Image: Kevin Van Aelst
So your strategic plan reached the end of its life span. The question is: Did anyone notice — aside from the folks who filed final reports about it for accreditors and trustees?
Too often, the answer is no. An institution or a department begins a strategic plan with great fanfare but the end is usually anticlimactic. Most of the people supposedly affected by the plan are unaware of its actual outcomes — and may not even remember the original goals.
That kind of lackluster finale represents a lost opportunity. The fact that most of us fail to conclude our strategic plans with as much energy as we start them undermines future planning. It also masks the reality that strategic planning is continuous and reciprocal: We are supposed to learn from the process, not just check some boxes and forget about it.
Throughout this series on strategic planning — Part 1 on preplanning, Part 2 on managing the drafting process, Part 3 on carrying out the plan — I’ve focused on how to keep up the momentum throughout, not just during its gestation and youth. This month’s topic: how best to wrap up a strategic plan.
Go big with publicity. The best way to avoid a wimpy finish is to close a strategic plan with great fanfare. Reprise whatever events marked its unveiling. Don’t be afraid to remind people of the plan’s basic goals and outcomes — since many people will have forgotten while others, because of the nature of turnover on any campus, weren’t even around when it began.
Besides general trumpeting, point out directly to specific groups of people "what the plan meant for you." You can slice up your audience in all sorts of ways — by discipline (agriculture, chemistry), by type of employee (faculty, staff), by area of focus (research, student retention). Just make sure that whatever materials you prepare get in front of the right audience.
Whether you are leading a strategic plan for a single department or an entire institution, you need to report back — via special meetings, town halls, mailings, social media — once it’s over. The goal is to begin and end with a bang.
Thank the heroes. On any campus on any given day, thousands of people conscientiously do their jobs without garnering attention or public praise. Don’t let the folks behind strategic planning suffer the same unheralded fate. In ceremonies and events wrapping up the plan, and in reports and website updates, try to thank everyone involved. Find ways to single out people who did most of the work or who took special care overseeing distinct areas of the plan.
At this point, you may recognize a political conundrum: The person who did the lion’s share of the work on this might have been you. Yet administrators who call too much attention to themselves or who claim too much credit (even when it is due) are seldom appreciated, and indeed face blowback.
As I have noted in previous Admin 101 columns, the greater good never sends you a thank-you note. You just have to accept that many of your worthy deeds will go unacknowledged. Certainly you hope that the boss above you might at least recognize your efforts. But generally, thanking the heroes of the strategic plan means people besides yourself.
Explain exactly what was accomplished — and what fell short. Throughout this series, I have channeled the spirit of my background as a journalism professor and advocated a candid ethic. That applies to the conclusion of a plan as much as to its construction and application.
There are also political benefits to a transparent stance on strategic planning. Academe is full of bright, discerning people who have the ability to see through puffery and smoke screens. It is simply not credible that every plan succeeds 100 percent in every aspect. Vague language about the plan’s outcomes also elicits cynicism and suspicion.
So be detailed about the consequences, takeaways, and next steps in all of your written, visual, and oral statements. Report and explain the numbers. Above all, do not try to hide the warts. If something did not work out as planned, simply say so — along with what you learned from the experience.
Listen to critiques. I heard the following story from a colleague I know at a southern regional university: At a town-hall meeting, the engineering dean made a rosy presentation about the success of his college’s strategic plan. Quite a few engineering professors started to chime in, though, taking issue with the content and tone of the dean’s PowerPoint and offering both quibbles and major criticisms. They said the dean’s report had overlooked some of the plan’s negative consequences.
Things could have gotten tense at that point. But my colleague gave his dean high marks — not just for hearing out the critics but also for acknowledging their concerns as legitimate and discussing next steps.
To avoid a similar surprise, it is prudent to gauge the mood and opinions of the various constituencies before you sign off on final reports and presentations about the plan. Administrators would be better respected if we responded openly and upfront to criticisms and challenges, rather than ignore or postpone them for resolution at some vague point down the road.
The simplest and most comprehensive expedient: When you release the plan’s quantitative and qualitative outcomes, also hand out a report on "lessons learned" about the process. What could have been done better, in creation and enaction? What did we learn about our own institution or department from the process itself, and not just from the various outcomes?
Link the old plan to a new one. A final element often missing from strategic planning is the hand-off. A plan ends; results are announced. Then preparations start for the next one — and it’s treated as if we’ve never done strategic planning before. Turnover, one of the banes of modern campus administration, is one culprit. Another is a lack of will to respect institutional knowledge and study our own history as a guide to the future.
At the very least, before you begin the next strategic plan, make sure all of the new planners have read, appreciated, and discussed the lessons learned from the previous one.
Considerable evidence suggests that strategic planning is an understudied enterprise in higher education — and not conducted as professionally as it could be. As colleges and universities face greater and unprecedented challenges — some to our very existence — it seems critical to give our planning serious thought, research, and oversight.
Keep in mind: Strategic planning is an opportunity to build cohesion and cultural affinity, not just hit certain metrics. We should view the process itself as a performance outcome. Considering the many divisions among us these days, if people on the campus feel good — informed, engaged, respected — about how the plan was made and executed, then that, in itself, is an achievement that should be cherished.
David D. Perlmutter is a professor in and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. His book on promotion and tenure was published by Harvard University Press in 2010