"Planning from a Department Head or Director’s Perspective"

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February 2008

On February 26, 2008, the Quality Advocates Network met to hear James Dillard, Head, Department of Communication Arts and Sciences, The College of the Liberal Arts, and James Myers, Director, Facilities Engineering Institute, College of Engineering discuss planning from the perspective of a department head or director. 

Jim Dillard and Jim MyersLouise Sandmeyer, Executive Director of the Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment, opened the session by pointing out that, in the planning process, it’s at the departmental level where ‘the rubber hits the road.’

‘Blitz’ Planning in a Department

Dillard described the planning process he used with his department for the current planning cycle, and compared it with his planning approach in 2004 for the previous cycle. Jim DillardIn 2004 he authored a “visionary…autocratic” plan, sent it to the dean, and shared it with the faculty. While the faculty supported his goals, which included contributing knowledge, providing world-class training, and being recognized as a top department in their field, he commented that these goals would have worked for just about any department in the University. The 2007 plan was designed by the faculty, then drafted by Dillard, reviewed by the faculty and finally revised by Dillard and an advisory committee before it was sent to the dean. Dillard attracted faculty to the session by telling them in informal discussions what issues the group was likely to be discussing. He provided some advance information, but most expertise came from the knowledge and experience of the faculty in the room.

To design the plan, faculty gathered for a three hour afternoon session of ‘blitz’ strategic planning in which they reviewed their past accomplishments, assessed their strengths and challenges in the current environment, and then developed and prioritized 40 possible future scenarios and options. Dillard pointed out that by using multivoting to prioritize the scenarios, bigger ideas with more traction tended to rise to the top, and have broad support. At a later session they developed action plans for the highest priority scenarios. As a result of this process and the engagement of the faculty, departmental objectives were related specifically to two themes of the College’s Centers, rather than being more generic as they were in 2004. Developing action plans helped the department determine whether there was a means to accomplish each goal.

Dillard identified six functions of a strategic plan:

  1. Let people dream a little
  2. Force awareness of finite resources and tradeoffs
  3. Provide a vision for external constituencies
  4. Devise the warrant for a later argument for future needs
  5. Set constraints on impulsive behavior
  6. Outlive its usefulness as the environment changes and goals are accomplished, and give the unit reason to reassess and rethink

The Evolution of Planning in a Unit

The Penn State Facilities Engineering Institute (FEI) was created in 1947 at the request of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to provide facilities services to Commonwealth organizations. The mission of the FEI is to “merit the public trust by meeting customer facility needs through engineering, information management, education, and applied research services while exploring new and innovative ways to exceed customer expectations.” The unit is 100% externally funded.

In 1995, when Myers became director of the organization (after a previous director who served for 20 years), they had two clients and wanted to grow, while taking care of their current customers. The staff was small, and all were involved in the first and second planning processes. In the second planning cycle, in 2000, the organization had grown rapidly. Jim MyersThe result of this planning process was a flowchart that provided guidance on taking on additional work, asking the question, “Can the work be done without negatively impacting our existing work, and does it enhance current work in a significant way?” This review makes it possible for FEI to develop long-term, multiyear relationships with customers, like a subscription, and still maintain the level of service they are providing to current customers. The 2002 move of FEI from the Department of Architectural Engineering to its own unit in the College of Engineering warranted another planning cycle in 2003. Because the organization had grown, only the managers were involved in this planning cycle.

In the current planning cycle, in addition to the managers, interested staff participated in a focus group in which they were able to learn about the history of the unit and how the plan had evolved. FEI now serves 10 agencies of the Commonwealth, as well as the Milton Hershey School and the federal General Services Administration. FEI’s current goals are to:

  • Maintain current obligations with customers at a higher level that results in continuous maintenance of contracts
  • Develop a highly productive culture that is motivating and enjoyable to employees
  • Provide an environment that allows for pursuit of additional new opportunities, consistent with FEI’s decision tree and business model

Myers cautioned the group on the frequency of strategic planning. It should be done on the regular University planning cycles and other times when organizational change demands it. However, you may get resistance from faculty and staff if such planning is attempted more frequently.

Myers used an external facilitator in some capacity in each of his planning cycles, making it easier on the unit leader. Dillard commented that he thought a facilitator would have been useful in his 2007 planning process, and it would have allowed him to participate more in the discussions rather than having to focus on the schedule and the process. Dillard also commented that he lost some momentum, and did not have exactly the same participants, by doing the action planning in a second session; had he started the first session earlier in the day, the group might have had enough energy to complete the whole planning process in one session.

On the question of assessment, Myers indicated that in the future FEI planned to develop more quantitative tools and an ongoing data collection process, rather than collecting data just before planning. Dillard’s unit has developed assessment software that parallels the college’s measures. In discussion it was pointed out that each unit needs to determine its own definition of quality and its own means to track its goals. The Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence has an academic assessment Web site with references. For information from graduates, it might be useful to explore whether it would be more effective and efficient to do alumni surveys University-wide rather than by individual colleges or departments.

In discussion following the presentations, Sandmeyer pointed out that when deciding how to plan, it is important to take into account the context, culture, tradition, and history of the unit. A new leader may want to ensure that he or she engages a wide range of stakeholders in the planning process. Dillard and Myers used different approaches, but each approach worked with their units. The results of each of their planning processes were several specific, focused goals.

Doing strategic planning is…a worthwhile thing…it’s not…just the assumption that planning is good…in my experience the process of doing it…produced positive outcomes by itself…so I think it’s worth doing.

Jim Dillard
Myers used an external facilitator in some capacity in each of his planning cycles, making it easier on the unit leader. Dillard commented that he thought a facilitator would have been useful in his 2007 planning process, and it would have allowed him to participate more in the discussions rather than having to focus on the schedule and the process. Dillard also commented that he lost some momentum, and did not have exactly the same participants, by doing the action planning in a second session; had he started the first session earlier in the day, the group might have had enough energy to complete the whole planning process in one session.

Slides from Dillard’s presentation can be found here.

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

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