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Wilting in the weeds: The risks of implementing university strategy through operational creep

  • 18 April 2024
  • By Susan Lea
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Professor Susan Lea, Principal Consultant at Sagewood Consulting Ltd, and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Hull.

At any time, but particularly in times of challenge, an executive team’s leadership of the university’s strategy is paramount. This strategy charts the path to achieving shared institutional vision and mission, embodies organisational identity, frames associated plans, informs targets and timeframes and, ultimately, is the measure of a Vice Chancellor and their team’s success. Consequently, developing a compelling and purposeful strategy and implementing the anticipated change is pivotal to achieving a successful and sustainable university.

This sounds so simple and yet the extant research, as well as my own 30 years’ experience working in and supporting higher education institutions, has shown how difficult a task it is. Studies vary widely in terms of the percentage of organisations that fail to execute their strategies successfully from 50 to 90 per cent ((PDF) Strategy implementation: What is the failure rate? ( However, the upshot is the minority are successful – and higher education institutions are likely to be no exception.

Of course, a ‘good’ strategy (see Mike Baxter’s insights: University Strategy 2020 – Goal Atlas) is a necessary but not sufficient condition for impactful delivery. Even the most brilliant strategy will fail if efforts to implement it occur through what I would call ‘operational creep’. To clarify, this is entirely different to the need to be agile and proactive in response to a changing world while remaining focussed on the overall trajectory of an institution. Rather, I define operational creep as the ability to get drawn into a maelstrom of operational concerns to the extent that a focus on the institution’s strategic imperatives is lost and decision-making becomes ad hoc and predominantly reactive.

Operational creep poses serious risk, increasing the possibility of being blown off strategic course – threatening the institution’s success and sustainability. While no one sets out to lead in this way, executive teams frequently bemoan spending too much time ‘in the weeds’, dealing with matters that should be delegated and more appropriately managed by other committees and individuals.  

So, how is it that we slide all too often into this way of working? A slightly different constellation of factors is likely to be implicated in each university. These might include an historic, unhealthy culture of ‘delegating up’ rooted in fear of being held to account; senior leaders not resisting, but rather reinforcing, this practice for a host of reasons from the lure of being able to solve something when usually their role is vexed and complex to empathy with middle managers’ workload; a lack of experience of working at the strategic level; complex or unhelpful team behaviours; and other issues, which may be no less pertinent.

What then are the solutions to this problem? First, one needs to develop a clear, accessible strategy which is owned and understood by everyone: the executive team, the governing body, staff – and students, as appropriate. This will mitigate the potential to get drawn into – and wilt – in the weeds by providing purpose, defining priorities and informing plans. Further, a well-crafted strategy, borne out of a thoroughly consultative process, can inspire hope, foster connectivity and build pride. Alignment between the university strategy and various sub-strategies, academic and service-related, will facilitate coherence and enable delivery.  

Second, the institution’s plans need to reflect strategic priorities and goals in order that they infuse culture and community. In essence, all activity should be able to be linked back to the delivery of the strategy, as should the contribution of every member of staff. If work does not support the strategy in one way or another, directly or indirectly, the question as to what purpose it serves should be asked.

Third, potentially tough decisions need to be taken by the executive (and governing body as appropriate) regarding the allocation of resources against strategy and plans; likely supporting strength, opportunity and need, and quite possibly seeing restriction or withdrawal from areas of limited market demand or persistent weakness. Strategic decisions should, of course, be evidence-led, based on robust business cases balancing risk against intended benefits and outcomes.

Fourth, the scheme of delegation and associated decision-making powers needs to be operating in practice, enabling empowerment, agency and ownership. Clear lines of sight from the executive to the ‘front line’ will allow for audit, assurance and confidence.

Fifth, the Executive Team needs to own and lead the strategy, being individually responsible and collectively accountable. Moreover, they need to set and support an inclusive culture that is based in openness, transparency and mutual respect.

Finally, there is a discipline to retaining strategic focus and executive members need to be able to hold each other to account should they perceive a drift toward the operational. On a pragmatic level, attention to meeting structure, agenda setting, the production of papers and monitoring of actions can facilitate – or hinder – discussion of matters strategic. Ultimately, operational creep is a lived reality for many executive teams. Being alert to this risk should increase the likelihood of successfully delivering an institution’s strategic ambitions, leading to positive impact and outcomes for those they serve.

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