Strategic Planning in a Time of Change, ABA Midwinter Meeting, 1999

Strategic Planning in a Time of Change

ABA Midwinter Meeting 1999

Jeffrey S. Lehman 


I’m often invited to participate in panels on strategic planning to play the role of curmudgeon, because although I believe strongly in the importance of planning strategically, I take a deeply skeptical view of what are often referred to as strategic planning processes. 

The things I don’t believe in tend to take the following form –

1.  Appoint a Strategic Planning Committee

2.  Have the Committee Hold Focus Groups With All Stakeholders

3.  Have the Committee Facilitate a Retreat at Which All Stakeholders Brainstorm

4.  Have the Committee Produce a Mission Statement

5.  List the Key Values Implied by the Mission Statement

6.  List the Goals Implied by Each of the Key Values

7.  List the Output-Based Objectives Implied by Each of the Goals

8.  List the Measurable Performance Indicators Implied by Each of the Objectives

9.  Develop a Timeline for Each Measurable Performance Indicator, Including Critical Milestone Deadlines

10.  Post All of the Committee’s Work Product on the Web Site

The reason I don’t like these strategic planning processes is that it is very rare that they produce anything other than a vacuous political compromise.  The pressures are almost irresistible to generate a document with near-universal appeal, which means a document pitched at such a high level of generality and such a low level of controversy that it avoids any truly difficult judgments.

So what kind of planning process do I like?  I like a simple process in which a single leader sits down and writes out a set of goals for the institution.  Concrete goals.  A set of goals that is sufficiently ambitious that (a) it will be obvious if they aren’t achieved, and (b) it will be virtually impossible to achieve them all.  

And then that leader takes that document and shares it widely, asking for reactions and comments.  And then the leader refines the document in light of the reactions, not with a goal of achieving universal buy-in, but rather with a goal of achieving sufficient buy-in to proceed.

I think that this kind of planning tends to be most effective when it is undertaken under conditions of resource constraint.  The most obvious context for that is budgeting.  The other obvious context is establishing fundraising goals for a campaign.

I don’t actually believe the author of this document has to be the dean.  I believe this process can be delegated.  Certainly portions of it can be delegated.  But it can’t be delegated to a committee that is so big it can’t act.

So what is different when we’re talking about strategic planning “at a time of change”?  Surely everything under the sun is changing.  The develop environment has become tougher.  State support is being slashed.  In the case of my own school, the dean is on the way out the door.  What does that mean?

I think it means three things:

1.  First, it’s important to resist the natural impulse to deny that the world has changed.  It’s human nature in times like this to say, “Gee, my forecasts were more optimistic.  If I now come out and say that things aren’t so pretty, people will accuse me of being a bad forecaster.”  That’s natural.  It’s natural in the business sector as well.  It’s important to resist the impulse.  This isn’t about us as forecasters, it’s about the world around us.  We can’t let the two get confused.

2.  Second, at the same time it’s especially important in this kind of environment to be focused on community morale.  For the most part, most people are mature enough to know that there are easy times and there are hard times, and they are willing to help out and hunker down in hard times.  But to do that, they need constant reassurance that, on balance, things are OK, life is still good, and things will get better.

3.  Third, and more concretely, if you are like most of us, trying to scale back hopes and expectations, it is critically important to see our goal as about more than just pain allocaion.  It’s really not enough to say, “OK, we’ve got to trim $1 million from our operating budget, I’m going to allocate that $1 million as follows.” 

I think it is critically important to keep finding some new things, ambitious things, creative things, that you will take on.  Things that will help to sustain a sense of forward progress, even when times are tough.

So that means saying, “OK, we’ve got to trim $1 million from our operating budget.  And we’re going to do something new that costs $200,000.  So we really need to trim $1.2 million in order to do that.  And I’m going to allocate the $1.2 million as follows.”  It’s in some ways counterintuitive.  And sometimes I suspect it’s wrong.  But most of the time I believe it’s right.