Who needs a Plan?

Universities haven’t always had a happy relationship with planning. Richard Calvert and Libby Wilson from Sheffield Hallam University ask whether it’s time for a re-set, and what we might need to do if we want to rehabilitate the humble “plan”.

When Benjamin Franklin reportedly described “failing to plan” as “planning to fail”, he probably didn’t have the higher education sector in mind.

Yet as the margin between success and failure narrows, it may be time to re-evaluate the often tetchy relationship between universities and their planning processes.

To be fair, it’s not that universities never plan. Indeed, many of us would say that we have too many plans.

More important is what good planning looks like, and how we plan with more confidence, coherence and organisational buy-in than we’ve often managed in the past.

Vicki Goddard’s recent blog on implementing a strategy rightly flagged up that strategies don’t count for much if they’re not supported by plans, communication and the need for personal connectivity.

We’ll explore the role of planning in a bit more depth, and particularly what makes planning work.

What’s the difference between strategy and planning

We might feel instinctively that we know a strategy from a plan, but it’s timely to remind ourselves about their different roles. 

There are many definitions, but most agree that strategy is about deciding how to position an organisation relative to the external environment – making choices about what you want to be known for, what you will and won’t do, and what outcomes you’re seeking. Planning is more about breaking this down into specific actions, identifying and aligning the resources, and being clear about where the key decisions are taken.

It follows from this that you’d hope your strategy wasn’t changing every year. At Sheffield Hallam, we’re still essentially working to the Transforming Lives strategy launched in 2017. This set out our ambition, as well as what we wanted to be known for. 

It may have much in common with other university strategies – as anyone who’s asked ChatGPT to write a strategy will know, our strategies share much more than we might think! 

But the fact that it’s stood the test of time owes much to its simplicity and clarity, and that it’s tapped into a shared sense of institutional values and purpose.

The plans that now underpin the strategy, on the other hand, look very different to those which we initially put in place.  When the strategy was launched, we relied on a clearly articulated set of ten priorities to be achieved in the first 2-3 years. These shaped the agenda, providing clear goals and a strong story around which we could coalesce.

But they’re very different from what we need now.

Learning from experience

To some extent, this evolution reflects the changing environment in which we’re now operating. Looking back, the ten priorities provided a clarity of focus that feels challenging to replicate in 2023. None of us anticipated the impact of Covid, let alone the other shocks and changed expectations which now characterise the HE landscape.

Yet the complexity and rapidly changing nature of the landscape puts an even greater premium on getting planning right, so that we can see clearly whether we are on track and take steps to address the situation if not.

So what lessons do we take from our experience at Hallam, and what are our key questions in thinking about what good planning looks like?

First, keep your eyes on the target

It’s easy for plans to become the coat hanger for everyone’s favourite project, or every activity that we undertake. This is often with good intentions. We don’t want teams to feel they’re being ignored, or that their work doesn’t matter.

But good planning is ultimately about focus and choices. There are other ways to address team morale or inclusiveness. For planning to have value, particularly in a context where demands outstrip available resources, we need to focus much more ruthlessly on the key actions required to deliver strategic outcomes, and to take tough decisions about the resource choices needed to underpin these. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about anything else. But it does mean we put our collective energy and effort into a small and strategically aligned set of actions.

Second, think outside organisational silos

Many of us grew up with the classic model of every business unit having its own plan, with objectives specific to the local context. Having proximity to the customer (students, businesses, funders) gives business units a strong understanding of the opportunities for innovation or expansion. This is immensely valuable. The challenge comes when organisational resources need to be agreed and aligned, and there are wider choices to be made. A business unit-led approach can obscure these choices, amplify wider organisational pressures, and ultimately hamper the ability to deliver effectively.

At Hallam, we no longer require lengthy annual business plans from our Colleges or Directorates. Our focus instead is on a single University Plan, around which we build collective ownership and accountability.

This can be challenging for individual leaders who may be more comfortable with ‘vertical’ operational planning, and for the executive in terms of providing co-ownership of outcomes. It does however enable a more coherent and aligned approach to strategy execution, and recognises that almost all our key outcomes require ownership and action which straddles organisational boundaries.

Third, focus on the “why” as well as the “what”

We’ve already talked about the risks of the “coat hanger” plan which tries to include everything. But we’ll also be familiar with the plan that simply spells out long lists of activities and inputs.

Planning does need clarity on activities and inputs. But intelligent planning also means being clear why they’re the right ones, how we’ll know if they’re working, and how we’ll adapt if they’re not.

This is one of those areas where we can get lost in complexity, with organisational buy-in going out of the window once we dive too deep into grids and logframes. But a simple articulation of checkpoints and milestones, and a culture which sees in-year agility as the norm rather than the exception, is a pre-requisite of successful planning and delivery. It also helps to keep plans as living documents, which is what they should be, rather than something that sits on a shelf once written.

Fourth, timescale matters

As with much of our work, there’s a tendency for planning to slip into an annual mindset. It’s easy to see why. We’re all used to an annual cycle, and some things do need to be planned on an annual basis.

But annual planning can also reinforce the inherent short-termism which characterises the way that universities have often been led and managed.

Breaking out of the ‘one-year’ planning mindset means having confidence to make choices about what matters, including prioritisation of some income streams over others. It is also necessary if you are to get the organisation fit and ready to achieve strategic outcomes.

At Hallam, we knew we needed at least two years of organisational change and realignment of activity to be ready to achieve our strategic goals. The required scale of change prompted us to theme our plans by stakeholder group, for example students, and by enabling capabilities, such as digital technology, estates, people and so on, so that we had one integrated plan for a 2-3 year period. This was as important for managing stakeholder expectations as it was for planning the different resources required. Being able to manage resources flexibly during this time and ensure that day-to-day decisions in other parts of the business were not undermining the overall outcomes also prompted a change in how budgets were allocated, enabling greater agility and less wasted energy.

Fifth, don’t get captured by old budget structures

While resources are tighter for many of us, we often make our jobs harder by embedding budgetary control at too local a level, and creating barriers, both actual and cultural, to more collective and agile resource allocation.

Our own experience at Hallam was of a highly siloed budget structure, where boundaries were defended ferociously, and decisions about a new post here or there ended up in wholly disproportionate governance. Not only did this waste time and effort, but it also led to lack of transparency, and invariably a string of underspends at year end.

We moved instead to more aggregated budgets, and put the emphasis on managing in year pressures and opportunities collectively. While the cultural transition was not an overnight one, it has led to less territoriality, a more open and honest in year approach to budget management, and ultimately a more efficient use of our resources.

Planning may never be our favourite activity 

Planning may never be something that universities shout about. But if we consign it to the narrative of managerialism and tick-box process, then we’re doing ourselves and our institutions a disservice.

Successful planning depends on setting clear expectations of leaders across our institutions. However just as importantly it means challenging ourselves. If we keep churning out the same old process each year, we shouldn’t expect different reactions.

Keeping planning real, relevant and agile won’t look the same for all of us. But there aren’t many of us who can afford not to take it seriously. Done right, it becomes the critical tool of strategic delivery, as well as for wider organisational and cultural change. 

Whatever our scale of change, strategy is only as good as its delivery, and delivery is only as good as our organisational buy-in.

Failing to plan may not, as Franklin suggested, quite consign us to institutional failure. But good planning, underpinned by strong delivery models, should certainly give us a far better chance of success.

Richard Calvert is Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Strategy and Operations and Libby Wilson is Group Director for Infrastructure, Strategy and Change at Sheffield Hallam University.