Rick’s Rubrics for Strategic Planning

In a professional life dedicated to making higher education a better place, interesting events come my way with increased frequency. I spent most of last week at Stellenbosch University in South Africa after having spent the week before near the Kruger National Park looking at the Big 5 (Africa’s lions, leopards, rhinos, hippos, and cape buffalo). Prior to the Kruger I joined my colleagues at the South African Institutional Research Association at Port Elisabeth where I was an invited keynote (see here for a Prezi of the keynote).

At Stellenbosch, two bright South African higher education pacesetters, Lynda Murray and Pieter Vermeulen, joined with me to evaluate the university’s institutional research and planning function. These evaluations are always much more than focusing solely on an institutional research office, however. It’s not possible keep an evaluation of an institution’s use of information inside a tight box, without commenting on the bigger world inside the university and outside. Stellenbosch was no different.

To say that South Africa’s higher education (tertiary) sector has undergone a major transformation since Reconciliation in 1994 could qualify as an all-time understatement. The post-apartheid era has caused institutions to rethink not just diversity but their approaches to the World in the 21st century. Earlier this year the education ministry was split into two parts with higher education joining training to cover private and public institutions. The scope of this re-constituted ministry function includes universities, colleges, and the skills development sectors, which include the Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETA’s) and the National Skills Authority and the National Skills Fund. Much more united and certainly ambitious than the American arrangement for higher education where fragmented policy is a fact of life.

Why talk about national changes? Stellenbosch is one of the oldest universities on the continent and has been a traditional leader in South African higher education. What Stellenbosch tries, many will emulate. To ask an external panel to review its use of data and information is tribute to evolving leadership and a willingness to ask hard questions. I’m not going to give you the details of what we found since that’s up to the University and its able institutional research and planning leader, Dr. Jan Botha, to distribute those details. I can say, though, that Stellenbosch has committed to furthering its leadership journey in South African higher education by using its data strategically and to rethinking its approach to strategic planning.

Certain truths fall out of any planning situation. I’ve been fortunate to work with some very bright minds in this business, especially Byron and Kay McClenney at the University of Texas, who are constantly pushing institutions to use their own data. With their help and the scar tissue that any good consultant accumulates, I’ve steadily been adding to my list of critical elements to gauge institutional planning that I sometimes title–somewhat humorously–“Rick’s Rubrics.” I’ll share these here. If you’re curious about how they played out at Stellenbosch or in South Africa, drop Jan an email.

If you’re not planning, you’re planning to fail. Many institutions have glossy strategic plans but fail to operationalize them by explaining exactly who will do what, how large its commitment toward its (staff and dollar resources), and how it will know whether it all works.

Planning, unfortunately, oftentimes becomes a defensive activity. Many institutions proliferate unit planning to keep things “about the way they’ve always been” without looking ahead at strategic issues, a form of dry rot that carries big consequences.

Perfect data don’t exist. Most institutions won’t cross this threshold. Fear of failure punctuates this stance as does some general ignorance about what data is already on hand and what new information needs to be created.

Thin to Win. Who wants to read a long plan? Thick plans are most often used for ornamentation or, worse, doorstops. On the other hand, any plan without a clear rationale for specific actions linked to goals wastes time. There’s a balance here and precision wins the day over the ponderous.

It’s not enough for planning to be participatory; it also had to be decisive. Committees don’t carry out plans. At the same time, their insights are pivotal when it comes time to divy up the action. Another balancing act, but let’s error on the side of making sound, actionable decisions over keeping all parties feeling good.

Select 3 (maybe 4) “main things” that make a real difference. This is Byron’s critical lesson for me and others. Not atypically, I evaluated one institution with 39 priorities. I asked how in the wide world, they could handle 39 priorities the response was that “we meet and talk about them.” I rest my case!

Don’t expect a home run every time. Definitely an “Americanism” and forgive me the sports analogy, but I’ve also seen institutions grow quite tired of planning simply because the results aren’t visible, say, in six months or even a year. Planning is a journey, not an episode.

Be flexible and ready to adjust strategies and goals. Most institutions develop a strategic plan and never adjust it to fit emerging realities and new intelligence. A periodic review once a year is advisable, prior to setting new action priorities for the next year is advisable.

Show results widely (even if ugly). Dirty news seldom survives at most institutions, unfortunately. A courageous institution uses ugly data to calibrate changes needed to address new priorities. Audiences sometimes hear from me that dirty data does not make you a bad person! I hope you see both the humor and the imperative.

Link clearly to resources. A plan without a clear tie to human and dollar resources is not a plan, it’s a public relations piece. Over last decade I’ve seen accrediting agencies awake to institutions with gloss without substance. A good thing.

Most critically: separate the operational from the strategic. Most institutional managers get hung up here by thinking that their day-to-day activities are strategic when, in fact, they are usually operational (but quite excellent, as I’ve found). I always get back to doing three (or no more than four) things very well. Most institutions would do well to define what they mean by “operational excellence” before they pursue strategic goals that are tipping points for the future.

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