Making Actionable Goals

One more point about actionable goals and objectives before I move on to lesson #4: There are different ways to phrase them, and the best way depends on the institution’s situation. As an example, take a look at this objective from Drexel University’s Strategic Plan:

“Direct financial investment to academic priorities, targeting academic units with the highest potential for excellence, key areas of societal concern, and emerging fields in which Drexel can build a critical mass of talent…”

The objective then goes on to name an example of such a program, and then says that a comprehensive program review will be initiated. Full disclosure – I was on the faculty of Drexel for six years, and have always thought that the institution was very well run. I also don’t think there is another U.S. university that has achieved the level of growth in enrollment, reputation, program quality, or program breadth that Drexel has experienced in the past 20 years.

What I like about this objective is that it recognizes that distribution of resources is the real strategic decision in program development, so that is the objective, to direct financial investment. Now, what are the academic priorities? They don’t know yet, so first actionable item is to initiate a comprehensive program review. If that’s where they are, fine.

But let’s go back to the example in the previous post:

“Attain and maintain accreditations and national recognition for relevant programs”

What would be a better way to phrase this as a strategic objective? Well, one would assume that the school would prioritize maintaining accreditation for accredited programs unless there was a desire to close them. I would consider funding for maintaining accreditation to be a general operating expense, not a strategic imperative.

Funds for attaining accreditation are not regular operating expenses – they are a combination of one-time expenses and an ongoing commitment to increase funding to support accreditation standards. The programs that desire accreditation should develop specific budgets that include both one-time expenses (new faculty lines, site visit costs, new clinical facilities, etc.) as well as increases in ongoing post-accreditation expenses. These requests should then be prioritized and funded accordingly by senior administration.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that the school has two accredited programs:



And three others that would like to be accredited:


Public Administration

School Psychology

The objective could then read something like:

Our doctoral program in school psychology will achieve APA accreditation by 2015. Our MPA program will achieve NASPAA accreditation by 2016.

The Journalism faculty may be upset with this objective, and the Public Administration faculty may dislike the delay, but at least a clear strategic direction has been established, and success or failure to achieve the objective will be clear.

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4 Responses to Making Actionable Goals

  1. Bryan Holmes says:

    What about achieving goals that in and of themselves are nebulous? The clearly defined statement breaks down upon contingencies or if the goal can be satisfied by a number of outcomes. What is your take on this?

  2. Ken says:

    I would say goals like that are too broad & need to be refined. For example, a company may say that they have a goal to achieve a certain ROE, but if they don’t stipulate how that should occur, they can end up like Enron. The whole point of mission-driven strategic management is that it matters how you achieve a goal. If a university wants their students to strive for academic excellence, boosting retention by grade inflation is counterproductive, even if the university achieves its retention goals.

  3. Bryan Holmes says:

    Taking a step back, what if the goal was dependent on two or more parties (group theory) getting what they want and achieving S.M.A.R.T. Goals.
    For instance, a Company wants to relocate its headquarters because it is about to merge with another company to become vertically aligned. Both Companies are interested in regions that would give their sector a strategic advantage however, they still need to complete the merger.

  4. Ken says:

    Too abstract for me! I will make two observations though – first, all units are competing for scarce resources. It is up to senior leadership to create a culture in which the competition doesn’t become unproductive (or toxic). Second, people do exactly what they are incented to do. Senior leadership must ensure that there aren’t perverse incentives that lead employees to do unproductive (or toxic) things.

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