by Chris Mayer
Priorities, and initiatives designed to support those priorities, are often forgotten or neglected because of the demands of ongoing operations, unexpected challenges and opportunities, and ineffective plans to employ the priorities.
This is unfortunate because priorities are indispensable to the ability of colleges and universities to achieve their long-term goals. Priorities provide guidance on what should be done and, more importantly, what should not be done. To attain the benefits of organizational priorities, leaders must have organized and systematic approaches for developing, employing, and gauging the progress of their priorities and associated initiatives.
Characteristics of Priorities
Priorities and initiatives have different names across higher education. One way to conceive of priorities is to view them as important, high-level objectives that are designed to focus, improve, and advance the organization over a designated period of time. Initiatives are those specific changes or projects that support priorities.
For example, increasing faculty-student interaction or improving collaboration with other organizations at your institution could be priorities. Initiatives that support these priorities include offering periodic faculty-student lunches and similar events, or creating a cross-organization working group that is responsible for addressing a problem that spans the responsibilities of multiple organizations.
Additionally, priorities can be used to reallocate funding or personnel. In the examples above, it might be necessary to switch funding from one area to fund faculty-student lunches, or change the responsibilities of a staff member to focus on cross-organization collaboration. If the organization has a strategic plan, it is important that the priorities are linked to and advance aspects of the plan (and, ultimately, the institutional strategic plan). In terms of timelines, priorities might be developed on an annual basis or longer based on the implementation of the strategic plan, assessments, and needs of the organization.
The authors of “Turning Strategy into Results” provide helpful advice for developing effective priorities. They recommend developing only a few priorities to ensure that the organization is focused on the most important areas and can make choices that support its long-term direction. This is necessary because the pace at colleges and universities results in “finite human and financial resources,” as Adrianna Kezar writes, which is why organizations cannot handle large numbers of priorities. And, as Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, writes:
“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years.”
Organizations should remember this when developing priorities.
Another piece of advice from “Turning Strategy into Results” is to ensure that priorities are clear and succinct enough to inform the decision-making of the organization’s members, give them the confidence to choose between competing alternatives, and help them determine what to do and what not to do. The authors also propose that priorities should be future-focused to advance the long-term goals of the organization.
It is important to avoid priorities being described as those of the leader. Ideally, people across the organization embrace the priorities and adopt them as the organization’s and their own. This makes success much more likely. Commitment to priorities is also more likely when they have been informed by accepted assessment results, a recognized need, or a new direction that comes from a shared vision. A good time to finalize and gain consensus for priorities and associated initiatives is during offsites that take place prior to the academic year.
Because it is essential that everyone across the organization understands the priorities, leaders must be intentional about communicating them once they are developed. There are many ways to do this. One is to develop written annual plans or guidance that identifies and provides context for the priorities and assigns responsibilities for key initiatives that advance the priorities.
Another approach is to provide periodic updates to keep the priorities at the forefront of discussions. This can be in the form of quarterly updates that highlight progress related to the priority or the leader of a key initiative addressing a shared governance body. Another method is to keep the priorities in focus by mentioning them during high-profile events, regular meetings, and visits to units within the organization. This reminds the organization of the priorities and demonstrates that the leader has not moved on to other issues.
Acting on the priorities
Each initiative should be assigned to a person or team who is responsible for completing it. The initiative leader(s) is responsible for requesting resources (e.g. funding, training, or reduced responsibilities) needed to complete the initiative, providing progress reports, changing direction when needed, and eventually completing it.
It is also important that the appropriate person or group be assigned responsibility. There will be times when initiatives should be led by the staff, and other situations when it is more appropriate that it should be advanced by a shared governance committee. It is often more than one, but it is important to get the assignment of responsibility correct so that the initiative has the best chance of success.
It should be clear throughout the organization how the priorities are informing decisions. Decisions to restructure within the organization, reallocate funding or personnel authorizations, or end a program should clearly be linked to the priorities. This demonstrates the leader’s and organization’s commitment to the priorities and provides evidence that they are more than just words.
There are many ways to track progress of initiatives, but it is essential that this is done. A spreadsheet or table could be used to identify and describe the priority, initiative, responsible party, key dates, estimated completion date, resources needed, and progress. It helps when this information is accessible to leaders and others so that it is easy to track progress.
There is also software that allows for the managing and tracking of complex projects, some of it employing a project management framework such as Microsoft Planner or Monday.com. Even if they have access to a tracking document, leaders should ask for periodic updates on the progress of initiatives to ensure they are on track for completion, offer assistance when it is needed, and demonstrate commitment.
At the end of the year or the specified time for the priorities, there should be an honest appraisal of what was and was not accomplished. Successes should be celebrated, and lessons should be learned from what was not achieved. These lessons should inform the next cycle of priorities and initiatives.
Greg McKeown recommends “not just haphazardly saying no, but purposefully, deliberately, and strategically eliminating the nonessentials, and not just getting rid of the obvious time wasters, but cutting out some really good opportunities as well.” Effectively developing and employing priorities to create initiatives and make resourcing and other types of decisions does just this, which allows organizations to achieve their long-term goals in a focused and deliberate way.
About the author:
Chris Mayer is Associate Dean for Strategy and Initiatives and an Associate Professor at the United States Military Academy (West Point). He teaches courses in the areas of moral philosophy, the ethics of war, political philosophy, and the philosophy of religion, and his research focuses on ethical theory, the ethics of war, and higher education. He serves as an evaluator and workshop leader for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and was a Teagle Assessment Scholar with the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College from 2011-2018. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Virginia, an M.A. in philosophy from Virginia Tech, and a B.S from the United States Military Academy.
Kezar, Adrianna. “Change in Higher Education: Not Enough, or Too Much?” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning. Volume 41, 2009 (Issue 6). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00091380903270110
McKeown, Greg. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. New York, Crown Business: 2014.
Sull, Donald, Stefano Turconi, Charles Sull, and James Yoder. “Turning Strategy into Results.” MIT Sloan Management Review. Spring 2018. https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/turning-strategy-into-results/