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Oct 1, 2018

Nimble, humble, and simple: Strategic planning and the questioned wisdom of KPI

Conventional wisdom encourages one to create specific measurable outcomes or benchmarks in any strategic plan. For example, we are trying to increase the 4-year and 6-year graduation rates for our undergrads. The almost instinctive thing to do is to put some aspirational numbers. We are doing better than other colleges, but are still at 18% for a 4-year rate. So, let us put say 67% on the year 2025 cohort. However, this is pure guessing. We have no idea if there is a natural plateau in the rate of the graduation rate growth. Perhaps it will be stuck at 30% for a long time. We have no idea if there is a limit for an institution like ours, where many students are intentionally part-timers. As all educators know, in our business demography is destiny. A university that for some reason will admit more middle-class students with more family resources will see an increase the graduation rate. If it admits poorer and URM students, the rates may go down no matter what you do. If the State suffers another financial crisis and cuts funding, we will have to cut sections, and fewer students graduate on time. The aspirational numbers looks good while you are planning, because they encourage ambition and a can-do attitude. If the numbers go up, we all feel like we accomplished something – the victory always has seven mothers. If they go down (often entirely due to external causes), we feel bitter and resort to finding excuses. Failure is always an orphan. Why cannot we accept the essential unpredictability of the universe?

Here is my idea for the next strategic plan. I know it is crazy, and some will laugh at it. We already have a vision – a not-too-specific place where we want to be. There is actually a whole philosophy about not-too-specific ideals. Let us convert the vision into a short list of priorities, so we can make the resource allocation decisions. I borrowed the idea from my fellow dean Lorenzo Smith. If a project or an opportunity comes along – we question whether it fits our priorities or not. If someone is asking for money, we can do the same. It is a useful instrument that helps us to stay focused and avoid spreading too thin.

And then we will develop a list of strategies we believe work to advance our vision. For example, we believe that increasing scholarly output and presenting it in a more coherent way will help with gaining public recognition. Each year we plan a project or implement a policy that supports this specific strategy. In other words, we commit to actually working on a strategy. Every year we look back and see – have we moved the needle on all the strategies? If not, why is that? Is this a bad strategy, or we just did not do enough, or did the wrong thing?

When you write a document of any kind – a policy, a plan, a procedure – it helps to imagine what kind of life the document will actually be playing in the life of an organization. Is it something that will be filed away and forgotten? If not, who is going to be reading it? When, under which circumstances? I was thinking about the idea of the strategic plan like that, imagining its life cycle. It becomes more and more clear to me that it has to be a short document that can be pinned to my wall, for example. It has the key directions for development, but probably no or very few target numbers. It has to be revisited and revised annually, if not more often. It cannot prevent us from ceasing an unexpected opportunity that comes along on its own. It has to cause no shame or denial if it does not work as expected. It has to be nimble, humble, and simple.

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