This article combats traditional notions of higher education planning by emphasizing a “planning as playmaking” approach that stresses authentic, active, integrative, and ongoing planning that drives change. The results of a recent survey reveal the value of integrated planning across higher education—building relationships across boundaries, aligning planning practices, creating a sustainable culture of change—but sputtering attempts at implementing these concepts durably. Five essential strategies help institutions fill the gap: balancing creativity and discipline, connecting choices to underlying values, developing planners across the institution, celebrating the “expert-generalist,” and bridging pragmatism and ambition to foster sound implementation.DOWNLOAD
All colleges and universities plan.
But it’s how they plan—how often, how well, whom they involve (and how), and how integrated their planning is—that makes the difference. There is a myth that higher education planning is either a perfunctory “check-the-box” activity that fosters a culture of suffocating order or a commitment to exhaustively developed “best-laid plans” that unravel (or are ignored) at the critical juncture of implementation. With “planning as playmaking,” neither has to be true.
Consider a basketball metaphor. Crowds cheer for points scored and all teams want to win. Teams employ coaches, invest in player development, and execute intricate strategies to build formidable programs and (hopefully) beat opponents. Everyone knows that more points typically means more wins, but experienced coaches, fans, and players know that a more compelling narrative—one that draws on the careful integration of sound coaching, talent, ongoing player development, awareness of opponent strengths and weaknesses, and shrewd playmaking tactics—is the foundation for scoring points. Only teams that invest in this kind of integrated planning can have long-term, durable success.
Of the many elements that bridge disparate planning activities, the concept of passing grounds planning in durable integration. Skilled passing requires teamwork and leads to playmaking, and playmaking wins games. Good passers are aware and instinctual. They know the court, read the situation, govern flow, connect dots, apply resources when and where needed, and encourage change. Without a doubt, you need good defense and strong shooters to win games, but it is often the art of passing that sets the tone, sparks activity, fosters distributed leadership, and prepares teams to develop a culture of winning.
Institutions that plan integratively emulate basketball teams that recognize the power of the pass. These institutions draw on rich legacies, honor timeless missions, and stay true to institutional values while simultaneously crafting an inspiring change narrative and a compelling vision that drive institutional choices and actions. With integrated planning, institutions choose the future; without it, the future is chosen for them.
In higher education, playmaking is integrated planning. At the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), we define integrated planning as a sustainable approach to planning that builds relationships, aligns the institution, and emphasizes preparedness for change. Integrated planning engages all sectors of the academy—academic affairs, student affairs, business and finance, campus planning, information technology, communications, and development. It involves all stakeholders—faculty, students, staff, alumni, and external partners. Integrated planning helps institutions manage complexity across boundaries by emphasizing strategy building and a long-term outlook through a change prism to inform both institutional direction and nuts-and-bolts planning activities. Thereby the goal becomes planning to evolve rather than planning to plan. With integrated planning, the results transcend the outcome of traditional planning—an agreed-upon set of goals typically designed for the short term—by shifting the emphasis to developing a sustainable planning culture that changes the tenor and nature of the game.
Planning is ubiquitous in higher education, but often it is fragmented, fails to gather steam, and lacks distributed leadership. It focuses on immediate goals, neglects sufficient follow-through, and lacks a strategic underpinning. This fragmented approach often fosters unmoored and disconnected actions that result in a lack of institutional strategic focus, inefficient or uncoordinated resource usage, division, and stasis. Institutional stasis limits opportunities, exposes threats, and forces (often unenviable) choices. Even where integrated planning has some understood value, a shared understanding of the concept is absent. As a result, practices differ widely across institution type, making it hard to find common language, build momentum, and sustain a movement.
Given that integrated planning is so necessary to build institutions that thrive, why is it so rarely done well? There are many reasons, but three stand out:
Along with these challenges, institutions simply have an undeveloped appreciation or sound value proposition for the importance of integrated planning. It is this lack of a value proposition that motivated us to carry out a survey in 2015. The results were telling.
