Keys for Strategic Planning Process: Lessons from Graduation

I write this as I fly home from my niece’s graduation from Elon University. I first came to know Elon – and subsequently introduce it to my niece – from a graduate class I took in strategic planning many years ago. In that class, we read and discussed Transforming a College about Elon’s transformation from a small local college to a university of national distinction. In the 1970s, Elon faced declining enrollments, insufficient revenue, and significant competition from powerhouse universities across North Carolina (e.g., UNC, Duke, Wake Forest, NC State, Davidson and others). School officials realized that they had to change – and change drastically – in order to survive.


Too often organizations go through the motions of strategic planning without really taking a strategic view of their future – or effectively planning for that future. Visiting Elon this weekend reminded me of the story of their transformation, a story from which I draw three lessons that strategic planners anywhere can apply to their organization.


First, strategic change takes time … and patience … and more time

Too often organizations look for a quick fix: a time horizon of a few months or a few years instead of decades. True change, however, takes much, much longer. Elon did not fix their strategic issues overnight. As outlined in the book, the first phase of their transformation took many years. That change still continues today – more than five decades later – with new programs and new construction evident across the campus. For example, my niece lived in a brand new University-owned apartment complex this year while the residence hall in which she lived only four years ago no longer exists, replaced by another new living community that will open next fall. 


Second, change begets change

Planners often seem tempted to spell out every step of their strategic plan, leaving nothing to chance. Perhaps relieved to have completed this planning sessions, they hope to not have to engage in this exercise for another five years. But good planning occurs continuously as the environment changes, organizations evolve, and its leaders learn from each experience. Back in 1970s, Elon did not set out to create every step of a fifty-year plan. Instead, they sought to confront their heavy dependence on tuition and poor campus conditions and set in motion a plan to solve those problems. Subsequently, they realized that more of an experiential-focused education would attract the students they desired and differentiate them from their competitors; they implemented a series of workshops to help faculty design and revise curricula using that philosophy. With courses redesigned, they realized that traditional classrooms no longer served their needs so they created new learning spaces. And so on and so on.


Finally, strategic change takes courage and outside-the-box thinking

Too often strategic plans read like “do more of the same things only better.” While that may serve some organizations some of the time, true organizational change requires that leaders have the courage to look at their environment and their situation and create a different future for themselves. Elon turned their disadvantageous location in a small, rural town in the middle of North Carolina into an advantage to recruit East Coast students to their mild climate. With little in the surrounding towns to attract or interest students, they created their own campus-based community with top-notch living, learning and recreational spaces. Likewise, instead of competing head-to-head with the more-traditional North Carolina colleges, they differentiated themselves. I can only imagine the discussions, feelings, and looks in the board room when someone suggested that Elon seek to attract a different, more affluent and more national student population.  If no one had the courage to take that crazy idea and move it forward, would Elon exist today? If it did exist, certainly it would not be the Elon University that my niece proudly calls her alma mater.