Game Plan: New Directions in Strategic Thinking and Planning

By    //    Volume 25,  Number 6   //    November/December 2017

As higher education confronts a barrage of external challenges and the disruption of its business model, strategic thinking and planning are taking on new significance in the boardroom. Trusteeship asked a distinguished panel of current and former institutional leaders to share their thoughts on the importance of strategic thinking and planning in this period of volatility. How are they different? How are they related? And what are the roles of the trustee and the board in each? The discussion examined the distinct characteristics of thinking versus planning, the ways boards relate to each one, and the fundamental importance of aligning mission with a compelling vision of the future.

Theodore E. Long: We’re going to start off by talking about the differences between strategic thinking and planning, and the relationship between them. In the simplest terms, how would you define each of those, and what is their relationship?

Larry D. Shinn: I personally like Henry Mintzberg’s suggestion that strategic thinking is a way of seeing. It’s a way of assessing that looks, first of all, behind and ahead—that is, back at mission and then forward for vision of an institution, so it’s rooted in the understanding of its past. It looks above and below; that is, it’s holistic, big picture thinking that’s supported by deep digging involving data and information. Finally, it looks beside and beyond, which means using unconventional thinking— not just thinking outside the box, but thinking without a box. That thinking is then put into action.

Timothy Trainor: I concur wholeheartedly that strategic thinking is really a way of seeing. We’re going through developing a strategic plan now at our university, and one of the things we’ve recently connected with is Jim Collins’ work in his famous business study Good to Great. It has given us a way to think about why we do what we do—who we are, how we do it, but most important, why we do it.

Long: Ellen, you’ve recently written a Trusteeship article about “getting to why,” and I heard Tim mention why [Mount St. Mary’s University] is doing things. Do you want to chime in?

Ellen Chaffee: I think we’re very much in agreement. One way I think about it is, if you’re planning something, you’re not doing what the board should be doing. That is, planning is an implementation activity whereas thinking is a visionary activity. I think one of the big challenges every institution is facing now is that everything is shifting under our feet. We really need to have some smart people think with us about what it means to have a new business model. What does it mean to engage with current and future technologies, and the brains that have grown up with them? What does it mean to meet the public’s expectations, and why should anyone support what it is we’re doing—that whole idea of purpose.

Walter M. Kimbrough: For me, strategic thinking is something you should be doing all the time. You’re always paying attention to what’s happening and trying to place that in context with your institution and everything that’s happening in the world. So, what does this mean for the institution going forward, how do we deal with that at that moment, and then how does that impact how we operate? How do we position ourselves based on what is happening at this moment?

Long: In a certain sense, what we typically consider as planning—where you go through the exercises of analyzing your environment and set out goals and objectives based on that—is more of an intermittent process. But if [as Walter suggested], thinking is an ongoing, recurrent process, what should boards be thinking about? That is, if you’re practicing strategic thinking, what’s the subject of that? Is it the things that are going on outside the colleges and universities or the things going on inside? What should we be thinking about on an ongoing basis?

Shinn: I’d make an observation that we have to be careful not to disassociate strategic thinking from strategic planning because those episodic times are perhaps the most powerful times of getting the whole community engaged in strategic thinking. It takes into account what Ted was describing earlier, which is the school’s mission, the context of what’s happening in the broader world, and the sense of where we’re going for the future. Strategic thinking can take specific forms that are directly linked to planning.

I think that the connection of strategic thinking and planning is the most powerful place for not only the board, but also for the president, the faculty, and others engaged in the process to begin to plan the priorities for the future of the institution.

Kimbrough: Let me be the contrarian as a part of this conversation. If we continue to look at the data, we’re watching the declining tenure of college presidents. They work six to six and a half years now. So how effective are institutions in actualizing a strategic plan when every six years, you have a new leader who comes in with an entirely new idea and new agenda? The board might remain stable, but boards aren’t, in my experience, taking the lead on strategic plans. You get a new president, [he or she is] there for a couple years, rolls out a new strategic plan, and a couple of years later is gone, which is why I think we have to think more about strategic thinking.

There’s just too much instability, which reflects what’s happening in business, in the country, in so many industries. We’re in an era of great fluidity, and we’ve got to think more about that. Maybe the idea of strategic planning is obsolete. When I got to Dillard, they had a strategic plan that was nice, but it was sitting on a shelf. Nobody was looking at it; they didn’t actualize that plan. They went through a really nice process and spent a lot of money, and it didn’t mean anything to people. So, for us to have a shorter strategic plan now, and every year say, “What’s going on now and how do we act and respond to that?” gives us the kind of momentum we need to move forward.

