"Best Practices in Implementing Strategic Plans"

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November 2005

On November 11, 2005, the Quality Advocates met to discuss best practices in implementing strategic plans. The three panelists included: John M. Kelley, Executive Director, Office of Planning, Training, and Institutional Research, Villanova University; Kathleen Paris, Distinguished Emeritus Member, Office of Quality Improvement, University of Wisconsin-Madison; and James F. Trainer, Director of Planning and Assessment, Villanova University. Michael J. Dooris, Director of Planning Research and Assessment, Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment, moderated the session.

John Kelley, Jim Trainer, Mike DoorisMichael Dooris introduced the panelists. Dooris, Kelley, and Trainer were editors and contributors of New Directions for Institutional Research, “Successful Strategic Planning”, Number 123, Fall 2004 and Paris was a contributor. To provide a learning opportunity and to benchmark performance in strategic planning, representatives of Villanova and the University of Wisconsin – Madison were invited to present their best practices in strategic planning for this session.

Kathleen ParisParis described her planning and implementation experiences at the University. According to Paris, “planning is an expectation of leadership” and the University culture values strategic planning with discussion of planning and priorities incorporated into dean and other executive meetings. The University recently hired a third-party to survey leaders and look at correlates of successful strategic planning at the institution. Some of the most important predictors of success were: 1) involving faculty, staff, and students in plan development; 2) holding meetings to get input before planning; 3) holding meetings to get input on draft strategic plans; 4) collective review of data to identify measures of success; 5) setting short-term goals in “bite-size” pieces in addition to longer-term goals; and, 6) monitoring progress through periodic checks. Paris believes involving people during plan development is one of the most important steps in implementation since staff, faculty, and students better understand the reasons for it and unintended consequences may be avoided. [Listen to Kathleen Paris’ comments (.mp3, 1.65MB)]

One audience member mentioned that involving everyone sometimes leads to strategic plans becoming laundry lists of needs. Paris replied that the strategic plan is a contract between leadership in the unit and those persons implementing the plan: leadership commits to providing resources, while the unit commits to carrying them out. This contract allows the plan to be pared down to what is realistic to do and also permits leadership and others to ask “What can we do or stop doing?” In addition, Kelley responded that obtaining input from all stakeholders may lead to a laundry list of ideas, but that when much is asked for, the expectation is that priorities will be set. Leadership may identify what can be done with the finite resources, and attempt to find funding for the rest. [Listen to John Kelley’s comments (.mp3, 1.09MB)]

Paris went on to say that it is important to find a common directive for the collective group, but in a university setting, a paradox exists between faculty autonomy and the organization. Because of this paradox, it is important to show a collective future in the strategic plan. Paris said three important steps to take in implementing a strategic plan include the proper development of the plan (as discussed earlier), communicating about the plan, and using the plan as a change process. Some ways to highlight the plan and make people aware of it are to have it on the website, provide different versions for different audiences, have a one-page summary, limit the number of priorities so people can remember them, set annual and longer-term targets and periodically check the targets, and establish time to talk about the plan at regular meetings.

John KelleyAt Villanova University, strategic planning is divided into two phases according to Kelley and Trainer. The first is formulation, where the thinking, data collection, and analysis are done, and the second is implementation, where the plan is made real. Policy, procedures, budgets and communication underlie both steps. In their view, “the purpose of planning is not to plan, the purpose is to do.” [Listen to John Kelley’s’ comments (.mp3, 1.28MB)] In formulating plans, Villanova uses a common template which addresses major accomplishments, trends, strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities. The template also asks for measurable goals and targets and a timetable for these targets, both of which help in monitoring implementation. The strategic plan is linked to quality initiatives, since staff and faculty identify the core processes that need improvement. The plan is monitored by heads of units and a monitoring committee.

One participant asked how to assign accountability in implementing a plan? Trainer responded that Villanova does not assign point persons to their goals, but uses teams quite a bit. For example, twelve teams formed to monitor the performance measures for each of twelve goals and the progress toward achievement. Then the findings from the twelve teams were shared with committees, vice presidents, and the board of trustees. The use of strategic and performance indicators also helps in maintaining accountability. Villanova also incorporates strategic plan indicators on performance appraisal instruments. Paris responded that at Wisconsin, every goal has a point person. This person may not always have functional authority but he or she has to make sure progress is being made and who to go to if it isn’t. In addition, Paris recommended that leaders sit down with staff and set professional development goals, based on the strategic plan.

Group pictureHow to use strategic plans to say “No”, was another topic raised by a participant. Paris responded that Wisconsin has in the past eliminated some projects based on their relationship to the strategic plan. In one instance, the University decided certain forms of research were not supported by the strategic plan and funding for such research projects was eliminated. In another, the registrar decided alumni services were no longer supported by their strategic plan and these were passed to the alumni association. Trainer added that Villanova had similar experiences in their IT department, in which the department based their decision not to upgrade certain software on their strategic plan.

Another participant asked how the strategic plan could be used to determine what services could be stopped? Paris responded that the complex systems and processes of educational institutions provide good opportunities for continuous quality improvement (CQI). CQI can be used to identify complexity that can be streamlined and/or eliminated. Kelley suggested that the question should be phrased in terms of “how to say no, in context of why?” He gave the example that Villanova’s first strategic plan called for a cut in fulltime undergraduate enrollment in order to increase academic quality. Thus, the University said “no” to increased enrollment and tuition funds to concentrate on quality of students and their educational experiences. Communicating the “why” helped to build support for the decision.

Members of the audience also identified challenges in implementing strategic plans in times of organizational and leadership change. Paris suggested that stakeholders should come together and talk about plans using structured conversations that focused on what people liked or did not like in the original plan and what things might have been missed. She also recommended that any group not begin from scratch to create a new strategic plan because that takes too much energy.

In addressing the paradox of autonomy and interdependence in the academic culture, Paris recommended several steps to take. She advised the group to acknowledge the culture of interdependence, to identify the values that are important in this culture, identify champions within faculty, use an incremental approach and pilot small changes, and acknowledge the past.

One audience member commented that any planning process needs to reflect the culture of the unit or organization. What works in one unit may not fit the needs or values of another area or location. Thus, the design of the planning process must account for differences in the culture of the organization. The session closed with a focus on what was working well at Penn State. Two areas, the University Libraries and Outreach, have developed short brochures for their strategic plans and provide it to employees across the units. Both areas feel this step has increased people’s use and knowledge of their plans and allows for more communication about it.

The Quality Advocates Network meets several times each semester to share ideas and examples of improvement and change. To join the Quality Advocates Network mailing list or to learn more about the meetings scheduled, contact the staff at psupia@psu.edu.

The Quality Advocates Network is open to all Penn State faculty, staff, administrators, and students.