College Strategic Planning That Includes Everyone

Podcast by Daniel Barwick

Top of the morning to you! Well, at least it’s morning where I am. Anyway, I’m happy to be here with you. I’m Dan Barwick and today I’m going to talk to you about strategic planning. We’re in the midst of a strategic planning process here at Independence Community College and I think there’s important lessons to be learned from that process; things that have worked well, things that are problems, and things that are problems that I’m not sure it can be avoided in the strategic planning process. So I think there were some real lessons to be learned.

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We are going through a strategic planning process for a pretty simple reason: our current strategic plan is ending. We had a three-year strategic plan. Each year, of course, we revise the plan; we do a pretty comprehensive review cycle each year for the plan, in which we have a predetermined data that we’re looking at to see whether or not we’re on track. Basically the Board of Trustees considers revisions to the plan and every year they do make revisions. But the three-year plan is ending. And not only does our current strategic plan, the one that’s ending, call for the creation of a new plan this year, but of course, our accreditors and and other stakeholders, the public and so forth, assume that the college is going to engage in long-term planning. So obviously, we’re going to create a new strategic plan for the college, which I think is a pretty exciting process because everybody can get bogged down during the day with the day-to-day operations, the emergencies that come up. And it often feels like a luxury when you’re thinking one or two months ahead. And the reason why strategic planning is so interesting is because it’s that one chance you get where you’re really thinking years down the road.

That doesn’t mean of course that you’re going to be able to see with clarity for years down the road, but it does mean that you’re going to be able to think about what the college would look like at that point and think about the ways that you could get there. And dreaming is always fun. So I really enjoy strategic planning. Now the college had been through periodic strategic planning certainly since I came to the college in 2011. The first plan that I was involved in was in 2012. That was a pretty comprehensive process. We had quite a few subcommittees. Those subcommittees were populated by, I would say, at least a 50 or 60 people total and the sub committees addressed all the different areas of the college. There was widespread participation in that plan and it produced a good plan.

However, what you get when you have widespread participation, as you do sometimes end up (I would say frequently end up) with a plan that is a bit of a hodgepodge of things that were suggested by very different constituencies, and that can make the plan feel a little less focused because it often focuses on a larger number of things. But it’s still a good process, because it engages quite a few members of the community. And often of course, when you bring in those people, you get some pretty neat new ideas.

Three years later we did another strategic plan and this time the Board of Trustees of the college asked for a different process in which we put together a very small focused work group. I think it was about a dozen people, that included primarily employees of the college. We hashed out a much more focused plan that was centered around three, just three, areas of excellence. The board really liked that plan, and endorsed it a relatively quickly. As you might imagine, when the plan’s created by a smaller number of people, that plan received less buy-in initially from the campus. However, because our annual review process is pretty comprehensive and involves input from many departments, we found that over time as the annual revisions occurred, there was more and more buy-in to the plan.

The current planning cycle, I basically told the board that what I would do first is I would hold a series of discussions, both in and outside of the campus, just to essentially get people thinking about strategic planning and to get a sense of sort of the main themes, not that people wanted in an eventual plan, but the main themes, their opinions about the kind of process that we should follow.

So what I did was I held an open forum on campus with our employees, and got their feedback just about what the process should look like. And then I actually had personal visits, a discussions with, 11 stakeholders, both inside and outside of the college, primarily outside, because I’d already had that open forum. And the idea was really just to make sure that whatever process we settled on that it was a process that also, was supported by the larger community. As you might expect. There were some very specific themes that emerged from those initial discussions. and those themes became the foundation for the process that we eventually used. A first, there was an a widespread belief that it had to be an inclusive process. this came about, in other words, by inclusive, I mean, essentially to involve as many different stakeholder groups as possible.