Long: Let’s talk about the role of boards in this mixture of thinking, planning, and strategy. How does the board use strategy for institutional change and development? What is the board’s role in this?

Chaffee: I think there are several themes, one of which is that we need to start where we are and think about the future, focus on purpose and why we exist, and ask why anyone should care if we exist. That’s very fundamental, and it’s an area in which trustees can be very helpful in terms of giving us some perspective.

I think some of the most important things that trustees and the board itself can bring to the discussion are elements like critical thinking and fresh perspective. They come to us with fewer assumptions and more experiences in other settings. So, what we need in times like this are people who will challenge the way we’ve been doing things, who will bring new ideas to how things could be done, who can enrich our sense of our purpose and our direction and what kinds of innovations go forward.

The board members can help us if they think in terms of creating the future with us and helping us find the pathways going forward. The activity of approving a strategic plan is a significant one, but it’s a culminating one where the board starts with helping us with those big picture themes that Larry was talking about and ends with, “Yes, we believe that these kinds of avenues forward will get us to where we’ve agreed we need to go.”

Trainor: I’m going to go back to what was just said, which is focus on the purpose. Why does the institution exist? What are we really passionate about? What can we be the best in the world at?

I think the board needs to provide its input on that, and those high-level ideas—what we’re calling strategic focus areas—over the next five years. Then let the institution do the planning part of it, developing specific goals and objectives and key performance indicators to accomplish those—to develop further how we’re going to go about fulfilling those strategic focus areas, which are driven by our “why.”

Shinn: I’m on a board of trustees. I’ve been with the board for 14 years now, with my third president. We have done two major strategic plans. The president came in just a year ago and was asked to do a new strategic plan.

I’d view the role of the board as providing some of the continuity that is missing when you have that turnover every six years.

So, when the new president came forward, he didn’t enter into a vacuum. He entered a place that had already made some very substantial changes based on its previous strategic plan, which had its detours, its valleys, and its mountains. But ultimately, when the plan came out this year, it was based upon the previous 10 years, plus what new things have come along since then. Since we were not at the level of implementation or planning and not at the level of saying, “OK, we’re going to do program A or program B, here’s the cost, here’s how we’re going to measure it,” but rather at the level [of asking], when you have to choose among 15 possible new majors and you want to attract more students, how do you make your choice?

Part of it is that you do it based on your mission; you do it partly on what you are passionate about. What can you be excellent at doing, and what will bring the dollars in? Finally, what kind of institution are you shaping when you add those new programs? That’s the vision part I was talking about. It argues against the sort of careening that can happen every six years if the new president gets to set the strategic plan, which I think he or she should not do alone. The board, I think, can have that stabilizing role.

Long: This is an important point for us to reflect on. It has to do with the relationship between the president and board in the planning process and the thinking process. How do you see that relationship between the board and president in thinking and planning?

Shinn: Let me build quickly on what I said just a moment ago, because it is not the board that should be the determinant, nor the president, nor the faculty. It should be their collective wisdom about how their mission and their past fits with a dynamic and uncertain future. I think it is this vision, carefully thought out by the board and the president, that should be what’s enduring, not simply the board or the president having the final say.

Long: Are boards positioned well to do the kinds of things that you’ve been talking about, to ask the right questions, to set a long-term vision? If not, what do they need to do to put themselves in a position to do that well?

Trainor: One thing I’ve learned, and I’ll give credit to AGB here—I went to one of its conferences where one of the topics was about running board meetings—is to have a board education topic at each meeting, where you’re talking about things like trends in higher education, discount modeling. Bring in an expert to talk about pricing models, discount models, things like that.

I think the reason that boards can’t be as effective early on is many of them don’t have the background to understand the key trends going on in higher education. We—the president and the president’s cabinet—have a responsibility to educate the board on some of those topics or make sure they’re keeping current so they can put them into perspective when asking questions about the “why” in terms of strategic thinking.

Kimbrough: I agree. We try to do that. We have an annual board retreat, and one of the things we try to do is say, “What are the hot topic issues?” and then bring in a content expert so [trustees] can really see big-picture issues.

That’s part of, I think, the president’s responsibility, just to make sure—and we have people from all different fields, so they aren’t paying as much attention to this as I am—that they have the bigger picture.

I think there has to be synergy, as was said—the board and the president and faculty, everybody. But I think usually it’s going to be on the president to be the person to sort of set the table, to get everyone thinking strategically, to keep raising the right issues, so they end up in the plan.

