Why University Strategic Planning is So Damn Hard

Warning: If your MBTI type includes the letter F, you’re likely to not like this post.

If you’ve been around a University long enough, you’ve heard about strategic planning.  And at some point, you’ve heard people like me complain about strategic planning.  Some typical observations:

  • Too many people approach strategic planning like a five-year old approaches Christmas: An opportunity to get what they want, without any understanding of trade-offs. 
  • The meetings get bogged down in minutiae, where a person from department x or division y gets on a soap box about the futility of the process, or the importance of her area to the success of the University.
  • A camel is a horse designed by committee. (variously attributed)
  • What emerges from the process is seldom strategic, and never a plan.

There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is the collaborative nature and shared governance structure of the University.  Don Randall, the former president of the University of Chicago once observed that as president of a billion dollar corporation, he couldn’t give anyone a direct order.

I used to blame the central limit theorem of mathematics: That is, the large sample of people pretty much ensures that the outcome is going to be average.  (Suppose you had a jar filled with 100 marbles with the numbers 1 to 100 printed on them.  If you wanted to ensure that the average of the numbers drawn is closer to 50.5, in general, you’d want a larger sample.)  My own personal preference involves more risk tolerance: Find a couple leaders with visionary ideas, and take a gamble.  Your results are less likely to be average, but more widely variant.  That is, the ideas could be great, but they could also be total flops.

However, it’s recently occurred to me that the more likely reason is that strategic thinking is a specific skill, maybe even innate.  This article suggests it is simply habitual, and while I like the points, I’m not so sure I agree that it is simply a matter of different activities. You can’t learn how to be Wayne Gretzky by watching how he anticipated movement; you can’t become Larry Bird by seeing how he made perfect passes without seeing his teammates. And I don’t think you can make someone strategic any more than you could make me comfortable at a cocktail party of complete strangers.  Coaching me about walking up to that group and joining in is not going to help.  Trust me on this one.

To draw widely from a group of people at the university (or any group) and expect them all to be adept at the core skill required to do strategy seems naive at best, self-destructive at worst.  Wishing won’t make it so.

What do you think?  Is strategy innate? Is it a series of learned activities? Is it something anyone can do if they set their mind to it?  I’d love to hear your reactions.

One thought on “Why University Strategic Planning is So Damn Hard

  1. I don’t believe that strategy is innate. I think that some people are wired to think more strategically than others, but strategic planning is a process that can be learned by anyone. I think the reason that strategic planning is so difficult is that we have flat, decentralized organizational structures in which different divisions and colleges deal with many different audiences with many different mindsets and objectives. It’s very difficult to come up with a sound strategic plan when you can’t agree to the objectives. Strategic planning requires making decisions about what you’re going to do and what you’re not going to do. That’s going to make some people unhappy, and we dont like to make people unhappy. I also think that we don’t have good models for what a good university strategic plan looks like, because no one’s really doing it. You can’t just adopt a process from the corporate sector, because as much as we like to joke about the fact that we’re “different”, in many ways we really are different. If someone would create a really good model and process for what a good university strategic planning process looks like, and how you deal with the unhappy people, that would be great.


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