Strategic Planning and Prioritization (Part 1)

By Claudia Neuhauser, Published June 8, 2017

Academic institutions make investment decisions every day, often in response to strategic planning processes intended to set new directions for the institution. Strategic plans are often replete with lofty goals, ideas for new centers, new programs to increase student success, and requests for major funding for cluster hires to respond to new research opportunities.

Strategic plans give senior administrators broad latitude in interpretation, but offer little guidance with regard to implementation: new ideas require new resources. In today’s tight financial times, repurposing of funds from existing programs is often a major source of new funds. An additional challenge to implementation of strategic plans is that academic culture is risk averse and resistant to change.

Strategic plans rarely guide administrators to significantly reshape the portfolio of initiatives and recover resources by redirecting or even sunsetting existing efforts. As a consequence, new initiatives are underfunded, and the portfolio of strategic initiatives continues to grow. The analogy in business would be an automaker that seeks to add new models to its fleet each year while continuing to use fixed resources and infrastructure to make cars that are no longer state-of-the-art and no longer sell.

This wasteful approach to strategic planning is repeated with successive administrations. Prioritization serves to break the pattern. To prioritize, senior management needs to have criteria to identify and promote new strategic efforts and to end initiatives that are either no longer consistent with the vision or have simply run their course.

Leadership in the private sector can declare by fiat that a set of past initiatives will be phased out within a few months and staff will be reassigned. Unlike in industry, decisions in academic institutions are only successful if they respect the faculty governance structure and institutional culture. Being told that one’s research project or academic program is no longer valued by the university and will, therefore, cease to receive funding, is not a decision that is readily accepted by the faculty who have a stake in it. A faculty’s stake can mean their lifetime career and deep personal investment. Being reassigned to a new project, however exciting the project might be, is not part of faculty culture. It is counter to the level of autonomy that faculty expect. This autonomy is at the same time a major driver of innovation and a barrier to change.

Closing down initiatives, whether a center that was started years ago and is no longer a priority or an academic program that has difficulties attracting students, becomes a lengthy battle that adds up to an unwillingness to change, missing out on opportunities that can lead to the decline of an institution over time.

More than ever, universities face the need to change and adapt. As the 2017 APLU meeting advertises: “The Age of Disruption has arrived with breathtaking speed. Public universities find themselves navigating a rapidly changing landscape that demands innovative and creative approaches to excel.”

How to overcome this inertia? Universities need to systematically categorize their portfolio of initiatives. This is routine for businesses. But, academic institutions need to go further. A collective understanding is needed where all levels of the organization from faculty and staff to senior administrators can articulate the value of the portfolio and buy-in into the priorities reflected in the portfolio.

Figure 1: Businesses that sell products acknowledge product life cycles. Throughout the lifecycle of a product, “market sales” is a metric that can be easily measured. There is no simple analog for most of the activities that universities engage in.[1]

[1] Figure modified from: Accessed on June 3, 2017

Each initiative has a life cycle that may span several university administrations. Knowing where in the life cycle each major investment is and closely following each investment through the entire life cycle is critical. To successfully see initiatives through their life cycle, from the initial proposal and seed funding to sunsetting at the appropriate time, requires the development of metrics that continually assess quantitatively and qualitatively the initiative at each stage of its life cycle. While a high level of scrutiny can result in undue reporting burden, no scrutiny is a recipe for failure. Finding the right balance of oversight to ensure accountability and the discipline to abide by it becomes a must.

Institutional data in the national or regional context become a critical piece in the prioritization process and management of the lifecycle of initiatives. This might mean a thorough analysis of past funding success and current research capacity to assess the feasibility of gaining more prominence in certain fields. Or it might mean a comparison to a larger cohort of institutions that goes beyond the traditional choice of a handful of well-chosen similar and aspirational institutions.

We at HSN Associates can help research organizations assess their current strengths and provide guidance in the prioritization process. We work closely with administrators and faculty to build a case for change to move institutions from developing plans to prioritizing and implementing initiatives that are well reasoned and justified.

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