THE BLOG
11/14/2013 09:31 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

An Effective Way to Frame Strategic Planning in 35 Words or Less

A couple of years ago a colleague from outside of higher education brought a Harvard Business Review article from 2008 to my attention. Written by Collis and Rukstad, "Can You Say What Your Strategy Is" raises the question: "Can you summarize your company's strategy in thirty five words or less?" This article came to me at a perfect time as our university was developing a strategic plan.

Over the last 30 years I have had various seats at the strategic planning table: as a young administrator who read the plan when it was published, a mid-career administrator who contributed to one or two of the plan's sections, a consultant who pieced a plan together for a campus president, and as a CEO. Strategic planning almost always starts with the noblest of goals: We are going to be crystal clear about where we want to go, what we want to be and how we are going to do it. Many planning efforts then run an obstacle course through institutional inertia, hidden agendas, territoriality, "old records" or pet peeves, domineering personalities, and/or the individual who gets up at some point and says "We can't possibly do strategic planning until we fix (insert most controversial topic here). It's the elephant in the room!"

For me, the worst part of the obstacle course is the inevitable debate about the differentiation between strategies, goals, and tactics. Regardless of how energies are spent in like processes, many would agree that strategic planning fatigue can set in and the work can come to a sputtering end when everyone has had their say and a document must be produced, no matter how realistic, contradictory, disparate or viable.

We haven't had this problem at Marymount California University because we had to make very big decisions in 2008, in and around the beginning of the financial crisis. The decisions we made doubled our enrollment, added new degree levels and athletics, established extension campuses, and increased fundraising. Many of those decisions were both intuitive and urgent because we had a near-death experience with falling enrollments. When we returned to strategic planning in 2012 we had an opportunity to think beyond survival.

But there was now something brewing in the field of strategic planning: the question of whether it was even possible to do long-range planning given the volatility of technological advancements, business model changes, major geopolitical events, and shifting cultural and societal trends. We are in a chaotic world that's finding its way during a massive economic restructuring of modern society. We have many Board members who have been CEOs during this time, so we discussed the wisdom of planning too far out given everything that has transpired in the last decade.

We actively recruit CEOs to our Board, usually from the four advisory councils that we've developed over the last half-decade. Service on these councils is not taxing, but it gives the CEO an opportunity to look under the hood of how a private university is led and operated. Hence, we have had very good luck in having CEOs join our Board who believe in our mission and are impressed with what we've accomplished during the economic crisis. Having CEOs on our Board is a great benefit to the University, even when you're trying to sift and winnow through 25 different perspectives on strategic planning. This is why the HBR article was so helpful.

By 2013 we needed to bring our many planning thoughts together as we were preparing for an institutional name change. What better way to announce a name change then to have it accompanied by a vision for the future, one we called Marymount 2020.

We now had five strategic goals:

1. In the tradition of Catholic higher education, affirm and support our mission of access, personal growth, lifelong learning, service, justice and universal connection.

2. Continually enhance the support of student learning and success.

3. Develop and implement viable, relevant new degree programs in a multiyear rollout.

4. Take fuller advantage of Marymount's location in California and on the Pacific Rim.

5. Integrate sustainability into Marymount's facilities, operations, curriculum, student experience and workforce.

We had identified six strategic initiatives to support these goals:

1. Develop new academic programs that meet student market demand, are synergistic with university advancements, and employ an assessment program that meets the needs of state, federal, and regional accreditation, licensure, and certification.

2. Grow and diversify enrollment in a manner that reduces our discount rate, optimizes our current instructional square feet, and supports a media and social sciences research agenda.
3. Develop annual and multi-year operating and capital budgets that adhere to financial principles that strengthen the University's financial position.

4. Address the deferred maintenance of our current facilities, add incremental and affordable instructional space, and prioritize capital projects for the next 20 years.

5. Strengthen the annual fundraising program so the University's reliance on enrollment-related revenue is lessened.

6. Further strengthen commitments to sustain our Catholic university mission and identity.

Each of the six initiatives was then addressed in greater detail in the planning document. But we were still searching for a more concise way to express our vision for the future. There was a need for one central statement that would guide further analysis, budget development, decision-making, academic program development, external relations, and fundraising. I brought the HBR article to the attention of the Board and there was agreement that we needed to try to do what the article suggested, that is, develop a strategy statement that addressed the institution's objective (ends), scope (domain) and advantage (means). Having surveyed all that we envisioned, the Board approved this statement of our strategic intent:

Our intent is to grow enrollment to 1,700 while sustaining our Catholic university mission, strengthening our financial position, optimizing our current intellectual and physical assets, and fulfilling our potential as a comprehensive university on the Pacific Rim.

This statement has been very helpful in many settings and with a broad spectrum of stakeholders. Do we have lots of work to do to thoughtfully consider any number of important decisions that will come before us in the near future? Sure, but this experience of being succinct and purposeful has really made a difference as we now work to make the plan happen. (By the way, you may have noticed our statement was 37 words, two too many.)

Readers' comments are welcome at mbrophy@marymountcalifornia.edu.