“Check out the new 2020 Strategic Plan—well-equipped, versatile, nodding to the past, styled for the future.”
For a moment think of a strategic plan as a luxury car, comprised of elegantly styled components. It is flashy; the engine sounds great; the styling is sleek. It represents the best of the elements of other luxury cars, and just as importantly, it has a few components not found in any of its competitor’s vehicles. When it arrives off the assembly line, there is a celebration of completing its design and assembly. But in truth, the car hasn’t done anything yet. Paradoxically, it has arrived, and it has not arrived—it simply exists. It is all potential.
The greatest challenge for educational institutions is not finding ambitious language to define strategic goals—we have proven time and again we can create a good-looking plan (to extend the metaphor, we can build beautiful cars with a great deal of performance potential). The greatest challenge is executing fully toward the vision of the language we create. Read any group of strategic plans from secondary schools, colleges, or universities, and you will find ample worthy goals—we build some beautiful-looking vehicles for strategy. However, not all of them (or perhaps only a very few of them) have the muscle to lay the foundation for successful implementation. My premise is: the secret to high quality implementation lies in the process that creates the strategic plan as much as it does the components of the plan itself. The process we use to determine WHAT our strategy should be also determines our ability to achieve the vision of the plan (the HOW).
Plan creation and implementation are not separate tasks but one whole with two inter-related components. Additionally, the goals of plan creation must include a vision of implementation. In short, our mistake is often that we focus on WHAT we want to create to a degree that dwarfs HOW we actually plan on achieving it. Indeed, the WHAT is often engaged without any vision of HOW to “get it on the road.”
Institutions don’t simply succeed or fail in strategic change implementation in the days, months, and years after plan is announced rather the plan creation process itself significantly determines the degree to which a plan succeeds or fails.
Ross, I’ve got to say that I’m sorry I retired from Westminster before you arrived! I was involved in lots of “big” projects (e.g., self-studies, strategic plans) during my nearly four decades there, and most of us “in the trenches” never really felt engaged in most of them. We were instructed about our role(s) in the current process; we fulfilled the role(s) as expeditiously as we could; and we got on to “more important” things, like, you know, classroom teaching. Sometimes I felt that our “leaders” were no more eager/excited to undertake the latest assignment than we were, and-son of a gun!–once it was completed, we didn’t hear much about it.
J Ross Peters says
You are kind. Not an unusual story, George, unfortunately. Given how much everyone in the end cares deeply about the institution in as much as it can change the trajectory of students’ lives, I have found it strange that we can’t consistently do better to enfranchise all the people who arguably know the most and care the most. That said, faculty members (like me for many years) are by nature preservationists who are ambivalent about any change as it pulls two ways: one, it has promise to improve what we do for students, and pulling the other way, two, it will likely make us rethink, change, revise how we go about our daily work lives. The desire to preserve is certainly more complex than self-preservation, however. There is a needed reluctance to let go easily of “the way we have done things around here” in that it ensures we don’t throw out the things that are most valuable in the rush for progress. That reluctance must not become recalcitrance though. Therefore the onus is on everyone: leadership must make sure to earnestly seek and include all voices, while faculty must overcome easy cynicism in order to be productive voices in a strategic process.
Yet again another example of the joys of retirement. I have lost count of the number of times I sat in meetings that were discussing the latest and greatest “ride” for the school. All too often no one seemed to have considered how these were actually going to work much less perform. I have two vivid memories of such examples. In one case we were in the throws of implementing the “new” approach to learning and evaluation which put the process in the hands of the students by emphasizing exploration over mastering the traditional canon. In the rush to move into the “brave new world” colleagues conveniently overlooked the underlying premise of some of the research they believed justified their crusade. The second example was listening to the launch of yet another great idea and inquiring as to the details of the exit strategy should they plan go awry. Usually little thought had been given to concept.
In the first case, the faculty was force fed the plan and students paid for it for several years.
Tonight is the lighting of the trees in Fairhope so I am off to join Martha and our neighbors for this annual event. Peace,
J Ross Peters says
I seem to remember a significant change process in which you were instrumental in all aspects of its success!
Eleanor Shumaker says
I realize that this article relates to institutional changes, but I am also finding these notions to be applicable to personal changes. I truly appreciate Mr. Peters’ — it is both deep and wide, both comprehensive and comprehensible!
J Ross Peters says
Thank you so much for this. In many ways thinking of an institution having characteristics of a person or perhaps better thinking of it as an ecosystem of people operating in relationship with a shared mission and value set, gives us permission to transfer much about what we might say about personal development with what we might say about an institution, or, as you suggest, visa-versa. I am grateful for your comment.