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Misunderstanding Strategy What if your institution's strategic plan didn't really reflect a strategy at all?

Though most planning documents establish goals, the how and why of those goals, can be easily overlooked. The how and why, however, are each vital components of a robust strategy. Conventional definitions regard strategy as a plan or method for achieving a specific goal. Some strategy definitions focus on long-term plans, others focus on actions; what the institution does. A more contemporary view regards strategy as a theory. In practice, social scientists might call this a "working hypothesis" of how and why the institution believes its proposed plan of action will accomplish its objectives. In the university setting, the goals themselves or what many colleges would call strategic goals are typically framed as measurable aspirations. They are markers of what the institution wants to be or wants to achieve. But in todays higher education environment, success requires more than aspirations. Institutions seeking to move as Jim Collins says from Good to Great must manage their growth, select their opportunities, and know where they fit. Effective strategies will connect the right people and capabilities to the right need/opportunity at the right time. The vague pursuit of greatness in academia can become a self-licking ice cream cone. It is valued as an outcome unto itself. But unfocused and unexamined aspirations however grand do not serve the institutions long-term interests. The best opportunities are often patiently created or carefully selected. They require an understanding of the current operating environment, thoughtful anticipation of the future environment, foresight about internal and external barriers, and alignment of institutional capabilities with available resources and objectives. Taking all of this into consideration, institutions must understand not only where they want to be, but also how and why they intend to get there. Even the goals themselves must serve a purpose, and that purpose must be explicitly clear to those asked to pitch in to achieve them. Institutions of higher education (IHEs) generally do a good job of disseminating their goals. But they often seem to reflect less on whyand to whom-- those specific goals are important. Planners, to set strategic goals most effectively, must carefully consider the actions and investments that will be required to achieve them. Consider, for example, the goal of achieving a certain Carnegie Research Classification. Its a noble aspiration. But not every noble aspiration is a worthwhile goal. What will be required of whom? How much will it cost? What unique benefits will accrue if the goal is achieved? How important are those benefits? How is it determined that this specific goal is the best way to pursue those benefits? What unintended consequences might result from pursuing this goal? Questions like these should be an essential part of any strategic planning discussion. And they should be considered not only from the institutional perspective, but also from the view point of faculty, staff and students. To those who select the goal, its purpose often seems self-evident. To those tasked with achieving the goal, the purpose may be wholly unclear. Isnt it enough to have clear, measurable outcomes of achievements that seem like a good idea? Why should the purpose of the goal matter to the people of the institution? Because implementing strategy requires understanding people. Good ideas are important. Measurable outcomes can be useful. But the path to irrelevance is paved with well-intended metrics. Without motivated people to implement them, the most worthy goals will fade into wishes or devolve into lost opportunities. Thats why strategic success depends so heavily on the ability to motivate and mobilize the people. Strategy,

therefore, must consider the actors not just the outcomes. Or as Jim Collins puts it: Great vision without great people is irrelevant." Humans are complicated, social beings and their buy-in and emotional investment often matters more than their compliance. Assuming the constituencies have been represented in the goal-setting process, it is in dissemination and implementation that the people will ultimately embrace, reject, or dismiss the institutions goals. Behavioral and organizational scientists often suggest that people are driven less by mandates and objectives and more by a sense of purpose or meaning. This has at least two potentially important implications for disseminating plans: First, understanding the purpose (why) and the plan (how) allows the people of the institution to construct meaning in what they are asked to do and; Second, by communicating the purpose and plan to them, framed around their interests, the policymakers (goal setters) express their understanding of what the constituencies need or want, and their appreciation for the peoples role in their shared success. As IHEs continue to create, rely upon, and implement their plans, they might find it useful to infuse more elements of strategy into the effort. While measurable outcomes can easily dominate the discussion, a complementary focus on why goals are selected, how and with what cost and benefit they will be achieved, and what the impact will be on the people of the institution and their interests may lead to even greater strategic success. Randy Borum is a Professor in the College of Community & Behavioral Sciences at University of South Florida