Keeping Your Division’s Strategic
Priorities Current

Picture this scenario. Your institution undertook a lengthy and arduous strategic planning effort, to which your division responded with an operational plan, identifying a list of core initiatives intended to help meet the institution's strategic goals.

It is now two years later. Your division's operational plan or action plan sits on a shelf (whether physical or digital). Some of the initiatives were pursued and met with varying success; some were not. Few attempts are made to refer back to that operational plan for your division -- not because the initiatives outlined in it were ill-considered but because the environment and your awareness of what is on the horizon for higher education and for your institution has changed. Much of what was proposed in the plan is no longer relevant to the demands under which you work and the opportunities that are most critical to address.

This is a fairly common scenario, and a symptom of an episodic, reactive approach to planning, in which identifying and resourcing strategic priorities for the division is treated as a completed process once there is a documented plan. Five years later, the process has to be repeated again in order to arrive at a substantially different plan. That is a reality at many institutions, but it is also an inefficient approach that prevents a division from reacting with speed and agility to rapid changes in student demographics, federal and state funding, the regulatory environment, trends in philanthropy, and expectations around the design and delivery of courses -- to name just a few conditions that can impact your institution's ability to stay current and competitive.

But what if the plan were a living document, and the process was ongoing and proactive? What would this look like?

We spoke this week with Pat Sanaghan, president of The Sanaghan Group and author of Collaborative Strategic Planning in Higher Education (NACUBO, 2009), to explore specific steps for achieving just that. Here is what Sanaghan proposes.

Making the Annual Report More Than Just a Report

Sanaghan recommends a commitment from the head of the division to report progress on strategic initiatives on an annual basis, transparently and with full disclosure, whether the year saw substantive progress or not. But this touchpoint needs to more than just reporting; it needs to be treated as an opportunity to reassess the initiatives your division has committed to and ensure that they are still the most relevant and highest-priority efforts to undertake. "Make sure that instead of just reporting," Sanaghan remarks, "you are asking your staff and your constituents what needs to change, given our changing environment. This invites deep ownership in the planning process -- and in the future of your institution."

One way to invite this dialogue, Sanaghan suggests, is to convene a group of "informal leaders" -- meaning staff within your division who have a lot of credibility among their peers, have demonstrated a forward-thinking mindset, and actively have their ears to the ground. "Convene this group for an hour or for an hour and a half," Sanaghan advises, "and let them know that you value their input and that you want their help in living the plan out."

Ask them:

  • How do staff across the division feel about the division's action plan and how it's working?
  • What successes have they seen in implementing the initiatives outlined in the plan?
  • What problems have they seen in implementing those initiatives?
  • What resources/support do they think is needed in implementing the plan? What do we need to do to make the plan successful?
  • What do we need to stop doing in order to make the plan successful? (For example, did we commit to too many initiatives, and do we now need to trim back to see success in the most critical efforts, rather than overcommitting and seeing only limited success?)
  • What has changed in our environment since committing to this plan, and what do we need to pay fresh attention to?

Rather than simply posting a progress report to an institutional Web portal, this approach invites your division to wrestle with the real issues of implementation and to step back and check on the relevance and timeliness of your efforts.

Communicating Between Annual Reports

"Create the opportunities for people to get together and discuss the future, or it won't happen."
Pat Sanaghan, The Sanaghan Group

In order to make the most of an annual reassessment of your division's priorities and initiatives, you need to encourage and provide opportunities for horizon thinking throughout the year, and at all levels of your division -- not just among its leadership. After all, front-line staff, who are "closer to the ground," may be more aware of some changing trends, and it's critical to both invite their input and set aside time for dialogue about what the changes they notice mean for the work of the division.

Sanaghan recommends informal meetings on at least a quarterly basis. Referring to these interactions as "chews and chats," Sanaghan recommends inviting staff to hold discussions over lunch, addressing the same questions that would be addressed in a larger setting after reviewing the annual report. These chats can be conducted at the division level or even at the departmental level -- the point is to encourage and set the expectation for regularly stepping back from daily activities to look together at the big picture and at the horizon.

The staff are likelier to commit to and invest in these ongoing conversations if they see that the division's leadership is invested in (and modeling) this dialogue.

"Everyone needs to know that the operational plan is discussed on a monthly basis by the division's leadership, and the institution's strategic plan is discussed on a monthly basis at the cabinet level. You do that, and in a year you will shift your planning process from a reactive to a proactive footing."
Pat Sanaghan, The Sanaghan Group