Getting to The Dance: Innovation and Strategic Planning

Colleges from time to time tell me that they’d like to develop a new strategic plan, but that instead of an old fashioned “traditional” plan, they need an “innovative” plan. What advice would I have about how strategic planning and innovation could dance together? My enthusiasm always ticks up when I hear colleges aspire to be more innovative while my experience tells me that there’s significant real estate to cover between tradition and innovation. Innovation should be planned since it doesn’t just happen by itself.

It’s so true that assembling all elements of a comprehensive plan (environmental scan, planning assumptions, SWOT analyses, enrollment projections, academic program analysis, etc.) could conceivably take all of an institution’s energy that might otherwise be used to innovate. I’m also sympathetic to the idea that compiling all the components of a traditional strategic plan could distract a college from being innovative, especially as the song goes, “if that’s all there is.” But, the problem isn’t these elements, or the oxygen that they take to create. The problem is that most plans don’t connect traditional elements meaningfully so that they tell a story that includes the need for innovation. Left hanging by themselves, elements of a traditional plan dull the senses.

Every institution has pockets of innovation. Plans fail when they don’t connect these success stories to the planning process by asking hard headed questions: how did that innovation start, how did it survive, how have its results or outcomes helped the total college, how can we do more of it, and how can it spread across the entire college?

Few in higher education can point to strategic planning process that actually work. Usually, planning is done because it’s demanded by accrediting bodies or state agencies, and not because it produces innovation. In fact, planning for the sake of having a plan or for otherwise complying with external demands can strangle innovation. Innovation means improvement and efficiency; most plans head straight for the dustheap precisely because they fail to connect to either budgets or student outcomes. Other hard earned advice for successful planning can be found here. Happily, colleges that seek to rise above planning’s dim history may already be heading down the pathways leading to innovation.
No college can climb to the higher ground that nurtures innovation across the entire institution without marrying its its own strategic planning with clear and shared understandings of how change happens. This happens best by focusing on the results of innovation and not just by celebrating innovation itself. Applause is important but planning for prolonged applause through strategic planning is critical.
Back to that dance. Innovation is too precious to leave to osmosis. Learning how to embed innovation with strategy is within every institutions’ reach. A meaningful strategic plan and an innovative plan are one and the same. They have to be.

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