The Problem with Strategic Planning

February 1, 2018

In early January of this year, a group of senior leaders met to begin the process of creating a new strategic plan that will chart the future direction of the College. Our last strategic planning exercise occurred in 2012 with the intent that the result would be a five year plan.
This year, we will begin the process of seeking reaccreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. This is an equally important institutional effort that gives us a national stamp of approval as an accredited institution. The Middle States Commission requires that all institutions have a strategic plan with well-defined institutional goals. The reaccreditation process will take two years to complete, and the strategic plan will play a key role by informing that effort.
The motivation behind the strategic plan is not just that the old one has expired or that Middle States will be requiring it. Rather we need at this time to create a roadmap for the next five years that provides guidance in meeting our challenges and pursuing the opportunities presented to us. The creation of our new plan will require a community conversation that involves all stakeholders.  
A critical component of any well-conceived strategic plan is an "environmental scan" that accurately captures our institutional setting and regional and national trends that impact us. Our current climate sees increased competition for recruiting traditional age students. We need to establish a broader academic base, so that we are not dependent on one discipline or program. 
We have already made great strides in this area with recent initiatives - emphasizing our pre-professional offerings, making our college more attractive to transfer students, and the creation of the new B.S. program in Public Health. Ongoing work on a 3-Year Pharm.D. program in Vermont and online graduate certificate programs will expand our base and competitiveness.
While there is much to be gained during the strategic planning process, it does not come without some risks. A common problem is that people can invest a great deal of time and thought into developing a plan only to see it end up on a shelf collecting dust. More often than not, strategic plans have too many goals and objectives, and these are not clearly prioritized. Every strategic plan needs an implementation plan, and this is where things fall apart.
Another risk is when you ask the community to think big, be creative, and suggest innovative approaches. This can create great enthusiasm and positive energy that cannot be sustained because the resources are not there to support the proposed initiatives. So the community goes from a stimulating exercise with great ideas to the demoralizing prospect of sticking with the status quo.
So strategic planning is very difficult, not because it hard to generate great ideas, but rather because it is hard to execute them. It is as much about leadership and change management as it is about vision. Often we feel constrained by resources which causes us to think small, ultimately limiting the impact of the plan.
At times like this, I am encouraged by the story of Bill Bratton who was appointed chief of the New York City transit police in the early 1990's. During this time, the city was committed to creating a safer subway system that everyone would be comfortable riding. Despite devoting a huge amount of resources to improving the safety of the system, community opinion maintained that the subways were places you did not want to be. 
Bratton decided to start riding the subways into work to see for himself. Not only that, he required his senior staff to do the same. After a few weeks on the ground, they determined that as a whole, the subways were actually pretty safe and that investing additional resources system-wide was unlikely to have an impact. What Bratton realized was that there were a few unattractive stops that were disproportionately creating a negative image of the entire system. 

Instead of recklessly throwing more resources at the problem, Bratton focused on securing those stops that created all the anxiety. He was able to reallocate his resources and actually reduce them in the process of making the subways safer. Based in large part by his success, Bratton would be appointed Commissioner of the New York Police Department in 1994.
As we move into our strategic planning process, we need to be wary of the pitfalls of strategic planning. We need to think big, but also think practical. Most importantly we need for this to be a community effort with everyone engaged in the process. 
I am convinced that we can create a strategic plan that will be both creative and meet our challenges over the next five years. This will require that we all pull together and "ride the subway" as the Bratton team did. If we can do that, our strategic plan will not sit on a shelf gathering dust, but instead serve as a guide to a dynamic and secure future for the College.

Greg Dewey, Ph.D., is President of Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

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