This article is more than 1 year old

How tough conversations about differentiation can revitalise your strategy and planning

Too often, our institutions mistake what we currently do well or have historically invested in with relevance to students, staff, donors, and policymakers. EAB’s Gary Guadagnolo suggests a different approach.
This article is more than 1 year old

Gary Guadagnolo is a Senior Director in EAB’s research division

Colin Koproske is Managing Director of Research Development at EAB

Take a second to think about what makes your institution unique.

Do you have instructors and staff who care about students? Perhaps a beautiful campus? Maybe top-tier researchers? Or exciting international opportunities for global citizens?

If that’s where your mind went, welcome to the party – because colleagues at just about every institution up and down the country say the same thing.

I spend a lot of time helping university executives understand the purpose of strategic planning. Almost all of those conversations begin with untangling mission (a timeless and aspirational vision about learning and research that doesn’t need to differ between institutions) from strategy (a roadmap laying out how you are unlike others, and how those comparative advantages will enable you to succeed, whether financially, reputationally, or in any other way).

In a world marked by intensifying competition, scarce resources (including talent), and more scepticism about the value of a degree, traditional methods for priority-setting and long-term planning fall short. As such, our institutions need to reassess the building blocks of strategy.

Old plans and new tricks

Consider a few ways that traditional planning can miss the mark.

Strategic plans are episodic. Major strategic plan changes occur every 5 to 10 years, which does not allow for consideration of shifting environments (e.g., a global pandemic or political and social unrest). In this context, the half-life of the actual planning document shortens rapidly.

Plans tend to be very high-level. Strategic plans often focus on “mega topics” like global impact, sustainability, or diversity. Using maximally inclusive descriptive elements creates an undifferentiated strategy that resembles competitor universities.

They are inwardly focused. Most strategic plans hinge on historical precedent. The resulting plan focuses on small, incremental changes and strives for the same but better, rather than inflecting a competitive position.

Strategies tend to be overly representational. When planning committees strive to ensure every constituency is featured in the final document, single ideas are difficult to focus on, producing an unprioritised, unfunded wish list.

They focus on the ends – not the means. Plans often describe vision without detailing necessary investments or process changes. This leads to an exhausted staff that cannot prioritise which different strategies to use or areas to focus on to achieve institutional goals.

Given these shortcomings, institutions often settle for a relatively generic plan that serves well as a glossy statement of values but poorly as either strategic or operational guidance. If we confuse that output with actual strategy, we’ll end up in the same place we always have – with a few quick wins (if even that) before the plan is consigned to coffee tables outside the VC’s office.

That’s the difference between you and me

Strategy formation and competitive differentiation comprise the first, and most challenging step, in building a culture of dynamic strategy. This initial stage begins with an up-to-date assessment of trends, threats, and opportunities in the sector and an honest appraisal of the institution’s position and performance relative to its environment. Then, institutions develop a differentiated value proposition for their major constituents (beginning with the largest student segments but including donors, policymakers, staff, and community or research partners), and identify a handful of manageable and achievable targets to solidify and improve those differentiators in the next 3-5 years.

Articulating a differentiated value proposition is particularly challenging in HE. In other sectors, companies set a single product or service apart from a somewhat short list of available brands. Universities, however, offer an incredible array of degrees and programmes alongside a long list of additional services, from housing and dining to athletics and social networking and support infrastructure.

Moreover, universities tend to describe their provision using language that’s appealing, but sounds like everyone else – think about our frequent reference to student-centricity, caring and attentive academic staff, commitment to diversity, etc. Or we might point to unique institutional attributes, like the presence of Nobel prize laureates or an international campus. But these claims may fail the ‘so what’ test by not appealing to the interests or needs of prospective students. To meaningfully differentiate from similarly positioned peers, we have to speak to the practical hopes, goals, and concerns of the current generation.

I can see clearly now

As I hope is clear, the differentiation sweet spot is ultimately found at the intersection of audience needs and institutional capabilities—and, importantly, in a space that’s difficult for competitors to copy.

When I’m working with universities to test their differentiator claims, I push them to identify a brief list of demonstrable value proposition claims and assess what measurable evidence can prove these claims to their constituents. I find the following questions to be helpful during this evaluation phase:

  • Relevance to audience: How does your differentiator maximise ‘gains’ (positive outcomes and benefits) or minimise ‘pains’ (negative outcomes, risks, and barriers)? How does your differentiator address functional, social, or emotional needs?
  • Difficulty for competitors to copy: How exactly is what you do different? Is that easy to replicate? What next-level capability will you pursue to stay ahead?
  • Share of audience enjoying benefits: What percentage of the audience experiences the differentiator? What can you change to ensure near-100 per cent experience?
  • Provability to the market: How do we communicate benefits? Does our proof align with audience definitions of success? How can we collect richer evidence more easily?

Strategies that pass muster in this model aren’t likely to live at the highest conceptual altitude (i.e., “Our students become global leaders and citizens”); rather, they promise a more concrete and provable proposition (“Because of our hands-on programmes in workforce-relevant fields, our graduates have the highest average 5-year earnings of any institution in our region in healthcare, tech, and education”).

Go easy on me

The flexible thinking and planning enabled by a more dynamic approach to strategy-setting allows leaders to quickly analyse challenges and move towards productive change. But it isn’t easy. Keep the following lessons in mind, which come from some of the many workshops I’ve facilitated as institutions work to articulate their differentiators:

  • Learning to describe your institution and its offer in differentiated terms can be frustrating because it’s genuinely hard – and draws on a vocabulary we in the sector rarely use.
  • It’s tempting to approach differentiation as a marketing exercise. While the two can work together, don’t skip the hard work of identifying audience needs and articulating clearly and precisely how you can (or should) meet them.
  • Stress-testing differentiation with current students, early-career academics, and frontline staff can reveal untapped strengths and neglected weaknesses hidden to senior leaders biased by institutional traditions and sunk-cost investments.
  • Differentiation can help you distinguish between a messaging problem (we have distinctive features, but we’re not telling the right story) from a product problem (we haven’t yet succeeded in creating areas of distinction).
  • If you discover something that’s missing or that you want to be true that isn’t, do more than lament – embed it into your strategy so that in five years it will be true.

All of this is easier said than done, I know. But a culture of dynamic strategy in which you articulate your institution’s strengths and uniqueness in light of ever-evolving constituent expectations, and then revise priorities and reallocate resources accordingly, will take you a lot further than the strategic plan gathering dust on the shelf.

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