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5 Tips to Boost Strategy Execution in Higher Education

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Article by 
Cascade Team
  —  Published 
January 27, 2023
June 7, 2023

The successful execution of strategy is not the result of perfect planning — it’s the result of a disciplined, well-planned approach that cultivates alignment, prompts active reflection, and forces action.

Particularly in higher-education institutions, there’s a lack of motivation when it comes to disciplined strategy execution. The saying “all talk and no action” comes to mind. In the end, most are missing the pieces that actually bring a plan to fruition: action and strategy execution.

In this article, you’ll discover: 

Why is it important to align strategy with execution?

Because there’s no other way to accomplish your goals, reach new heights, and improve the way things are done.

While you’ve aligned department goals, KPIs, daily activities, and priorities in your planning process, seeing them through to execution is an entirely different challenge. Different, but necessary to move your plan from theory to practice.

Departments and employees need to understand how their work contributes to the bottom line and your institution’s strategy. They need transparency that inspires ownership. This transparency helps employees visualize where to focus their efforts each day, boosting their efficiency and effectiveness and skyrocketing your institution toward its goals.

Now that you know why you need a more disciplined approach to execution, let’s have a look at how you can achieve it.

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5 tips for a successful strategy execution

Advancing from the planning stage to successfully executing your strategy is by no means as easy as scheduling an event, deciding on an agenda, and then attending. Rather, executing a strategy is more like deciding to lose weight and then restructuring your entire life around that goal.

For your strategy to be effective, it has to be more structured and developed than a vague ambition of “becoming the top school in the district.” The strategy needs to be actionable and systematic with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

tips for strategy execution graphic

Here are five tips for making your strategic goals a reality.

1. Prioritize strategy execution

For your strategy to succeed, you need a feasible first step: an achievable goal that doesn't kill the momentum of your plan before it begins.

Expose your strategy and communicate its priorities. For your strategy to succeed, every department and every stakeholder needs to be able to see how they can contribute. A once-per-year review isn’t enough. Within a week, the main points are forgotten and employees never see exactly how they fit into the university’s success.

Consider a horse race: all jockeys have the same goal, which is to reach the finish line first. However, every horse has a fire of its own, which makes all the difference when it comes to how well they succeed. Each horse sees the challenge, the track, and the other horses they need to navigate around. By letting your teams and departments visualize the road and challenges, they can navigate obstacles themselves and watch how their efforts bring the university ever closer to the finish line: the successful execution of your strategy.

Set a feasible first step to drive momentum. Many organizations make the mistake of pressing the end goal, leaving employees without direction in the interim. This pressure leaves teams at a loss, killing momentum before your strategy can even take off. 

One single task — a starting step — makes the goal seem all the more attainable and generates movement toward the end game. Small steps help teams figure out the “how” one piece at a time until, before they know it, they’re at the finish line.

To make your strategy a reality, it’s important to maintain a constant, transparent discussion throughout the institution. Imagine the impact your plan could make if teams were aligned to the first step and how the first step contributes to the end goal.

2. Align in every direction

The single worst thing that disrupts effective strategy execution in higher-ed institutions is information silos. Information silos prevent departments and groups from sharing information including processes, progress, and how they’re impacting the overall strategy.

Typically, the university’s vice-chancellor and senior executives put together a 28-page PDF outlining the overall plan and then share it with each department. Then, these departments build their own 30-page plan about how they’ll contribute to the strategy. These secondary strategies are rarely linked to each other, creating an endpoint with no support for how to reach it. The overall strategy ends up acting like a point of convergence instead of a connected spider’s web.

The effect is like having a chorus with each member trying to be the best singer. Their focus is to perform on an individual level, not caring about the whole ensemble. The result is a cacophony of voices singing on top of each other instead of in sync.

Strategic alignment is more than project management — it’s directing how teams align and contribute to the whole just as a conductor cues different instrumental groups to form a masterpiece. For a strategy to be successful, it has to flow in two directions:

Vertical. Vertical alignment is developed by incorporating every individual plan into the overall strategy. For this union, you must articulate how each department contributes to the strategy by delegating projects and assignments while showing how they fit into the overall strategic objectives. 

Lateral. To be aligned laterally, departments collaborate and share resources with a common goal in mind. People have a better understanding of strategy when there is collaboration across departments. Teams with common goals and budgets share what they’ve learned and develop more creative solutions to reach a common goal.

Imagine the potential. Rather than departments converging on the same goal with different strategic initiatives and outcomes, teams are connecting and building on each other, achieving the most effective and efficient results.

Your university would not only achieve your strategic goals but often excel at them, exceeding expectations. Can you imagine the competitive advantage you would gain? 

Everything starts with alignment. Want to see how this works in action? Click here.

