Bruce's Blog

May 10, 2010

What is the current role of Western's strategic plan, and where are we going with strategic planning?


Last week’s blog explored the “100 Conversations”: background, some of the findings, and the role of the effort in our widely shared responsibility to lead Western. Friday of that week, we made the first public report out on preliminary findings. The event was held in Seattle and preceded our always-sold out and 13th annual Seattle Business Forum and fundraiser for scholarships. And, in what was really “Conversation 101,” this warm up to the Forum sought additional insights from the almost 200 Western Advocates there assembled.

Now, you likely know that I am a big fan of listening. And, hearing. I think we should treat with skepticism anybody who arrives with all the answers. We must ask tough questions as well. For example, Why should the state be providing baccalaureate education and, if it does so, what should the expectations be for Washington’s universities?

That was done last Friday. We must also explore issues that others seem too often too timid to forcefully raise. We did that last Friday, as well. With legislators joining us, we provided background on and then sought advice concerning discrepancies between what we hear in the 100 Conversations and what we hear in Olympia. Three examples that we took head on:

  • With the state’s need most clearly for additional baccalaureate capacity, why in Olympia is the emphasis solely on a much more narrowly construed “workforce training?
  • Unlike any other state in the nation, Washington spends more on two-year education than on baccalaureate education and, with the state’s greater unmet need in the area of baccalaureate education, isn’t it time to reverse that trend?
  • With all the evidence we find listening to our alums that the need is to prepare people for careers not yet known and societal challenges not yet evident, why is the state only funding additional baccalaureate capacity in high-tech areas?

Listening and hearing and questioning. All critical. All must continue. But, we also reach a stage where it is time to make choices and to set clear directions. We are at that stage now. And, that is what strategic planning is usually thought to be about. This is opportune for Western has a strategic plan and it soon will be time to update it.

What follows is written for those who will take the lead in developing our strategic planning process: the UPRC, certainly. And, since they are fully responsible for and accountable for our goals and objectives, our Trustees. Others may wish to sign off now.

Challenging the Usual Approach

What follows may seem critical of some of the ways in which Western has proceeded in strategic planning. Probably some truth in that. After all, questioning, challenging, critiquing is central to how universities must progress. That is part of all of our jobs: critical, but constructively so.

I have no panacea I am trying to sell. I do believe, though, that by questioning the status quo approach, we may come up with something better than any of us could have initially imagined.

I have to be careful here for I have studied planning by government bodies, particularly as it relates to natural resource management most; have lead a number of strategic planning efforts at several universities; and even spent a year in D.C. working full-time with the USDA Forest Service as they sought to implement some then brand new planning legislation.

Much of the time I have spent studying, thinking about, and doing strategic planning has been spent trying to understand why most strategic planning fails: sometimes spectacularly, more often with a whimper as a president, CEO, or legislative champion comes or goes. In pondering that question, I have, I hope, learned something along the way. So, I will touch upon that personal, intellectual journey as I explore the topic of strategic planning.

Planning and Politics

Not true in other cultures but an aspect of American politics is our desire to turn political issues into matters that can be amenable to technical, “scientific,” “objective,” formulaic or mechanical resolution. We hate conflict and abhor politics. Think city manager movement; think endless (and largely ineffective) presidential task forces and commissions. We often throw around terms like “safe,” “sustainable,” “pollution,” and even as fundamental a term as “life” as though they were technically definable terms amenable to scientific answer when, in fact, they are, unavoidably, value judgments.

And, how do we take individual value judgments and, from them, hammer out societal policy choices? Science is not up to that task for those are not scientific questions. Up to the task or not, that is what politics is about.

Think the benefit/cost analysis tools our economist colleagues have so carefully and thoughtfully developed for us. Some years ago, an economist colleague did a benefit/cost analysis of three options for a pending Army Corps of Engineers harbor development project. I recall his angrily telling me, one day, that the Corps had not picked the option that his very thorough and entirely competent analysis projected as having demonstrably the best societal benefit to societal cost ratio. He did not like my reply: “Societies do not get benefits and pay costs; people do. Your analysis says nothing (and can say nothing determinative) about the fundamental political question: who will get the benefits, who will pay the costs. Politics answers those questions. You cannot.”

And there is the rub. As I studied the many federally mandated planning efforts that emerged in the 70’s, the dynamics were obvious. With several natural resource agencies facing enormous political controversies, Congress ducked the political hot potatoes (as it always does) and responded with direction to plan. The resulting efforts did open up decision making and resulted in enormous mountains of data and decades of court challenges. But, the underlying political controversies still were there. Politics is rarely entirely zero-sum but there almost always are, nevertheless, winner and losers. Or, stalemate. The planning processes were not up to the task at hand. They cannot, as merely technical determinations, specify winners and losers. They tried mightily to do so, pretending that matters like “carrying capacity” are scientifically definable rather than being value choices and that matters like preferred harvest practices can be determined by the best forest science (rather than by listening to people). Stalemate became the word of the day. And the year. And the decade.

