TITLE: Thinking About Planning, of the Organizational Variety AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 13, 2005 6:08 PM DESC: ----- BODY: In my dual roles of head of my department and chair of my university's graduate faculty, I find myself thinking about planning a lot. The dean of the Graduate College is initiating a year-long strategic planning cycle for graduate education university-wide. The dean of the College of Natural Sciences is initiating a year-long strategic planning cycle for our college. As a new head, I am drawn to developing a long-term plan to guide my department as we make decisions in times that challenge us with threats and opportunities alike. Administrators think a lot about planning, I think -- at least the ones who want to accomplish something do. The cynical take is that strategic planning is what you do when you want to fill up the time in which you should be doing real work. But I think that unfairly characterizes what many good leaders are trying to do. Now that I am a department head, I see that I have a lot of choices to make every day. Do I approve this course substitution? Do I spend several hundred dollars on a piece of equipment requested by one of the faculty? Do I schedule this experimental course or that? As important, or more so, are the decisions I make about how to spend my time. Do I make plans to recruit students at a local high school? Do I meet with someone in student services about mock interviews for graduating seniors? Do I write an article, study the budget, network with other administrators on campus, work on my own research? My job is to serve the faculty and students in my department. I serve them by spending my time and intellectual energy to their benefit. Without a shared vision of where we want to go, how do I know how to do that as well as possible? When it comes to making the sort of decisions that the faculty want me to handle precisely because they are routine or should be -- without a shared vision, how do I do this as well as possible? The same, of course, applies to faculty. As faculty, we want to make choices with their time and energy that both develop our scholarly interests and help the department improve. Without a plan, we are left to divine good choices from among what is usually a large number of compatible choices. So we as a department need a plan. But not the sort of strategic plan that one often sees in organizations. The bad plans I've seen usually come in two forms. In the first, the plan is essentially defined from above and pushed down through the organization. Without "ownership" and commitment, such a plan is just paper to file away, to haul out for show when someone wants to see The Plan. In the second, the people build a plan bottom-up, but it is full of vague generalities, platitudes with which no one is likely to disagree -- because it says nothing. Often, such plans are long on vision and values but short on objectives and actions that will achieve them. I do not have much experience with strategic planning, and certainly none of the sort I want to have before doing it with my department. But I am thinking about strategic planning a lot, about how I can help my department do it in a way that is worth our effort and that helps us move in the right direction. I've begun to observe a skilled facilitator lead the strategic planning cycle for graduate education here, and I've already learned a bit. She is leading a large group of stakeholders in something that operates like a distributed writers workshop from the PLoP conferences: we will work in groups to identify strengths in the current system, weaknesses in the current system, opportunities to improve the system, and threats to the system. Then we will combine our suggestions toward identifying commonly-held views upon which to build. I hope to learn more from this process as we proceed. As for my department, I am hoping to proceed in a more agile way, as in the planning game. Our mission will play the role of system metaphor in XP. I want to do just enough thinking about the future that we can identify goals whose success can be measured concretely and the metric for which we identify before taking the actions. As much as we can we will work and make decisions as a whole team, with frequent evaluation of our progress and adjustment of our course as necessary. I know that others have explicitly tried this sort of approach in a non-programming context, but there is nothing quite like doing something yourself to really learn it. The sooner we get to "code", the sooner we can collect feedback and improve. -----