Point Park University plans from the ground up Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2010

Paul Hennigan has time.

OK, actually, he’s a busy man. But when it comes to the future of Point Park University, its 864 faculty and staff and 3,986 students, it’s worth spending two years on a strategic planning process.

“I saw our strategic planning process as a transition from survival management to managing for quality,” says the president, who’s working with a fiscal 2010 budget of $82.7 million and an endowment of $20.6 million. “In order to make that transition, I thought that we needed to take our time and do a bottom-up approach.”

Smart Business spoke to Hennigan about planning with input.

Q. How can you involve others in a strategic planning process?

Within the university, we created 40 planning teams. It was pretty much along programmatic lines. We just identified a facilitator who would be a logical choice — it could have been the program leader or the No. 2 person. Then we invited the whole university community to be a part of any one of those planning teams, so they self-selected. We had great turnout and great involvement because we promised people that we would listen.

Externally, we did the same thing; we created some focus groups. You just have to ask yourself, ‘Who are our consumers, who are our stakeholders, and who are our partners?’ Be willing to not be all that critical upfront about who you’re reaching out to. It’s far better to be more inclusive than not because you really get a wide range of opinions and input.

For the program teams, we said, ‘What are the strengths of your program? What are the weaknesses? What are the opportunities, and what are the threats?’ That was all qualitative; it was all opinion. And then we said, ‘How do you know?’ We asked them to develop benchmark criteria and then we said, ‘Who do you want to benchmark against?’ They created a peer group who they thought were their peers, and then they created an aspirant group who they thought were schools that they aspired to.

So then you have a sense of relevance. We exist now in relationship to this set of criteria, and we can begin to measure ourselves against that.

Q. How do you turn data into a plan?

It’s just a lot of opinions about a lot of things. And so what you do with qualitative data is just a very typical standard research methodology. You just comb through all of that qualitative data and you look for the themes. What are people saying to us in a thematic way? You’re really looking for anywhere from three to eight, nine themes.

Once you begin to discover those themes, then you begin to convert them into high-level strategies. How then do we set goals to achieve that strategic direction? It’s a very iterative process, very back-and-forth, very time-consuming.

The people at the top who are generally responsible for facilitating this don’t have all the answers — as a matter of fact, they have very few answers. But when you give the people who are actually doing these things a sense of direction and you say, ‘If we’re here now, this strategy has emerged, how do we get from point A to point B?’ you generally get a lot of good information.

Q. How do you keep everyone headed in the same direction?

It’s like an upside-down funnel. You’re constantly communicating where you are in the process, where you’re heading and what you want the outcome of the next step to be. As long as you use that funnel analogy and you feel like you are taking what is a very broad set of data and slowly moving it forward in that funnel to strategies and goals, as long as you can see progress along that path, then you know you’re OK.

But if you keep having all these zinger outliers spinning off and you’re not sure what to do with them, you’ve got to find a way to pull them into the funnel. We had to actually stop our process for four months because we had a huge organizational structural issue that needed to be addressed. If you hit one of those huge obstacles and you realize you can’t go around or through, then you’ve got to deal with it.

When you start the process, you let them know that these are the steps of the process and there has to be more and more focus each step. And then you tell them, ‘It’s my job to facilitate this, and it’s my job to create that focus. Every step of the way, I will share with you where I think this is going, what all this information is telling us.’ And so every step of the way, you have to communicate.

Be as transparent as you can be. Make all the data available, on your intranet or whatever. You say, ‘We have combed through this data and we have come up with these eight themes. Now we want you to comb through the data and see if there is anything we have missed.’ Then you get back and you confirm those themes.

Then you say, ‘The next step is to take these eight themes and narrow them down to five strategies. Here are the five strategies that we have come up with. Now what do you think?’

Then once you get the strategies, you say, ‘Now we want everybody to begin to develop goals in their areas that help to achieve each of these five strategies.’

If you take a step and it’s not transparent, then they’ve lost trust.

Just remember that visual of the funnel. You’re focusing every step, getting tighter, clearer, smaller.

How to reach: Point Park University, (412) 391-4100 or www.pointpark.edu