And this was in response to two things. First, the people who simply held as a principal that that was a good way to go about strategic planning. And then second, there were people who remembered the process that we had done three years earlier. We’re not satisfied with that process and wanted it to include more stakeholders. And so the two of those groups together really became the majority view that the process had to be as inclusive as possible. The second, and, and this is a, this is a tougher one to describe, but that whatever process we engaged in, it would have to be one that encouraged fundamentally new ideas that is a lot harder than it sounds. Basically people are only going to espouse new radical ideas when they feel safe enough to do so. Now they could feel threatened in different ways. They could be threatened by the response of others or they themselves could simply feel as if they need to be as accommodating as possible at the views of the people around them.

And they don’t feel as if they want to rock the boat by espousing something new and totally strange. And we felt that the college, in order to be competitive in the next five to 10 years, ultimately a needed to be able whether or not it was going to go and totally new directions, we certainly needed to have a strategic planning process that encouraged people to come forward with fundamentally new ideas. And that can be really tough. You’re always going to have some people who who come forward with new ideas that, I mean there’s always a few people who aren’t shy about doing that at all. The problem is is that that’s really just a few people. What about the, the people who are quiet or the people who don’t feel comfortable or, or any other reason that somebody has, maybe they’re just, they, they’re just unsure of whether the idea is just too wacky and they, they’re unwilling to come forward with that idea.

We’re not looking for the people who always come forward one or two new ideas and they’re totally comfortable doing that. We’re looking for a process that will encourage people who have ideas that may be very unusual and aren’t the type who normally push an unusual idea. In our case, there’s because of the college has been here for about a century. There’s a lot of tradition and you might say status quo and so it was particularly incur a important, we thought to encourage fundamentally new ideas because we really didn’t want people to simply, do things because that’s the way they’ve always been done. Related to that was the third principle which came out again and again in the discussions, which was that we had to avoid a final product that only reflects the views of the people who scream the loudest. So if you’ve been through any kind of planning process or actually this, this holds true for many other kinds of processes before that involved collaboration, you will often find that there are very, very dominant people in the room.

people who think of course everybody thinks their idea is the right one, but these people express their views very, very forcefully and really have trouble coming to terms with the idea that inherent in a collaborative decision making process is often a, some form of compromise. some kind of give and take, may be giving up something, or maybe just, being overruled and accepting that you’ve been overruled. And there are people, of course, we’ve all met them who really have a tremendously tough time doing this. What we needed to figure out was we knew we needed those people in the room because we obviously don’t want to shut them out, but we need to make sure that somehow the final product, doesn’t end up being just their ideas and their ideas are there and not because they are, they have the most merit, but because those people just couldn’t let their ideas go.

The next point was that there was general agreement that we should use an outside facilitator. So for the previous strategic planning cycles, we had done it in house. I would say that in the first case, I would look back and say that it was led by the board of trustees. In the second case, it was led by me. But I think that everybody wanted to try what is widely recognized as a best practice in strategic planning, which is to make the the coordinator of the entire process, the person who is really leading it be someone who has, I won’t say who has no stake in the outcome, but who may have less of a direct agenda or maybe have less direct connection to the institution. That is, they’re more willing to hear different points of view and to hear them, on a more equal footing. Whereas somebody who, has a very specific role at the institution may not be able to do that. And so the idea was that we should use an outside facilitator,

The next item that came out of the discussions, and I really can’t stress this a strongly enough, as the level of my agreement with it, is the use of data. Especially when you see strategic planning for small organizations, you often find that a strategic planning, boils down to people sitting around either reminiscing about, the school when they were there. And how much they’d like to return to that, or telling anecdotes about things that they think are successful at the school, things they’ve seen or things they’ve heard. And the, the thing is the plural of anecdote isn’t data. Ultimately a good strategic planning process is going to a d do a deep dive into the data because very, very often the data shows something unexpected, interesting or counterintuitive and you have to be respectful of that data.