SCUP surveyed nearly 2,300 higher education professionals to gain input on the state of planning in higher education (Society for College and University Planning and Baker Strategy Group 2015). Respondents came from all institution types across the country  and represented planners from all domains. The survey revealed that overall planning effectiveness is viewed as fair at best (figure 1). While respondents express appreciation for the outcomes of planning, only those closely involved in planning efforts hold more positive views about the importance and value of planning.
Though respondents indicated their wide involvement in planning efforts, willingness to pay for good educational content in general, and desire to engage with peers to share knowledge and best practices in general, they currently do not devote time to developing their planning skills or actively connecting with other higher education planners (figure 2). In other words, despite their wide involvement and expressed need for better planning skills, respondents do not pursue planning-related professional development even though they expect to be involved in the development of a plan!
In short, there is a development gap in planning. Leaders indicate that they are involved to some degree in strategic plan development, but generally do not actively pursue planning-related professional development (figure 3).
Figure 1 Overall Planning Effectiveness
Figure 2 Planning-Related Professional Development
Figure 3 Planning Development Gap
To shed some light on why these disconnects might exist, we drill down further into the survey results in order to lay the groundwork for integrated planning so that we can answer this question: What about integrated planning fails to resonate and what can we do about it?
We ran a quantitative analysis of the survey results to better understand the climate that best fosters integrated planning. Our aim was to determine both areas of common difficulty with integrated planning across higher education and areas of emphasis that can enable the rich adoption of integrated planning. Seven factors emerged that, if addressed, lay the groundwork for integrated planning and offer the largest potential impact for institutional leaders. For each factor, respondent comments are included to lend color to the analysis.
To truly develop an integrated planning culture, everyone must be a planner.
The difficult task for institutional leaders is to translate their understanding of integrated planning through these seven factors into specific actions that trigger the development of an integrated planning culture. This should be achieved in ways that honor timeless institutional values while simultaneously developing reflexive capacities to adapt and evolve. The next section highlights five essential strategies that will help spark durable, planning-centric climates of change.
Integrated planning is more than strategic planning. Institutions that adopt integrated planning can better navigate complex operating environments, bridge disparate and insular institutional subcultures, and combat the structurally baked-in resistance to change so common in higher education. Five essential strategies are invaluable in developing a culture of integrated planning: (1) balancing creativity and discipline, (2) connecting choices to underlying values, (3) developing planners across the institution, (4) celebrating the “expert-generalist,” and (5) bridging pragmatism and ambition to foster sound implementation.
To best employ these five essential strategies and move increasingly toward a culture of playmaking, institutions may want to do some initial high-level benchmarking. This can be accomplished through two simple means: by anchoring current and aspirant practices to a maturity model and by framing practice in terms of increasing levels of penetration: practical, organizational, and cultural.
While most planning metrics focus on outcomes, there is a need to build a body of evidence to support the integrated planning value proposition and develop workable models to extend this value. Such evidence would solidify the building blocks that make integrated planning work: relationship building across boundaries, authentic alignment, and the application of meaningful change models to higher education problem-solving contexts. These new ways of measuring impact can lead to a shared understanding of integrated planning and widen its applicability as a go-to source for institutional change. Institutions need data, examples, models, tools, and scenarios that support integrated planning as a concept that works and can be applied on their campuses. How does integrated planning make one a better planner? How does integrated planning help us recognize new opportunities? How does integrated planning transform our institutions?
These questions can be approached initially in two related ways through two simple models: maturity and penetration. A maturity model is a simple descriptive tool that helps institutions evaluate their baseline capacity for integrated planning (figure 4). It has the potential to not only help institutions determine where they are, but also help them describe and reach their ideal futures. Building off the seven factors and employing the five essential strategies presented earlier can help institutions move from a disconnected, chaotic environment in which planning is ad hoc, internal and external stakeholders are unaware, and the culture is unaligned and ruled by distrust toward a more mature environment that is more integrative, trustworthy, and innovative.
Figure 4 Integrated Planning Maturity Model
Integrated planning can also be viewed through a penetration model, which helps an institution gauge the depth and durability of its integrated planning practices (figure 5). Institutions can move toward optimized, integrated planning on the maturity model by considering three levels of penetration: practical, organizational, and cultural. The most common penetration level is practical. The practical level involves the linking of plans and planning efforts across the institution; it can often be achieved through the budget process or other incentive devices. It does not necessarily require a strong visionary leader, but it does require consistent, disciplined leaders at the unit or department level. Though it is considered a base level of penetration, the practical level is often an important achievement for many institutions.
