Is strategy just a waste of time?

In the early autumn Dublin City University will unveil its new strategic plan. This strategy will, we hope, chart the way through some very challenging and uncertain times. This will be DCU’s fourth strategic plan, and the third of my presidency. It will provide some direction for us, and allow us to show a common purpose. It will also satisfy several formal requirements that affect us, including section 34(1) of the Universities Act 1997 (which provides that the President must prepare a strategic plan for consideration by the Governing Authority), and the rules of certain funding programmes (such as the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions).

But the significance of strategic planning is not always accepted by everyone. When I was in the University of Hull in the late 1990s I was a member of the working group that drafted the plan which was to be adopted by the university. I recall attending a meeting of senior officers at which we presented our draft. When the chair of our group had completed his presentation there was a pause to allow some discussion. After a few moments one of the senior officers sighed and said, ‘Well OK, if you must, but as far as I am concerned there is far too much strategy around here. It’s all such a waste of time.’ There were some sharp intakes of breath, but then others chipped in with their more strategy-oriented responses and, a little while later, the strategic plan (or ‘corporate plan’ as it was actually styled) was published.

But the scepticism of this senior university officer was not totally unprecedented. In fact, shortly before that one of the godfathers of strategic planning, Henry Mintzberg, had written a book (The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning) in which he had called the whole thing into question. His criticism was based on a number of points, but amongst them was his view that strategic plans tried (and failed) to predict discontinuities, politicised the organisation, destroyed commitment, and created a spurious formality for something that should be much more spontaneous.

I suspect there are more than a few members of the academic community who might share that view. But for all that, a focus on strategy has also helped to transform some institutions by allowing (or forcing) them to make choices about how to prioritise the scarce resources of money, time and people. Strategic planning has – when done imaginatively  and effectively – helped higher education institutions make quantum leaps beyond where they could have gone with incremental steps.

But it is also true that many universities have responded to formal requirements to adopt strategic plans (which apply in Ireland and other countries) by issuing long documents that never  really make it into the collective consciousness of the institution and that, often, contain excessively long action lists that don’t really amount to a strategy. Others adopt well-meaning documents that don’t have the consent of the community to which they apply because they were developed in a top-down manner.

So it is probably true that strategic documents are not always useful and sometimes do just amount to a distraction. The challenge is to ensure, both in the content of the plan and the method of its implementation, that this is not the case. My own approach has been to make the process inclusive, keep the document short, fix the focus on selected priorities driven by a shared vision, and ensure that the outcome is memorable.

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16 Comments on “Is strategy just a waste of time?”

  1. Jilly Says:

    I have two major objections to third-level Strategic Plans as they currently exist. One is a practical objection, the other a more-or-less intellectual one.

    The practical objection is that in the environment we actually operate in, 3-year or 5-year Strategic Plans are a giant fiction. The ground moves under our feet so often (in terms of funding, government policy, the global economy in general) that Irish universities barely have the opportunity to devise and implement tactics, let alone strategies. Imagine having just completed your 5-year Strategic Plan in June 2008, for example: as of June 2009 it would be a historic document for all the use it would be. For as long as budgets can disappear overnight, and government policies on higher education change equally fast, universities can have no strategies that mean anything.

    My second objection is more to do with the way these Plans tend to be written and the underlying ideas they tend to express. First of all, they’re often written in staggeringly bad English: no small issue for documents supposedly expressing the long-term vision of an institution of higher education. They’re full of highly questionable terms like ‘excellence’, ‘innovation’, ‘information society’ (whichever is the current flavour of the month in certain circles). All of these terms are of vague meaning at best, and often become meaningless within the poorly-constructed sentences of documents like this. Strategic Plans are also a typical home of nouns-become-verbs, such as ‘accessing’, and other even worse examples. The end result is often a morass of business-speak which is not only ungrammatical and ugly prose, but which rarely articulates what most people working in a university (in many capacities) firmly believe the institution is for.

    • Jilly, I think we should not see strategic plans as crystal balls – they are not intended to predict what will happen, but rather they set out what we say we want to do for the next three (or whatever) years, on the basis of what we know or anticipate now. If that changes, then in all likelihood so will our plan..

      I agree, however, with your comment about a fluent style.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Are not these things much like the plan one handed to the bank manager once upon a time.
    Where he knew that the thing was not worth twopence as a predictor, but if there was none or if badly put together. He knew for certain he was shoveling money into a firepit. These plans are not like those used to build that lyrelike bridge thingy. They should be more Irish, more high Art. Or like road rules, planning laws and tax, for guidance only.

  3. Hugh Says:

    Strategic plans often fall into the same category as Mission Statements, Patient Charters, Environmental Impact Statements, Health and Safety Statements etc. etc. They’re written because they’re required by law, or by insurance companies, or because their compilation is a condition of funding, or in some cases just to fill another page on a website or Annual Report.

    Come inspection time, school principals can be seen tearing their hair out trying to get all these policy statements ready, simply so that there won’t be a gaping hole in the Inspector’s Report. They produce Healthy Eating Policies for their schools, and parents continue to stuff their children’s lunchboxes with crisps and chocolate! What a waste of time.

    There are plenty of honourable exceptions, of course, and I presume that your Strategic Plans are among these. It must be very difficult, however, as Jilly has pointed out, to frame a useful and workable plan when the ground keeps shifting under your feet. I can see no alternative, where Government is involved, to simply accepting that funding can be pulled, and priorities changed without notice, thereby rendering the best-laid plan redundant. The challenge is, surely, to frame the plan in sufficiently broad terms to allow for these contingencies, while at the same time inspiring those charged with implementing it to stick with the task for the duration of the plan.

