Universities and colleges love their strategic plans. Plans beget task lists. Task lists beget work agendas. Work agendas beget Targets. Targets beget Annual Evaluations. And all of it provides a serene sense of control: a belief that we can control the future simply by planning our future work flows.
The thing is, it’s mostly nonsense.
To see why, consider Dwight D. Eisenhower, who famously said “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless. But planning is indispensable”. Or boxer Mike Tyson, who once said “everybody’s got a plan… until they get punched in the mouth”.
There are a lot of punches in the mouth lurking out there. What happens when you build your strategic plan on providing teacher training, and then the government changes the funding formula? That’s a punch in the mouth. Build out your law faculty just as the industry shifts and student demand tumbles? Also a punch in the mouth. Give out a 2% faculty raise just before the government decides to impose a 7% cut? You’d better believe that’s a punch in the mouth. And no strategic plan protects you from that.
But if strategic plans are bunk, strategic planning still makes a great deal of sense. As Lawrence Freedman says in his rather excellent Strategy: A History, strategy is about employing whatever resources are available to achieve the best outcome. As resources change, so do strategic options. Hence Eisenhower’s comment about the importance of planning, even in the absence of plans. As situations change, it’s important to think through new ways of getting to the desired objective or – if resources get scarce enough – to entirely redefine the objectives. The best strategies are thus ones that are open-ended. This is why plans – things that attempt to set the future in stone – can sometimes be the antithesis of good strategy, especially in turbulent times.
All you really need to guide an organization is: 1) a sense of where you want to go, 2) some ideas about how to get there, and 3) a set of metrics to know whether you’re getting there. The real problem most universities have is being able to articulate where they want to go. Partly, this is because institutions often describe goals in mindless and nebulous ways (e.g. “we will achieve excellence”). But it’s also partly because many professors have almost no interest in the collective success of a university, seeing it merely as an administrative platform for their own research interests. Colleges, which have a much more inclusive sense of institutional purpose, have an enormous advantage over universities in this respect, which makes their plans and their strategy much more cohesive.
In short: planning is important to keep a sense of direction. But plans? They take up a lot of time and are often out-of-date by the time they are implemented. More of the former and less of the latter, please.