Figure 5 Integrated Planning Penetration Model
At the organizational level, institutions intentionally design themselves and their organizational practices to foster authentic alignment. This level of engagement typically requires senior leadership champions and buy-in at the unit level. At this level, unit leaders become more comfortable with managing essential tensions and trade-offs and leveraging resources for initiatives that build bridges, trust, and agile operational practices. As might be expected, achieving this level of penetration is harder than achieving the practical level and often not realistic for the reasons we pointed out earlier: a complex operating environment, cultural constraints, and disparate worldviews. Still, it is important for institutions to focus on what can evolve as they work toward organizational penetration: managing the fluidity of boundaries, incentivizing collaboration and experimentation, developing a culture of shared decision making, and making it easier to make choices that matter while ensuring those choices are linked to underlying institutional values.
At the cultural, or highest, level of penetration, all stakeholders communicate, collaborate, and cooperate rhythmically across boundaries. Though often driven by and built upon the organizational level of penetration, the cultural level is the hardest to achieve and requires consistent leadership, broad-based buy-in, and an openness to letting go of legacy practices and perspectives. This level fully embraces and employs the five essential strategies while acculturating key planning approaches such as robust, ongoing engagement with the external environment, an appreciation of durable, ongoing long-term planning practices, and the successful bridging of disparate and insular institutional subcultures.
These three levels of planning penetration—practical, organizational, and cultural—complement the maturity model. Though all three levels are important, the optimized, integrated planning stage corresponds most closely to the cultural level. Once an institution operates at the cultural level in its integrated planning, it can achieve its full playmaking potential. Over time, integrated planning will make its way into a wider group of planner orbits, the institutional lexicon, and the higher education trend cycle, thereby casting it as imperative and indispensable in helping institutions engage with, and prepare for, the future.
Winning teams excel at playmaking. Playmakers value integration, understand the conditions under which change is possible, and employ resources to ensure that their institutions are designed to evolve. While building institutional capacity for integrated planning is certainly challenging, it is becoming required practice. Much more than traditional strategic planning, commonplace collaboration, or unit coordination, it has the potential to transform institutions.
While building institutional capacity for integrated planning is certainly challenging, it is becoming required practice.
Though most institutions are not prepared to undergo significant transformation, they can learn to plan together by building bridges among disparate, boundary-spanning players in order to spark fresh ideas and build a movement for change. This can be spurred by designing institutional practices so that boundaries are flexible and fluid, experimentation is incentivized, and choices and actions are shared in germination and focused in implementation. Integrated planning is about more than preparing institutions to respond to change; it is about institutions owning and shaping the future.
Keeley, L., H. Walters, R. Pikkel, and B. Quinn. 2013. Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Lafley, A. G., and R. L. Martin. 2013. Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.
Society for College and University Planning and Baker Strategy Group. 2015. Succeeding at Planning: Results from the 2015 Survey of Higher Ed Leaders. Ann Arbor, MI: Society for College and University Planning.
James B. Young is chief learning officer at the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He previously served as chief of staff for information technology and libraries at Lehigh University and founding associate vice president for information services/chief information officer at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology (a start-up university) where he was responsible for building and leading all technology, library, and learning services. He earned a Ph.D. at George Mason University, a master’s degree at the University of Michigan, and a bachelor’s degree at Michigan State University. Previously, he was employed for 10 years at George Mason University where he led initiatives in curriculum development and integration, libraries, learning communities, and assessment.
Margaret J. Baker received her Ph.D. in Asian languages and cultures from the University of Michigan, her master’s in East Asian languages and civilizations from Harvard University, and her bachelor’s in comparative literature from Princeton University. She draws on her academic background, fluency in Mandarin, and past work in China and Japan to meet the challenges of cross-cultural communications both in business and the community. She also finds an outlet for her interest in education policy and helping international families through her extensive volunteering in the Ann Arbor public schools, where her five children are currently enrolled.