Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes

There is an acronym that every undergraduate business student knows (or should know). That acronym is SMART, and it is used to determine whether a goal or objective is effective. There is some variation of wording, but the acronym stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-Bound

Goals and objectives that do not meet these criteria cannot be effective because they are not actionable – either it is not clear what exactly the objective is, or there is no way to determine whether it has been achieved. Many organizations are guilty of having strategic plans with goals and objectives that are not actionable, but universities are particularly susceptible to this for two reasons. The first is that they mistake objectives for aspirations. Aspirations are great, but as noted in an earlier post, they belong in mission and vision statements. Goals and objectives are deeper into the weeds – they describe how the institution is going to achieve their mission/vision within the foreseeable future, say three to five years (anyone who says they can tell you what will be happening in higher ed in 10 years is either lying or misguided!). Second, university strategic plans have a tendency to be developed by task forces made up of various constituencies – faculty, senior administration, deans, even students and trustees get involved. As I noted in my previous post, that doesn’t mean that faculty actually get to make real strategic decisions – they just get to have input in the plan. By the time everyone has their say and all interests are placated, the resulting document is often pretty anodyne.

As an example, I will use the strategic plan of a real university. I’m not naming it not because I’m worried about offending anyone, but because it’s not relevant – this particular plan is very, very similar to many others I’ve seen.

This particular university has four goals:

  1. Enhance academic excellence
  2. Achieve student success: academic, personal, and social
  3. Enhance resources and the university’s capacity to achieve vision
  4. Strengthen university’s identity, brand, reputation, and connections with the community

These seem perfectly reasonable goals. In fact, I sincerely doubt there is any university that does not consider these four items to be critically important to its success.

The university then breaks each goal down into 2 – 4 objectives, which are similarly vague. I’ll just list the objectives for Goal 1:

  1. Objective 1: Advance faculty excellence in teaching, scholarship, and service.
  2. Objective 2: Develop and offer academic programs of the highest quality.
  3. Objective 3: Develop and implement a signature undergraduate experience that develops lifelong learners.
  4. Objective 4: Design and enact transformative graduate experiences that develop future leaders and scholars

Again, so far so good. Nothing objectionable. Nothing with which anyone could strongly disagree. But again, what will they actually DO to achieve these things? Fortunately, the plan drills down further and provides specific strategies for each objective. Surely, at this level, we will get some goals that meet the SMART criteria, right?

Not really. Here’s one of the more specific strategies:

Attain and maintain accreditations and national recognition for relevant programs

Let’s analyze it using the SMART criteria:

Specific – It is specific about what the desired result is, but who is responsible for doing it? And which programs are “relevant?” What does “national recognition” mean?

Measurable – Maintain accreditation is measurable. You either do or don’t. But what about “attain?” We don’t know what the relevant programs are, so we can’t measure if they’ve attained accreditation. And “national recognition?” I suppose my blog is national, so perhaps my recognition of this plan counts!

Achievable – Hard to say, because we don’t know how close the programs are to achieving accreditation, and we don’t know what resources the university is willing to devote toward this goal. If the answer is none, I pity the poor deans who will be asked to gain accreditation and recognition for their programs with no additional resources.

Relevant – Again questionable. This strategy falls under Objective 2: Develop and offer academic programs of the highest quality. Does a high quality program have to be accredited and nationally recognized? Like any good academic, I could argue both sides of this one!

Time-Bound – Sort of. The plan is for the time period of 2013 – 2018, so we could say “by the end of 2018,” but that’s a big chunk of time to figure out the answers to all of the above.

There are around 50 strategies listed, and I could go through a similar analysis for each of them. Again, I’m not trying to criticize the intent of this document, which is very thorough and springs from the hard work of many intelligent, well-meaning people. The main point I’m making is that we can’t expect a particular desired result to occur unless we can define it along the SMART dimensions.

I’m not quite done with goals and objectives, but I’ll save the rest for my next post. As always, I welcome your thoughts & comments.

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