Strategies to Ensure Implementation

In This Issue

Beginnings are critical, and operational plans often lose momentum in their first year of implementation. This "first-year dilemma" emerges when expectations around timeline and phasing haven't been right-sized.

Consider these two scenarios:

  • The student affairs division at Institution A has over-committed its staff and its limited resources, committing to too many action steps in the first year. In a surge of enthusiasm for moving the division into the future, the champions of the action plan have committed to do 80 percent of the work in the first year. The teams involved are stretched too thin and are losing momentum.
  • The college of education at Institution B has the opposite problem: it's become bogged down in the research and data gathering, and is seeing few tangible results in the first year. The college is still "planning to plan."

Let's look at both what could have been done at the outset to avoid these two scenarios, and also at what can be done now, in the midst of the year, to diagnose the issue and address it. We asked for the advice of Pat Sanaghan, president of The Sanaghan Group. Here are the steps he recommends.

Rightsizing Expectations at the Outset

Sanaghan recommends naming these two manifestations of the first-year dilemma up front, and holding deliberate conversations about them. "The division's leadership needs to be honest and direct about the ways in which implementation might break down, and set guiding principles for moving forward, for striking the right balance. Staff will look to the leaders to set the pace and the right expectations."

Sanaghan also notes that seeking feedback on the written plan can help to catch costly errors in thinking or unrealistic expectations early. This will mean:

  • Seeking anonymous feedback from unit heads and staff throughout your department
  • Seeking collegial feedback from your peers leading other divisions across the campus

Ask for feedback on the proposed timeline and resourcing of the division's objectives. Ask if the plan presents both an aggressive and a realistic set of actions to take. Do the words "research" and "analysis" appear in every other paragraph? Does the plan identify definite "low-hanging fruit" that can be achieved in the first year?

"This sounds almost obvious," Sanaghan comments, "but it is alarming how often the step of seeking adequate feedback on the plan is skipped, in the rush to implement. You need the feedback to rightsize your thinking."

Checking in During the Year

What about after the plan is green-lighted? "Pay attention and pay attention often," Sanaghan remarks. He suggests establishing a division or departmental scorecard that tracks the four or five measures that are the best determinants of the plan's success. Such a scorecard can serve as both a reality check and as a key discussion-starter both for monthly team or departmental check-ins, and for supervisory dialogue during individual performance evaluation.

"You don't want the scorecard to be reductive," Sanaghan cautions, "but you need to identify the four or five essential factors that show success. You've set priorities and developed an action plan to carry them out -- how will you know this has been done? Measure what matters, and when one of those measures drops, respond quickly."

Sanaghan recommends meeting monthly to review progress toward the goals. The frequency is critical; you want to avoid the opposing dangers of overwhelming staff with weekly meetings, or meeting so infrequently that work toward strategic priorities and new initiatives gets buried beneath the pressure of daily tasks. Use monthly meetings to diagnose slow progress or overcommitment prior to halfway through the first year.

Monthly check-ins, if deliberate and structured, can achieve several purposes:

  • Ensure there are public opportunities to celebrate real successes
  • Provide occasions for problem-solving and division-wide brainstorming to address obstacles as they arise (Do we need more people? Do we need to outsource an effort? Did we commit too much and need to scale back?)
  • Most of all, these check-ins show the division that its leadership is paying attention

"That is the real key to implementation. Leaders have to model and convey the importance of the action plan. And it's not enough just to meet regularly with a few department heads; you have to communicate to all the staff that these conversations are happening. Make sure everyone knows that the division is pursuing implementation in a disciplined way. People will invest in the plan if they see their leaders invested in it."
Pat Sanaghan, The Sanaghan Group


All of this presupposes that leaders are inviting open dialogue and are taking active steps to set a tone for conversations about progress that builds trust and clarifies expectations. A distrustful environment will preclude open sharing of honest information about progress, and will leave staff reticent to ask for help. It's crucial that leaders model the types of conversation needed. To do so, they will need to:

  • Consistently invite an honest appraisal of progress
  • Convey a willingness to re-prioritize and re-assess the plan as the environment changes
  • Communicate that this is not merely the implementation of a static plan but a learning process
  • Hold staff accountable while ensuring (and communicating) that no one will be punished for mistakes, as long as we learn from them

Ensuring Individual Accountability

Besides regularly checking to see if the division is on track with its scorecard (and brainstorming what to do if it isn't), make sure that team and individual performance evaluation is aligned with the four or five key measures identified on that scorecard.

Prioritization of the department's key commitments will falter in implementation if there is no mechanism in place to ensure individual accountability for those commitments. You need to be able to hold your staff accountable when execution is slow or failing, as well as have a clear basis for offering recognition and reward when there has been definite progress.


Our recent edition of Higher Ed Impact: Monthly Diagnostic, "Deploying Intentional Staff Performance Metrics in Higher Education," offers strategies for ensuring that staff metrics and supervision are tied to progress toward your division's goals.

Also In This Issue

Setting Priorities for Your Division

Developing the Action Plan

Funding Your Action Plan

Strategies to Ensure Implementation