Quality Endeavors Issue No. 110

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May 2008

On May 1, 2008, Maury Cotter, the Director of the Office of Quality Improvement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and immediate past president of the National Consortium for Continuous Improvement in Higher Education (NCCI), shared information on how to get strategic plans “Off the Shelf: From Ideas to Results” in a workshop sponsored by the Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment.

Ms. Cotter pointed out that our independent, diverse cultures and limited resources may not encourage us to plan. However, planning can be useful in setting priorities in times of both abundance and limited resources. The planning process itself can also be useful to create a sense of community, develop a team approach, and educate those inside and outside the organization.

Ms. Cotter identified four components of the planning process:

  1. developing the plan
  2. documenting the plan
  3. aligning resources
  4. making implementation of the plan part of daily life

There are numerous models of the planning process. The model used by University of Wisconsin-Madison begins with identification, revision, or reconfirmation of the university’s or unit’s mission, operating principles, and vision. Then a situational analysis identifies stakeholder needs, external forces, what the university or unit is doing well, and where there is room for improvement. Ms. Cotter pointed out that the most useful question she has found to ask as she worked with different colleges and departments is, “What are the trends in your field?” The analysis is followed by identifying strategic directions for the future, setting measurable three to five year goals, and then developing one year action plans, budgets, and improvement initiatives.

This leads to a two part planning document. The first is more formal, and includes information on mission, vision, and strategic direction. This brief document can be used both internally and externally, and addresses a three to five year time frame. The second is a shorter term, less formal action and budget plan for an internal audience detailing who will do what when. This action plan is dynamic, may have handwritten notes, and should be a part of regular meetings or conversations.

Supporting this action and budget plan is a conscious process of resource allocation, identifying what can be stopped or reduced to provide resources for new or improved initiatives. To trim resources strategically, these resource allocation decisions should be based on the principles and priorities identified or confirmed in the planning process. At this point it may also be useful to identify a ‘point person’ to coordinate initiatives across organizational boundaries.

The final stage of the planning process is infusing the implementation of the plan into daily activities. This can include revising meeting agendas so that information about the plan’s progress is shared internally. It can include incorporating key items relating to the plan into external communications. It can also mean piloting changes on a small scale where there is interest, sharing information about the successes after they have occurred, and then expanding the pilots into larger projects. Measures make it easier to document progress toward goals, provided that the measures selected are good indicators of the identified accomplishments. Measures of lower level activities, rather than higher level goals, can become distractions.

Ms. Cotter closed by pointing out the optimum relationship between order and chaos in an organization. Too much order and structure will stifle creativity. With not enough order and too much chaos, no progress will be made. Higher education may have an edge on being a creative culture with the right mix of order and chaos.

View slides from Maury Cotter’s presentation.