see, for me, the proof is in the process.

"Planning is a dynamic,
organic art form."

"Then too, institutions need to have a long enough planning horizon. School officials need to ask themselves, 'What do we do now to get us where we want to be in 2009 or 2024?' Another big problem: the belief that there is one standard way of doing strategic planning. That's a total misconception. I don't believe in a planning machine that spits out a plan after you turn the crank four times. Planning is a dynamic, organic art form. For a planning process to be effective and successful, it has to take into account the culture and personality of an institution. Inherently, that means every planning effort will be different. I can't tell you what your plan will be, but I can tell you that it won't be like anybody else's. If it is, the bottom line is that you've done something wrong."

Rolf Wegenke, President, Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities ( Madison, WI

"Although strategic planning has to be visionary and needs to accommodate change, nobody can make all of the changes all at once. Incremental change is key. Here, we don't try and leap tall buildings in a single bound. We take baby steps. And it works. Incremental change over time can be radical --it's all in the way you approach it.

"Incremental change
over time
can be radical."

"Incrementalism also means that we take the time to solicit feedback from as many of our stakeholders as possible. Case in point: our recent planning process around selecting a common administrative system for our member schools. At one point, we had 54,000 inputs into the decision on the common administrative system. Then we decided we didn't have enough, so we went back for more. That kind of inclusiveness might be construed by some as glacially slow, but as we see it, you can never take too much time to get a decision right. Beside, we're in the education business, and people become educated by participating and doing.

"Of course, throughout this process it's important to communicate a clear and consistent message, and keep all of the stakeholders informed of what's happening while we're taking small steps. If you keep them informed, they'll want to participate time and time again, and participation fires the imagination. Imagination, of course, leads to great ideas, which is what drives planning in the first place."

Rod Rose, Vice President, STRATUS, a division of the JCM Group ( Los Angeles, CA

"I like to consider strategic planning as a bit of a science. It's talked about as a big, formal process, but really, it's nothing more than a scientific method of understanding the environment a school is in and planning for the future. To understand the environment, I apply S.W.O.T. analysis: I look at the school's strengths (S), its weaknesses (W), its opportunities (O), and its threats (T). You can't answer any questions about the future unless you've charted these four categories first.

"Planning can't be
looked at as an
episodic process."

"After this, of course, central to the strategic planning process is the mission statement. Here, schools need to ask themselves what situation they're in, what is unique about what they do, and what they are capable of. In a consensus-based environment, you're bound to get enough out of questions like these to evoke a clear-cut mission. In the end, though, you should have enough raw data to put together something useful.

"With this data, the final step is management. Managers and university officials must come together regularly and apply the mission statement they create to everything the university hopes to do. Too often, schools go through the effort of putting together a strategic plan, and then they go back to their jobs. Once a school establishes a plan, that plan should be constantly revisited and applied to every decision that's made.

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