How is your strategic plan performing?
A deceivingly simple question that very few universities are able to answer truthfully and with confidence. It is, after all, humanly impossible to monitor the progress of tens or hundreds of plans without the right systems in place. In fact, in higher education institutions, progress reporting is like a chronically late student. It’s never on time and always in need of an update.
But there is a way to answer this question with an A+ response.
Here’s what you’ll find in this article:
- Why is progress reporting with traditional tools failing?
- How Ball State University uses Cascade to report on its strategic plan
- How Ball State University has built unmatchable trust with its stakeholders
- How you can improve your progress reporting with Cascade
Why is progress reporting with traditional tools failing?
In short, because it's impossible.
To develop top-notch progress reporting, you need to understand what holds you back. Let’s see how the process of strategic planning usually goes (any resemblance to real people and universities is purely coincidental).
The development of an overall ambitious and innovative strategic plan falls on the shoulders of the president, vice-chancellor, and/or the academic senate. Its distribution and translation to executable bits fall on each department’s shoulders. It’s their responsibility to describe their contribution to the strategic priorities and then link their individual plans to the initial one. This is how strategy unfolds in most universities in a nutshell.
But there’s a problem.
Rarely does the university manage to execute the plan in its entirety. People miss things, and certain parts of the plan are neglected. The problem is progress reporting. Monitoring progress with the traditional “strategic” tools is hard. Updating and reporting on PDFs, spreadsheets, documents, or fluffy slides takes too much time or is incredibly inaccurate.
Leaders come in strong with ambitious visions for their students, their communities, and faculty, but fail to deliver. Their visions die.
1. Data are all over the place
A huge part of progress reporting is data collection.
Each department and faculty faces its own challenges, and most academics lack traditional business skills. Their reports are either one-word or several-pages-long updates. To counter that, the departments have developed their own ways of executing their plans and reporting on their progress.
As a result, there is no unifying system of progress reporting inside the university.
2. Individual plans are disjointed
One of the greatest challenges universities face is silos.
The individual plans of the departments aren’t linked to the initial one. Getting a clear, tangible and accurate overview of the strategy’s performance with static documents is more than a challenge. It’s a fantasy. You can’t track progress when there is no centralized place to link everything.
It’s inevitable to miss (important) things with such inefficiency.
3. KPIs and actions aren’t connected
Progress reporting is meaningless if it doesn’t lead to actionable insights.
You probably know what the important KPIs you need to track are. You’ve probably set some ambitious goals next to those KPIs, as well. But do your projects and actions in your PDF report link back to the KPIs in your spreadsheet? Are all of your people even aware of your KPIs? If not, how will you find what is wrong when things don’t go well? When actions and measures aren’t aligned, connecting problems with causes becomes… another problem.
And you fail to take corrective action on time (if at all).
But you can turn this around when you adopt the right tools.
How Ball State University uses Cascade to report on its strategic plan
Ball State University has overcome these challenges and then some more.
They are always aware of their strategic plan’s health
All of their 100+ individual plans are inside Cascade - aligned and organized.
With Cascade’s strategy map, understanding the level of alignment of the plans and then how each part of the strategy is performing is a matter of changing views. It’s easy to develop reports for the vice-chancellor or the council on the overall performance.
At Ball State University, leadership takes the pulse of the strategy at a level that was impossible before.
They find out what’s wrong while it’s still early
Every single strategic imperative they have is linked to (at least) one measure and several projects or action-like items to achieve it.
There is no gap between KPIs and action. Once a goal or a measure is behind, they take notice before it’s too late. Finding out what’s wrong and which actions aren’t advancing their goals is easier. And progress visibility exists on every level, from their high-level Focus Areas to team-level objectives.
Reporting and reviewing meetings revolve around up-to-date and clear views of data.
They know their granular progress at a glance
Ball State University has created custom heat maps in Cascade’s dashboards that visualize their granular progress giving them instant insights.
For example, they have a heatmap matching the status of their goals (behind, on track, complete) with the additional resources that each one demands. That way, they can answer various questions like determining whether future progress demands high cash burn or where to allocate excess cash reserves. It informs their budget decision with accurate and up-to-date financial information about every single department.
Such clarity with so little effort wasn’t possible before.
They focus on what matters most
Because they spend much less time on reporting.
The most crucial thing about Cascade is that reporting is automated. Once you set up your plans and your strategy’s structure, the map is automatically generated. The dashboards work much the same way. Once you set them up, you just have to update your progress on the goals and measures, and the dashboards will display the latest information.
They save hours from administrative tasks that they put on projects that actually move the needle.
How Ball State University has built unmatchable trust with its stakeholders
The university’s strategy transformation wasn’t limited to the adoption of a strategy execution platform.
It was accompanied by two seemingly, but not really, minor moves.
1. A renewed commitment to their stakeholders
During the development of their strategic plan, the leaders of Ball State University engaged the various groups of stakeholders (from the local community to their students and alumni) to gather valuable feedback. And they used that feedback when creating their strategy.
But that was only the beginning.
They chose to demonstrate their commitment to every stakeholder group by holding themselves accountable in public. They exposed their plan for the university’s “second century” on their website, including their vision, strategic goals and imperatives. Leadership envisioned where their university will be in 2040 and published the “flight path.”
Having your commitments published for everyone to see holds you accountable without having unnecessary or uncomfortable discussions.
But what really makes a difference in building trust with its stakeholders is the second move it made.
2. A public reporting of their progress
Ball State University didn’t just expose its strategic plan on its website, but its progress on its goals as well.
This is accountability on a never-seen-before level. The 2020-21 annual report on their website has a very clean structure that the reader, e.g. an alumnus or a community leader, can easily skim through and find out about the institution’s initiatives. Here are some of the things the report includes that demonstrate a high level of transparency:
- The report is organized around the strategy’s Focus Areas, with each goal falling into one of them.
- “Champions” AKA people that are key drivers and responsible for each strategic goal’s progress
- The number of “Priorities for Action” for each goal
- Important achievements and projects with a few details and numbers to demonstrate the effectiveness
- Details about each faculty’s initiatives
At the same time, the Ball State University website has an interactive view of the goals and KPIs it tracks.
The report’s (and the plan’s) clarity and structure are no accidents. They derive from using Cascade. It’s how they’ve structured their plan on the platform. From vision to values to strategic Focus Areas to strategic objectives to owners and projects, they have everything inside the platform. Cascade Forces you to structure your plan and leave no goal without a measure and no project without an owner.
When all the heavy lifting of the development, tracking and managing of your strategy happens in one place, then publishing a high-level report of your progress is not just easy, it simply makes sense.
Every single piece of information about the strategy on the Ball State University website exists first and foremost in Cascade.
Improve your progress reporting with Cascade
Leadership, particularly in higher education, has long been afflicted with ignorance when it comes to strategy performance. And nobody seems to have found a cure for it.
We get it, it’s hard to shine a light upon something that is super complicated, fractured, and divided into so many different places. But the truth is that strategy doesn’t have to be complicated. Simplicity and clarity are allies in your effort to understand how your strategy performs.
Abandoning stale processes, adopting new tools and changing people’s behavior require some kind of transformation. And transformations - digital, cultural or otherwise - are tough nuts to crack and always demand a holistic approach.
Are tools like Cascade all that you need to transform your institution? Probably not. Can Cascade help you break down silos, align departmental plans, save you time from reporting and give you an honest view of your current progress?
In other words, can Cascade enable that transformation and remove a lot of the friction involved? Absolutely.