Why did Congress direct planning? Because, they understand the most fundamental of all political principles (besides “duck hot potatoes”): if people can first accept a decision making process as legitimate, they are more likely to accept the resulting decision as legitimate. That, by the way, is why we have worked so hard at Western to have open, transparent, and bottom up budgeting and planning processes. And, why we must work to continually improve those processes.

The result for the areas I was studying? When introducing the topic in my Environmental Politics course, I would confront my students – some preparing to be planners -- with the assertion that, in government, the political role of strategic natural resource planning is not to make better decisions; rather, it is to make decisions look better.

Strategic Planning and Universities

Let’s turn to universities and strategic planning, keeping those various thoughts in mind.

My first hands-on experience with university strategic planning came many years ago at another university when I was asked to lead the first of what were to be biennial revisions of the recently adopted strategic plan. That plan had been developed with more task forces than I can remember, two years of study, endless open meetings, hearings, and the like. As I recall it, there were, organized under a dozen goals, almost 500 objectives, and actions included in the final plan. The resulting publication was very impressive.

That is normal in any first plan. Remember our cultural abhorrence of politics. Anything anybody pushes gets included. And, as academics, we are masters at finding words to paper over (and leave unresolved) substantive differences. Such plans do create many benefits. But, the result is not a plan. I call it “agenda setting.” Basically, it defines the range of topics it will be legitimate to consider in future decision making.

Still, choice is necessary. I remember, when taking on the assignment to lead the revision of that first plan, sitting in the president’s office and explaining the foregoing. We had an agenda for discussion but no direction for next steps. The president disagreed. He pulled his copy of the plan from a shelf near the desk, clearly dog-eared and, so, well used. He showed me the items; among those nearly 500 that he had circled in red and that were the “next steps” for the university. Choice must be made; it had been made by the president. They were likely the right choices. But had anybody else glimpsed his marked up copy of the plan?

Western’s Strategic Plan

Think Western’s strategic plan. I was not here when it was developed. I would rate it as significantly better than most initial efforts, certainly superior to that one I was asked to help rescue decades ago. Western’s plan has, by my count, 11 goals with 52 objectives organized under them. And we use it. In all our budget processes we ask that proposals be explained in terms of the strategic plan. However, I think we would be hard-pressed to find anything any of us here might like to propose that could NOT be hung on some goal-language somewhere in the plan. That’s, again, what I mean by being “agenda setting.”

I have a more serious concern – as an academic studying strategic planning, as a president seeking to serve you. How many of those 11 goals in your university’s strategic plan can you name? When it comes to those 52 objectives, can you identify (without looking) those that account for and guide your professional contributions to the university? Are any, because they are a part of our agreed to strategic plan, shaping the day-to-day decisions you make about how to invest your talent, time, energy?

I have sometimes imagined the shared leadership challenge in university environments as that of our, together, producing a coherent symphony while we each are talented soloists. In theory, traditional strategic planning could do that, I suppose. And many universities try, adding in timelines, persons accountable, report dates, resource requirements, and the most favored term of all: “metrics.” Yet none of the traditional approaches I have seen (and one or two I helped put in place) survived a change in administration.

Why? Many reasons but here is one to be worried about if we want to adhere to the traditional strategic planning approach. Since none of us really know the ins and outs of our existing plan (UPRC members excepted) for it is both too broad and too detailed, to make that approach work would require fairly heavy top-down accountability and control. Such administrative practices are not only anathema to our culture, they can vitiate one of our great organizational strengths: 2,200 colleagues, 14,500 students, countless alumni, donors, and community friends – all bright, creative, talented, motivated. Further, we above all others can model being a learning organization: tomorrow’s efforts following not simply a plan but what we are finding out, through experience, today.


I would like to tread lightly here (although I have probably failed). I know our current plan took great work, has been officially adopted by our Trustees, and has a genuine and earned sense of ownership: by our Trustees who were fully engaged, by those also fully engaged in the predecessor to the UPRC, and by others who worked hard on the plan across campus. But, blogs are for stimulating discussion. And presidents are supposed to take us outside the realm of the known and comfortable. So, let me turn to different approaches. And, here is one space where I don’t worry so much about how lightly to tread.

How might we get that symphony? Can we do it in a manner that does not run counter to our culture and that takes advantage of our organizational strengths?