Long: What are the practicalities of strategic thinking? What does it take to get it done? When should it be done? What are the processes that are best for developing it?

Kimbrough: Some of it happens during your board meetings. But that becomesvery structured and you’re trying to get certain things done, so it doesn’t work as well then. For us, our annual January retreat is a time we can get into some of that thinking, but I think it becomes some informal free-flow of information and a start to test ideas. Then when we’re together as a group, we’re really able to sit down and flesh some of that out. So we do have a dedicated time each year when we do most of our strategic thinking and we bring in someone as a catalyst to engage in that.

I think part of our culture is that we just exchange a lot of information and ideas. It could just be based on someone reading an article in the Washington Post or somewhere, and then we just share that. It really drives our agenda for our January time, when we really get a chance to actively engage as a group in strategic thinking, which leads to some good action items. It’s just being aware of things that are happening, even if it’s another industry, and then saying, “So what does this mean for us, and what does it mean for higher education?”

I think we’ve created a culture—I mean, in some ways, I think it existed at Dillard before I got here. Our previous board chair was very active in AGB, so I think she helped cultivate that kind of culture, and I was able to fit into it. We exchange lots of ideas. It might just be an email, someone reads something to say, “Hey, what do you think about this?” or, “Have you seen this?”

Trainor: I’m going to give the perspective of “living it” this year in a situation where we didn’t have an active strategic plan. It had passed, and a new strategic plan had not yet been developed. We have a mission statement that is rather old and has not been seriously reflected on or updated to make it current and look to the future.

I think you need a focused group—and we call it a strategic planning committee of the board—that is willing to roll up their sleeves, look each other in the eye, and go through some elicitation processes to develop top- level strategic focus areas and revisions of mission and vision statements. It’s difficult to do that in a large group.

Long: What are some pitfalls that boards and institutions should make sure they avoid as they get involved in these processes, as they utilize them and so forth?

Chaffee: I think it’s easy to get excited about many possibilities, and hard, then, to come down to some kind of focus that’s actually viable and realistic and sensible. I think there’s a risk of spreading things out and coming up with too many possibilities and having difficulty getting back to focus.

Long: Are there other pitfalls that some of you might have observed or want to make sure people are wary about?

Shinn: I’ll state an obvious one, which is sometimes planning processes fail to address the institution’s primary challenges because of a defense of the status quo: a mission statement that’s out of sync with the world around it; having resources that aren’t available to do what you say you want to do in the planning process. Sometimes the failure to address an institution’s primary challenge is— ironically—an outcome of a planning process.

Trainor: If I could piggyback on that, one pitfall I’ll say to avoid is “committee think” in developing goals. By that I mean develop objectives or goals or strategic focus area statements that try to get everyone’s viewpoint seen, and then lack any specificity for which you can hold the institution accountable for executing in the future. The point I’m conveying is, by committee think, we may not hold the institution accountable and give it a direction for which it can be held accountable, and that is measurable and achievable.

Long: Let’s go on to one big takeaway that each of you might offer to those who are thinking about strategic thinking and planning. Trainor: I think the one takeaway is that boards have got to focus on the “why.” Why does the institution exist? And keep focused on that, on defining that.

Chaffee: To put forth a little corollary: that the “why” is not so the institution survives; the “why” is so it can deepen, broaden, and intensify the reason we should all support its existence and its future.

Kimbrough: The takeaway is how do institutions and boards work with presidents to make sure there’s an active and engaged strategic thinking process, and just be in the moment with everything that’s happening and making sure that they are applying that to their decision making for their institution.

Shinn: I think the observation is that three elements are intertwined in a successful strategic thinking and planning process. One is shared governance—getting the right people at the table so that at the end, the people who have to develop the implementation have also been part of the development of the goals.

Second, it takes courageous leadership. It takes leadership at the board level, at the presidential level, or at the vice presidential or faculty level, of imagining new ways and learning to say no to things we’re already doing now— which is one of the toughest things in the strategic planning process.

So, shared governance, courageous leadership, and then finally, having those groups together think institutionally and not out of their individual silos, whether that’s an administrative silo, an academic silo, or a department silo. For me, those would be three keys to seeing a successful wedding of strategic thinking and planning.

Chaffee: In terms of staying at the strategic thinking level, I think if trustees imagine that the institution is a ship on the ocean and they are in a helicopter above the ship with the captain, the captain is both on the ship and in the helicopter, it’s easier for them to ask themselves, “Am I at the 20,000-, 30,000-, or 40,000-foot level in how I’m thinking about this?” It helps them stay in the strategic thinking mode.