I’ll give you an example about how data can yield some pretty interesting results. We did some pretty extensive surveying for the strategic planning process of various groups; our current students, prospective students, high school students. We did, of course, our alumni and community members and so forth. We did quite a few different demographic groups, and one of the most interesting things that emerged initially in the data was that current students thought far better of the school than our graduates did. Actually this was a very surprising result for me, because of course I’m used to the idea that current students are going to be caught up in whatever problem they might be having at the time at the school, and they might not report their current experience very well. Maybe they had a bad meal that day at the dining hall, maybe they’re having an argument with a teacher, who knows? But in the end, I thought, a graduate, somebody who’s really just looking back through the haze of good memories is going to say, well, yes, I really, really liked that school. And that we found exactly the opposite, that the people who were the current students gave us much higher ratings. That really worried us because of course we thought, well, it’s got to be pretty bad when a graduate who has the perspective of having graduated, having gone out into the workplace and attempted to put their degree to work or to put their degree, to work in a transfer institution where they’re going to go on with their education and then becomes dissatisfied. We thought, that’s a very alarming conclusion. That by itself was interesting enough until we looked even closer at the data and segmented the ages of our alumni. And what we found was that a recent graduates actually gave us very high ratings. The people who had graduated from the college 15, 20, 20, five years ago, were the ones who are giving us very low ratings, and dragging down the overall demographic response. And they were giving us those low ratings because, at the time, community college credits did not transfer nearly as well to universities. Most of those students were transfer students. And it turned out that the reason was that they were reflecting on their own experience where a considerable number of their credits did not transfer, and they believed erroneously that that situation still existed. And so they weren’t just reflecting on their own experience and reporting what it was back then, but they were also giving sort of their own guess as to what the quality or the transferability of an education at Independence Community College might be today. It turned out they were wrong about that, but it was deeply coloring their responses and changing the overall response from the entire alumni group. So we actually found that what we thought was something very troubling, actually reflected and improvement to the school in the last couple of decades.

The next thing that I recommended to the board was that they create what we call the Strategic Planning Process Committee. A group of people at the college, just three people, who had two things in common: first, they had background and training in strategic planning. And second, they were not upper-level administrators, since we were trying to avoid the appearance that the process was being controlled either by senior administration officials or the Board. That process committee came up with an excellent process for creating a strategic plan. They recommended a data-gathering phase of about two months that would include both established data about the school, the kinds that we report to the federal government and to the state and so forth, combined with comprehensive surveys of our various constituencies. We used a combination of electronic surveys that we’re able to distribute to alumni nationwide, as well as the residents of our service area, regardless of whether or not they were alumni. We also directly surveyed prospective students; that is, high school students who were considering a college, to ask them they direction they thought ICC should be going in. And we basically ended up surveying quite a few different groups.

The second were listening sessions, which were led by trained facilitators. These listening sessions were absolutely fascinating because they were pretty structured, so they weren’t just sessions where people just go and complain. Instead, the people there were asked to respond first individually to specific questions and then to split off into small groups and answer those same questions as groups and come up with responses that the group is sort of could endorse. And then those groups presented those answers.

We collected all of both the individual responses and the group responses. Likewise, the electronic surveys were very structured: what they did was they took apart the college’s mission statement and it’s vision statement into its various components and asked people how well is the college meeting this part of its mission statement and this part of its mission statement on a scale of one to five. Then at the end, there was an open-ended question or two, I can’t remember how many, but people who had something to say that that wasn’t connected to the survey were still given the opportunity to give an open-ended response. It allowed us to really home in on exactly the places where the respondents thought that there was a gap between what the college was supposed to be doing or had promised it would do, and what it was actually doing.

I use the word “gap” very deliberately, because the next step in the process was to form something called the Gap Analysis Committee. The Gap Analysis Committee was made up of four community members, two faculty, two staff, two board members, and me as an ex officio member. The committee was led by the strategic planning coordinator, the outside facilitator that I told you about. This time around we managed to snag just an absolutely amazing person. His name is Mike Thompson. he’s retired from the financial services industry. As an alum of, of ICC, he’s absolutely fantastic and has done an incredible job leading the effort.

