September 8th, 2009

Tips for Implementing Your Strategic Plan

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When John Pyle was vice president at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, one of his goals was to focus the campus’s energy on implementing the operational plan. “There was a lot of energy once the strategic plan was developed, but we kind of lost steam in implementing the operational plan,” he says.

One problem was that the six strategic directions in the strategic plan—unique identity, organizational symbiosis, integrated infrastructure, alliance and partnerships, new populations of learners, and institutional visibility—were pretty broad, and although developing the strategic plan was a “highly inclusive process,” people had a difficult time making sense of it, Pyle says.

Another problem with implementing the operational plan was that there were just three or four people sitting around the table trying to make decisions for the entire campus. “When I moved into the leadership role, I really wanted to open up participation into this operational planning mechanism,” Pyle says.

Pyle convened campus-wide meetings, which had up to 80 people in attendance (out of 120 faculty and professional staff), to create connections across functional areas. In addition to the general sessions, there were breakout sessions to devise tactical steps to complete assignments that would link objectives from the operational plan to the strategic plan.

Each of these groups had “quite a bit of decision-making power. They recommended what they felt were the key items. As a leadership team we told them up front, ‘We reserve the right to make some judgments with budgets and other priorities the institution is taking.’ They were given a lot of voice in helping shape the plan, the initiative, and the process,” Pyle says.

Another element of the implementation planning process was bringing in a consultant group to foster innovation halfway through. Pyle chose a group called Brave New Workshop, a Minneapolis-based comedy group that also does organizational workshops. Although this sounds like an unlikely resource to help with the operational planning process, [the process] was well received by participants. “I think people really resonated with it. There was a lot of energy. It wasn’t a highly theoretical process. It was really simple and straightforward, and people seemed to buy into it,” Pyle says.

The process that Brave New Workshop brought to St. Mary’s was based on John Sweeney’s (the owner of Brave New Workshop) book Innovation at the Speed of Laughter, which features the following eight secrets to innovation:

  • Accept all ideas, not just those you are comfortable with.
  • Defer judgment. When participants don’t feel as if they’re being judged, they are more likely to present their ideas.
  • Accept styles. Allowing people to work in the manner that they are comfortable with encourages participation.
  • Declare point of view. This reduces ambiguity.
  • Create a statusless environment. This increases confidence and encourages participation.
  • Create a reward system that recognizes innovation.
  • Yes first. By responding to an idea with “yes,” you show that you accept and respect the person presenting the idea.
  • Perceive change as fuel. The need to respond to change is a great motivator.

Working with this consultant group “helped create a culture that really fostered innovation,” which is a key component of the university’s mission, Pyle says. “I thought this would be a way to help invigorate new idea generation instead of just sitting around in meetings and talking about this trend in this field or this trend in that field.”

Throughout the process, Pyle made it a point to share progress reports with the entire campus. “We were pretty open with the campus community about the whole operational plan. We posted it on our Blackboard website and allowed people to comment. I also had a monthly newsletter that gave updates on progress outside of these special [campus-wide] sessions,” Pyle says.

Lessons learned
From this experience, Pyle cites the following lessons learned:

  • Be willing to take risks.
  • Make the process meaningful to people’s work.
  • Create cross-functional teams.
  • Use metaphors to help focus the group.
  • Talk regularly about how people will be involved and where their ideas will be used.
  • Initiate the brainstorming early in the process.
  • Provide regular updates.

Excerpted from How to Get an Implementation Plan on Track, May 2008, Academic Leader.