In concept, I do not think it is all that difficult. And, I have seen it work. The basics are:

  • The strategic plan should be no longer than a simple, short paragraph. Anything more will not be remembered by all those talented people playing in the symphony. Anything more is likely departing from strategy and is getting into tactics, perhaps coming top down. Anything more gets into “mentioning” (don’t forget about me and my program) and hence becomes no more than what I have called “agenda setting.”
  • The plan is driven by mission interpreted within the context of our current and perceived future environments and internal strengths and challenges. That is what makes it strategic. That is what makes it span presidencies for it is set by mission and by strategic realities rather than by personalities. The strategic vision is nothing more than the mission interpreted within the context of a strategic analysis of the external environment in which we operate and a critical assessment of our internal strengths and vulnerabilities.
  • Where does the vision critically depart from the current internal circumstances? That leads to identifying several key goals.
  • Ask, for each of the key goals and given our external assessment, what key strategies are most likely to pay off in reaching the goals? Those become the basic strategies.
  • And, notice the difference. Several goals and strategies. Not 500 goals and objectives. Not even 52.

On this last point, people can become quite uncomfortable. I look at it this way. Most of what a university does we will continue to do. Missions do not change, not even over decades. How missions are served does change. Almost always at the margin. So, that’s what the strategic plan should first focus upon: opportunities to better serve the mission, advance the vision. So much of what is central to a university need not be mentioned among strategic goals precisely because it is central. But, folks find that hard to accept, wanting all in there. That leads to the plan with many, many goals and objectives and “agenda setting” instead of setting vision and strategy.

Some other basic features of strategic plans in my own thinking:

  • The plan is the university’s plan, not a president’s plan.
  • A major role for a president is to enable the university in developing its one-paragraph strategic plan. Then, the president must keep repeating the plan until folks are sick and tired of hearing it. Think conductor. That’s what helps talented soloists produce a symphony.
  • Another role, perhaps largely for the administration but can involve us all, is to attend to the deficiencies in infrastructure (technical, fiscal, cultural) that stand in the way of talented soloists being able to do their best.
  • Among the more important infrastructure needs – and we have progress to make here at Western – is to have the information systems in place that will allow each of us to make informed decisions, the outcomes of which can be also be systematically observed as we learn from experience.

Let me continue in my iconoclastic ways for one more point. Strategic planning, we often assert, must be integrally connected with budgeting. I have written sentences like that and attempted such integration. Looking back, I now think that such an emphasis is one reason why strategic planning efforts usually fail.

It is taken for granted: strategic planning should drive budgetary decision making. But, almost invariably, the first big budget shock to come along, and the detailed plans, action steps, and such go right out the window. So, too, does our confidence in strategic planning if we have seen its merits only in terms of, almost formulaically (again, our abhorrence of messy politics) drives budget choices.

Now, I should not overstate this. Certainly, some idea of where we want to go and how we might best get there must shape budget choices when adding, cutting, and reallocating. But, in a university where most costs are fixed – in overhead, yes, but I am thinking more in our people – there is very little flexibility at the margin in budgetary choices.

However, that very same “fixed costs” limitation opens up huge opportunities for strategic planning to be effective if we think about its purposes a bit differently. That resource where we do have more flexibility is us: our time, talent, creativity, energy, and, at the margin, some proportion of our professional effort. There, clear understanding of a vision, several overarching goals, and key strategies can help us each decided the importance of our current efforts compared to other possible ways we might choose to strategically advance our university and its mission.

So, you heard me right. A strategic plan is a paragraph and that’s it: clear vision or direction, perhaps two or three overarching goals, and then the fundamental strategies by which the goals are to be attained and the vision approached. And, here I get really radical: no 11 goals and 52 actions. No, not in there at all. And, its primary value is not as a means to drive budgetary decision making.

How does it work, then?

The vision is essential for it coordinates and integrates that symphony of talented soloists. Got to know what our overarching goals are for the same reason. And, for folks to decide if this is where they want to come. Or, stay. And the strategy? Has to be calculated based upon a cold sober calculation of external threats and opportunities as well as internal strengths and vulnerabilities.

Why not the usual detail: each goal has 5 more specific objectives, each objective has one to five “action steps”; each action step has a measurable outcome, a person assigned responsibilities, a timeline, and dates by which progress is to be reviewed.

A thing of beauty for the ultimate linear thinker. And, I have never seen it work. At least, not for long. The process always gets blamed. If only those in charge had kept a tighter grip and forced those responsible to deliver on the “measureables.”