So what we did was, the gap analysis committee, their job was to look at the quantitative data that we received from the state, from the federal government, all of the survey responses, all of the listening responses both quantitatively and the qualitative responses, and to essentially identify the most significant areas in which there’s a gap between what the college says it will do and what it’s actually doing. I guess I should say the “largest perceived gap.” Then the gap committee’s job is to determine whether that gap is real or merely perceived; whether it’s an actual problem in operations, or a marketing problem.

Before the gap committee does anything with its conclusions, it has one more step. and that is to examine the mission and the vision of the college, to see if they want to form a group that would alter that mission and vision. In our case, they were satisfied with the current mission and vision and they left those untouched. But obviously the strategic planning process does provide the opportunity to alter the mission or vision of the college as the institution sees fit. In our case, we left it alone.

 At that point, the Gap Committee, then having identified the various areas where the largest or most important gaps existed, formed work groups to work on each one of those gaps, and worked for about a month and a half creating solutions in those areas. And those work groups were charged very specifically, with addressing, they were, they, it was described to them exactly what the gap consisted of and what that committee, needed to do and what kind of work output, was expected of that group. In what span of time. We also, placed, resources at the disposal of each work group, because of course we have, institutional researchers here. We also have different administrators who have experience in different areas. Work groups could certainly go outside of the college if they, if they needed information.

And so each of the work groups managed to complete their work. What’s done with the results of their work is that it goes back to the Gap Analysis Committee. And the reason why is because the last thing we wanted to do is to have those work groupsndo their work all in isolation to produce things that may in fact not compliment each other very well. So the next step was to have all of the work group members meet with the entire gap committee. Everybody presented the results of their work and there was then a discussion about how those different results might need to be reconciled with each other. At that point, the Gap Analysis Committee took a few weeks to create a final set of recommendations that were, essentially, a sort of an amalgam of what had been the work group products.

This set of recommendations was then given to the Board of Trustees. And at that point, the Gap Analysis Committee’s work was done. And, at that point the process has taken over by the Board of Trustees because in the end it is the Board of Trustees’ strategic plan. So that’s where we sit now in the process. Once the strategic planning recommendations from the gap committee are turned over to the Board, it’s now in the public sphere and we enter a public comment phase on the recommendations we have. There’s at least two opportunities for the public to comment prior to board meetings because the Board will actually address the strategic plan during at least two board meetings, one to address the recommendations of the gap committee and then the other, ideally to address some final version of the plan that they come up with, and the public can comment, prior to and at either of those meetings.

Ultimately, I don’t know, of course, what the actual strategic plan will be, so I can’t speak to that, nor do I think, by the way, I have to, since this isn’t about our strategic plan, it’s about the process that we’re using to create one. But I do think that the process that we’ll  have completed have been remarkably inclusive; we are a small school in a small corner of the state, and yet, at this point, over 600 people have participated in one way or another in the creation of this plan. Some in work groups, some on the gap committee, some in survey responses, some attended listening sessions. And so in the end, what we really wanted to do was create an inclusive process that we could be proud of in the sense that as a community college, we listened carefully to the community we serve.

Now it’s the nature of strategic planning that not everyone will like the result. In fact, I’ve never seen a strategic plan yet that everybody liked the result. But what I have found is that the process itself matters in terms of people’s willingness to accept a strategic plan that they may not entirely agree with. That’s why I think, a very crucial part of strategic planning is creating an inclusive process that is as free from agenda as possible so that people will have confidence that, whatever the process is, it was transparent and the institution listened carefully to its constituents. I feel pretty pleased with this process that we’ve used because people have told me again and again that they’ve either enjoyed the process or that they can see that we’re working very hard to make it inclusive, and to make sure that the quiet voices are heard.