  4. Aoife Citizen Says:

    I wonder if you can explain the difference between \”quantum leaps\” and \”incremental steps\”; they both denote evolution through discrete changes, what I think you mean to do is to contrast quantum leaps with continuous change.

    As for strategic planning; the problem is for a strategic plan to be any good it has to be written by the sort of people who hate to do strategic planning and this is rarely what happens.

    • Gosh, Aoife, now I’m wondering whether you want me to provide an answer that will stand up to scrutiny amongst scientists. The term ‘quantum leap’ comes from quantum theory in physics, and actually could mean a very small change. But in general usage it means ‘a large increase or advance’:

      ‘Incremental steps’ are a series of small changes.

      • Aoife Citizen Says:

        The electron is at one level and then, without being anywhere in between, it is at another: the quantum leap is one of the most unexpected, unnerving and dazzling of scientific discoveries.

        The essential property of a quantum leap is its discreteness, not its size, and along with the need to celebrate this weird property of our physical world, it seems a waste to use the term inexactly, there are lots of good ways to say large, but few phenomena other than a quantum leap is so unexpectedly lacking in an intermediate state.

  5. Jilly Says:

    Very good point from Aoife. There seems to be a special (and increasingly numerous) body of people in universities and probably all other large organisations who live to write strategic plans. Indeed, it’s become a kind of profession in its own right. The problem is that they are the very last people who should be writing them: those who could are too busy being academics and genuinely useful administrators.

  6. Vincent Says:

    And do you not think four plans ‘strategic’ is driving Mrs Bracknells’ maxim over a cliff.
    Might be best to call this one a Strategic grade tactical plan, or the 09 tactical update to Strategic Plan ‘D’. SPuD 9, for short.

  7. Jilly Says:

    Forgot to say earlier: there was a strategic plan issued about 6 years ago, by a third-level institution in this country which had better remain nameless, which not once in all of its glossy (and incoherently written) pages used the word ‘student’. The academics – among others – who actually did the day-to-day work of the place did enjoy that…

  8. Strategy101 Says:

    I suspect many people who comment on strategy don’t actually understand the process or strategic planning as a discipline. Not only has it been around for thousands of years, but if you think that the higher education world moves fast, try working in the real world – you think that Google or Apple’s world is any different or indeed doesn’t move faster? And yet strategy is at the centre of these kinds of organisation……It is true that ‘operational plans’ are actually the key to the whole process – that is where the specifics lie….

    The ‘blame the management types’ is getting old even from the academic community – quite a few of Ireland’s leading researchers understand why it is needed even if the Academy won’t allow them to say it out loud as it is not the ‘done thing’.

    When is a good time to write strategy? After 9/11? After the Asian crash in the late nineties? After the dotcom crash? Even the recent changes in Irish higher education are completely in line with the trends in the sector (yes, we track trends as well, we are just not always listened to by people). The UCD TCD events for example might have been a ‘strategic surprise’ in terms of timing and to be honest the weakness of the eventual announcement, but hardly a ‘strategic shock.’ Everyone who has an ear to the ground knew they were working on something together, and that everyone in the sector is trying to talk to everyone else about ‘rationalisation.’ Mergers or very close collaboration has been on the cards for years…

    Mintzberg is one commentary but hardly an ‘end of history’. THose of us who do it and use it to move any organisation in a particular direction, whatever the external environment, know exactly why organisations use it. Is it abused? Yes, show me any system, particularly one that has to balance the individual needs of academic groups and so many external stakeholders, that doesn’t fail. Even the best lecturers can’t guarantee that all their students will pass or get a good mark……

  9. cormac Says:

    The question for an ordinary lecturer is not whether stagegic plans are a waste of time, but whether they result in change that does more harm than good.
    Many lecturers feel that huge changes are ushered in without any real evidence that the new system will be an improvement.
    For example, it is now clear that semesterisation has been hugely problematic for weaker students in the IoT system, as students lost the traditional Christmas and Easter mini-exams, a valuable teaching tool.
    Similarily, the current mania for ramming different faculties together to form super-faculties has just reaced our college. Why is this better? What social study showed this would be more efficient? I have not met a single university academic in my own discipline who has found this beneficial, but we are told it is ‘inevitable’.

  10. Perry Share Says:

    I think that these days the majority of institutions could condense their strategic plan into one sentence: ‘This institution will plan to exist as an independent entity in three years time’. This is merely aspirational, most of the rest is in the fantasy category.

  11. Ann Cleary Says:

    When ‘Strategic Planning’ comes up certain works seem to predominate, and I rarely hear words such as ‘purpose’, ‘meaning’ and never ‘passion’. I think this is reflective of what we loose in planning processes and implementtaion. Strategy may be one of the few things that reminds us why we are here, what our common purpose is and why what we do matters. I wonder if some of the assumptions about strategy, how organisations change and the processes used really work. I think that some of the approaches used in HE are based on a ‘machine’ model of organisations – and really we are alot messier and more amazing than that. Reliance of this metaphor also means that we can miss the change that is happenning in all of our systems every day – it does nt have to be top down and driven by targets. Measurement, context, clarity of purpose and leadership enable alot to happen.
    It also strikes me that as organisations HEIs are not very effective at learning and I wonder if action learning & research approaches to making change and implementing strategy might be more effective in HE than what I have seen.

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