But, I have come to believe that the problem is in thinking that “a tighter grip” is the solution to anything – at least anything involving the engagement of talented, creative, critical, and innovative people. These are the basic problems:

  • A detailed plan is static while the need, usually, is for us all to know how to respond quickly to unanticipated opportunities and threats. If an opportunity opens up, is it one we want to take and, if so and at the margin, in what direction should we push?
  • A detailed strategic planning process, while it can be developed bottom-up through the engagement of many, many hours of many, many people, it must be implemented top down. That does not fit academic culture.
  • Strategic planning is a controlling CEO’s dream-come-true. (And, I suppose, a dream come true for a governance committee wanting to keep tabs on – and strings on – a president who might otherwise run amok.) But, if it’s a controlling CEO that we want at Western, you don’t want me. Indeed, strategic planning came to prominence as a strategy for control. Secretary of Defense McNamara was struggling to gain control of the Department of Defense and the generals and strategic planning techniques were his tool. (And, from that, it was not too long a path to objective measures of military tactics, body counts relative to North Vietnamese birth rates, and the Vietnam fiasco.)

Dwight Eisenhower, the consummate planner of D-Day, had far better insight. He put it this way: “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.”

Know the overarching goals; coldly calculate the most favorable strategies available; meticulously put in place the infrastructure necessary to flexibly support the endeavor. And, success is possible even though the actual plans go out the window (or over the side of the LCI) as soon as the landing craft hit the beaches.

How About an Illustration

I said I was going to challenge the conventional use of strategic planning at Western by taking you along on a personal intellectual journey.

Let me take you to a time, some years ago, when I was preparing to be the Chancellor at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. There are BIG differences between UWGB and Western. UWGB was a regional university and Western, most certainly, is not. UWGB was a “turn around” situation and, again, Western most certainly is not.

So, I am using UWGB as an example of what a “one paragraph” strategic plan can look like and not as example of what elements should be a part of Western’s strategic plan.

As I prepared to become chancellor at UWGB, there was a strategic plan in place. It was suicidal. Fortunately, it was also done largely top down. So change was not only essential but also relatively easy.

After much listening, discussion, and debate, a strategic plan was developed that could be summarized in two sentences:

  • Vision: To make the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay Green Bay’s University of Wisconsin
  • Strategy: Communities support universities that support communities.

Within this framework, there were three overarching goals, the most prominent being “the growth agenda.” Those were repeated over and over and over. Everybody on campus and most in the community understood not only the plan but, consequently, why we were doing what we were doing.

And, the many initiatives were not linearly developed in some “goals, objectives, action steps” plan annually evaluated and revised. Rather, many, many people within their areas of particular responsibility continually spotted opportunities to move forward on the overarching goals with the vision and basic strategy in mind.

Perhaps most important, those initiatives all continue forcefully. They were driven not by a particular person, a chancellor; they were driven by people passionately owning them and fully understanding the underlying strategic forces propelling the initiatives.

I repeat, the particulars of the plan do not fit us: we are not a regional university in a turn around situation. But, in case you wanted an example of a very different approach to strategic planning.

In this approach, the value of the strategic plan is found not in the annual report of accomplishments on the goals, objectives, and action steps carefully plotted and decided upon the year before. No, it is found in the thousand decisions made by faculty and staff, at the margin, when something unanticipated a year ago, arose. There are many examples of innovative and creative steps on the ground that, top down, could never have been thought of. And, they happened because those nearest the action helped create, could name, and “owned” the overarching goals and understood and could name the basic strategies. And, bottom line: the “growth agenda” was one of three overarching goals; the University of Wisconsin system adopted it as the agenda for the entire system; and, in a year with a $1 billion state shortfall, the Governor put $250,000,000 of new funding into higher education. Growth remains the mantra, today, for the University of Wisconsin system as they cope with continuing challenges.

Where does such a plan come from?

What is the process for coming up with such a strategic plan? Linear thinkers again take cover, for it does not come out of the prescriptions from the latest guru selling strategic planning consultation services to the private sector: for x-gazillion bucks, you can purchase one complete, certified strategic plan with glossy publication and interactive web page. It does not come from a broadly representative steering committee with 10 task forces working for a year underneath the steering committee.

Rather, it is something we in academia are very good at. How did the heliocentric concept of the solar system come to replace the geocentric? Why, in academia, does “creationism” have no place in biological science? How did the once-ridiculed notion of plate tectonics emerge as the foundation for huge theoretical advances in Geology? Discussion, discussion, discussion. Debate, debate, debate. Question, question, question. Inquire, inquire, inquire. Argue, argue, argue. Reason, reason, reason. With time, the accepted “truths” do emerge. Always conditionally, of course (something to remember when it comes to any kind of strategic plan).

Again, I warned linear thinkers to take cover for it is a very messy process. But, by staying fully and intellectually engaged with each other, we have all the tools in place – have had them in place for centuries – to move Western strategically forward.

So, what will Western’s approach to strategic planning be as we have the responsibility to revise the current strategic plan? You will decide. My job is to provoke our best thinking on the subject. And, this blog entry is offered as a way to initiate (and, most certainly not conclude) discussion and decision about how Western should fulfill its commitment to ongoing strategic planning.





Page Updated 01.24.2014