3. Build a culture of ownership

The best way to maintain momentum is to generate a sense of ownership among teams and team members.

Information silos generate a lack of accountability. Departments make their own strategic plans without feeling responsible for the bigger picture. Since department goals aren’t linked to overall strategic goals, it’s hard to stay up to date and make sure teams follow through on what your strategy needs to succeed. In turn, it’s impossible to accurately track progress and maintain momentum.

A culture that encourages ownership can push strategies through from conception to fruition.

This type of culture fosters confidence where everyone feels they’re contributing to the end goal. Employees on the front line can visualize the expectations set for them and their teams, helping make strategic decisions that support the institution as a whole.

Our guide to strategic planning in higher education touches on the importance of measuring progress. There’s one habit in particular that helps you build a culture that encourages ownership and maintains progress…

Be sure to incorporate regular review meetings at every level. These meetings offer transparency into what progress has been made and what next steps need to be taken. Determine your metrics ahead of time so you know the focus of each meeting and how to measure any progress made.

Maintaining an open discussion of your strategy and progress toward it keeps everyone accountable and empowers them to take initiative. These discussions relate to, but don’t coincide with, performance management.

End the meeting with “next steps” actions to keep your progress on track.

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4. Improve your strategy’s adaptability

It’s happened more than once: stagnant strategies cripple organizations.

Higher education institutions in particular fall into the trap of being complacent with little vision for change. Each semester comes with its challenges, overshadowing the company’s overall strategy. The years repeat themselves, always the same with few to no overall improvements. 

Over time, bit by bit, the university loses its competitive advantage.

Over the past two years, the pandemic has exposed all the ways universities have become complacent. Many institutions struggled as the need for online education rose, patching on bandaid fixes. These short-term solutions are inhibiting universities from growing. Some are failing to learn from their shortcomings, seeing the demand for personalized education as “temporary.” These universities aren’t proactively adapting their strategies toward more adaptable structures.

Only universities and colleges willing to go through a transformation, evolve their management systems, and adopt modern tools, will stand out and thrive in the new world.

And, don’t be fooled — the tools you use matter.

It’s a combination of spreadsheets and static PDFs that are creating information silos that cripple university-wide strategies. Microsoft Excel was created in 1985. 37 years later, there are undoubtedly better tools out there — more inclusive tools that are accessible by many, easier to update, and offer transparency to the company’s progress.

It’s high time to move forward. New strategies should be dynamic, adapting to external changes as needed. Therefore, your tools need to be just as adaptable.

So, what can you do?

5. Centralize your strategy

Align everything and everyone in one place under one umbrella.

Instead of every department having its own plan, collect all goals, plans, and results in one place. That way, every conversation has the same reference point and every change has been made with the entire institution in mind.

With a dynamic environment, your plan will stay structured — and structured plans are achievable plans.

An effective structure can drive alignment and improve communication. Academics know, better than anyone, that people absorb and retain information better if it’s structured in a comprehensible way. To succeed, organizational strategies should always be presented clearly and be as relevant as possible.

Where static tools, such as spreadsheets and PDFs, fail the worst is they lose relevance within hours, if not minutes. Every day, teams are reassessing their plans and adapting to their internal roadblocks and changes. Information quickly grows outdated and finding the most up-to-date information becomes a treasure hunt.

What if there was a way to collect all the information into one place where updates are reflected instantly across the institution? Where reporting is automated, unbelievably clear, and progress reports are available to everyone?

Well, there is. Cascade’s cloud-based, dynamic platform structures your plans and offers a simple way to track progress. The platform enables leadership teams to make informed decisions with real-time insights into performance and progress.

Rather than simply being “another tool,” Cascade is the missing link between a failed strategy and an adaptable, thriving one.

Are you ready to say goodbye to inefficient spreadsheets and see how much easier it is to manage your strategy with Cascade? Book a 1:1 demo with Cascade’s expert today. 

3 reasons to adopt a strategy execution platform

It’s not that the cloud has become more relevant over the past two years, it’s that digitalization has pushed institutions to see just how much cloud-based tools help. Digitalizing your strategy is the next step toward improving strategy execution.

Here are three ways Cascade’s strategy execution platform can benefit higher education institutions:

  • See results faster. With all your plans in the same place, it’s easy to view progress and see what actions produce which results. You’ll get real-time data and speed up the decision-making process. 
  • Increased adaptability. With Cascade, you can update your plan and keep everyone in the loop without disrupting day-to-day execution. Manage your strategic changes without time-consuming meetings to keep everyone aligned. 
  • Unmatched efficiency. With a transparent overview of your strategy, you can spot duplicate efforts and or dead-end strategies before they even begin. Break down silos and align departments with strategy, instead of letting them invent the wheel on their own.
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