There isn’t a typo in this post’s title. Although academia is spelled with just three A’s, an academic institution that is seeking to move from strategic planning to execution on that strategy must embrace the four A’s of execution, as defined by the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business professor, Scott Snell, and his colleague Ken Carrig:

  • Alignment: Working together toward the same goal
  • Ability: Getting the most from an institution’s human assets
  • Architecture: Designing and configuring an organization to help propel it forward
  • Agility: Responding and adapting to change in a dynamic environment

Our most recent posts have focused on building a customer-centric strategic planning process and have taken a closer look at what customer-centricity means in a higher ed setting. As we shift focus from creating strategy to executing on that strategy during the routine life of the academy, we’ll start by looking at the challenges higher ed institutions face in getting the four A’s right. The unique characteristics of academic institutions can compound the difficulties, but colleges and universities that are serious about putting their strategy into action need to face this challenge head on.

Higher ed institutions have some built-in advantages in building agility, which depends on a strong culture of organizational learning that encourages curiosity, knowledge-building, and openness to feedback. If they can match a culture of learning with a culture that becomes adept at orchestrating rapid change, they will be well-positioned to leverage agility in support of their strategy execution goals.
 

Alignment. Snell and Carrig note that one of the great obstacles to alignment is for individuals In large and complex organizations to become compartmentalized—or as they define it, departmentalized—and lose a broader focus on the institution as a whole.

Departmentalization is, of course, a defining characteristic of higher ed institutions, large or small, and one that has been recognized as a significant impediment to institutional change. The great alignment challenge for institutional leaders is thus overcoming the academy’s natural college, school, and departmental silos—which may impede strategy execution—so relevant internal leaders can recognize and consistently communicate the common challenges the institution faces and the common actions that will be required to execute on a strategy to address those challenges. Effectively, efforts at strategy execution are successful when leaders broaden their problem-solving thought landscape beyond the boundaries of their smallest unit of allegiance.

Building this common understanding should be approached both formally (e.g., forming intra-university teams) and informally, by consistently creating and encouraging participation in forums, new program development, and other opportunities for cross-functional engagement. The more individuals from different units can come together and interact, the stronger will be the trending sense that everyone is working for the same institution.

Ability. Ability depends on identifying and supporting leaders who bring the needed breadth and depth of talents to the institution and—most importantly—can grow a collaborative capability that focuses on the need to work together to make everyone better.

Leadership has been a challenge for many higher ed institutions, with a high degree of turnover in leadership positions. There is a now concern for a potential “turnover tsunami” in higher education in the wake of the COVID pandemic. As this article notes, turnover among key administrators, faculty, and staff “could slow momentum as coordinated efforts are forced to idle.”

Any number of factors—some within and some outside an institution’s control—can contribute to turnover rates. What all institutions can do, however, is make sure that their talent development pipelines run deep into the institution, and that potential leaders (or “doers”) at all levels are being identified and supported in their efforts. The impact of higher turnover at the top administrative and departmental levels can be mitigated if leadership talent deeper within the institution is ready and prepared to take on new leadership roles.

Architecture. “A bad system will beat a good person every time,” said engineer W. Edward Demings, who estimated that 94% of performance problems are systems problems, not people problems. The heavily siloed nature of college and university departments and offices can again be an issue here, and the effort again must focus on minimizing these silos and creating alignment within the institution.

We’ve discussed how to address the problem of siloed faculty members in our discussion of alignment. On the administrative side, a focus on creating—and maintaining— a “one-stop shop” for student services, with cross-training across administrative offices, builds architecture that must be a core feature of any strategy truly centered on the student/customer. Student affairs staff and student advisory teams can also help build stronger “connective tissue” between the administration and faculty departments, with insights on where students are facing difficulties or success in working through their academic programs.

One other piece of architecture not to be overlooked is the transparency, utility, and accessibility of information and data that are available to move strategy execution forward. Here, it is essential that leaders model the importance of data by consistently modeling the value of using a data-based approach to decision-making and ensuring that the data that back their decisions are fully transparent and appropriately available to other institutional stakeholders.

Agility. Agility, according to Snell and Carrig, is the newest and least understood execution capability. It is likely a newfound capability on many college and university campuses, where the COVID pandemic forced rapid change in both academics and administrative services. A key challenge will be to keep this newfound sense of agility alive as institutions move beyond the immediate crisis of the pandemic and begin executing on strategies to promote their future sustainability and growth.

Snell and Carrig also emphasize the importance of situational awareness to agility, with deepened insights into customer needs and a strong peripheral vision of what is happening in the marketplace and external environment. Here we return to our recent posts on customer-centricity in higher education, including the need to understand the outcomes an institution’s customers are seeking to achieve and then driving the innovations that help them achieve those outcomes.

Higher ed institutions have some built-in advantages in building agility, which depends on a strong culture of organizational learning that encourages curiosity, knowledge-building, and openness to feedback. If they can match a culture of learning with a culture that becomes adept at orchestrating rapid change, they will be well-positioned to leverage agility in support of their strategy execution goals.

We’ll continue our focus on moving from strategy to execution in next month’s post. In the meantime, we’d love to hear from you on any challenges or successes your institution has seen in putting strategy into action. Please reach out to either of us by email or phone using the information provided in our bios below.

Meet the Authors
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Larenda Mielke

Larenda Mielke

Vice President
Larenda Mielke is a Vice President in the Higher Education division of Kaufman Hall’s Strategic and Financial Planning practice. She has extensive leadership experience in higher education in the areas of strategy, curriculum and program development, and more.
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Julia Wysocki

Julia Wysocki

Vice President
Julia Wysocki has 15 years of experience and is focused exclusively on serving higher education clients. Her expertise includes cross-functional leadership, budget management, change management, operational model design, student lifecycle management, and the development of actionable, timely strategic plans.
Learn More About Julia