Does Strategy Matter?

It seems like the value of strategic planning, particularly within higher education, has come into question more than ever before.  Criticism ranges from claims strategies are flawed based on how they are typically formulated, to the lack of their practical utility in terms of real decision making and how value is produced over time as circumstances change.  Many people raise legitimate concerns with an apparent disconnect between intended results of institutional strategies and what actually gets accomplished.  Especially if there is a real or even perceived sense that the most meaningful benefits are produced regardless of the plan (or even worse in spite of it) and resources are somehow allocated inconsistent with declared priorities.  Some argue that the structure of higher education institutions, their distinct organizational cultures, and complexity created by the diversity of academic pursuits all conflict with any effort to develop a comprehensive strategic plan guided by a long-term vision for shared “success” (however that might be defined).  These and other criticisms, frustrations and fundamental questions of relevance are evident from the Chronicle of Higher Education Commentary “The Strategic Plan: Neither Strategy Nor Plan, but a Waste of Time” which inspired numerous and sometimes visceral comments in response.

Despite questions about the usefulness of strategic planning most higher education institutions continue to engage in the practice.  One reason for this is that regional accrediting associations that set assessment criteria for evaluating strengths and weaknesses of colleges and universities include planning (and evaluation) as an indication of effectiveness and quality.  As a result, institutions seeking continued accreditation must develop and maintain some sort of plan for the ongoing evaluation of institutional performance.  But does strategy really matter beyond fulfilling accreditation requirements?

One way to determine whether or not a given strategy matters is to look for the presence or absence of certain essential elements and enabling conditions that indicate how it is formulated and then used to provide leadership, make decisions and guide collective action that produces value over time as circumstances change.  This sort of evaluation might include consideration of the following:

Essential Elements

  • Plainly articulated and succinctly described statements of intent that originate from specific areas of focus essential to fulfilling mission, upholding values, and realizing a vision based on foresight that illuminates what is most important to anticipate and plan for.
  • Clearly defined programmatic initiatives that translate the statements of intent into a coordinated “stream of actions over time”[i] (both deliberately planned from inception and as opportunities emerge or mandates are imposed over time) which collectively impact one or more indicators of institutional performance.
  • Easily interpreted performance metrics (or key performance indicators) that map directly to institution-wide strategic areas of focus and provide insight used to inform the development, prioritization, resourcing, management and evaluation of programmatic initiatives.

The following depicts one way to conceptually visualize the all of the above together in one graphic:

Essential Elements of Strategy

Plenty of documented plans include most if not all of the essential elements of a well formulated strategy.  However, putting the enabling conditions in place to evolve and execute an adaptive strategy over time is more elusive.  That’s because conditional factors are dependent on a blend of shared leadership, reaching consensus and making clear commitments to things that hold people jointly accountable:

Enabling Conditions

  • Consensus on the defining characteristics of the strategy  – specifically the degree to which it will originate from a combination of; “top-down” direction and control, “bottom-up” discretion and initiative, and boundaries shaped by the “external” environment
  • An agreed upon process and timeline for determining strategic imperatives (or strategic areas of focus), identifying an initial set of key performance indicators (KPI) and committing to programmatic initiatives that “move the needle” of KPI’s
  • An agreed upon process and periodic intervals for establishing feasible priorities, developing a realistic course of action to achieve identified objectives, and transparent allocation of resources consistent with declared priorities
  • An agreed upon method for periodically evaluating progress toward program goals, relevance of key performance indicators and alignment of strategic areas of focus with institutional mission, values and vision as circumstances change over time
  • A “core team” must be given the charge to assume an institutional planning role to draft wording that communicates the mutually reinforcing strategic imperatives for the university, set university-wide key performance indicators, and identify programmatic initiatives that bring different parts of the organization together in productive collaboration
  • The individuals charged with leading institutional planning should be appointed by the President and have the collegial support necessary to enlist the active involvement and support of the organization as a whole
  •  The President and his or her staff must continually demonstrate the importance of a sustained commitment to collective strategy by actively engaging in collaborations themselves that advance programmatic initiatives to maximize the effectiveness of the institution as a whole

Perhaps what really matters about strategy has to do with the evolving guidance it should continually provide for making informed decisions and inspiring coordinated action for the benefit of the entire institution.  It should be limited in scope to what the organization agrees to work toward collectively, why it is important within a broad context, and how success of the institution overall will be evaluated.  Simply creating a to-do list of what to work on does not constitute a strategy.  Checklists don’t often achieve much that matters in the broader context of how the organization generates value as a whole.

Instead of debating whether or not strategy matters, maybe we should ask what matters most that requires strategy.

[i] Henry Mintzberg and James A. Waters defined strategy as “a pattern in a stream of actions over time” in order to “operationalize” the concept of strategy to conduct research.  See “Of Strategies Deliberate and Emergent“, by Mintzberg published by John Wiley and Sons from the Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1985), pp.257-272.


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