“Uncertainty. Risk. Volatility. Rapid change. Innovation. New alternatives. Disruption.”

These words describe the reality that theological institutions face today. And though there is almost nothing stable in this increasingly changeable world of theological education, school leaders must still find ways to achieve their institutional mission while navigating countless challenges.

One way to do this is with strategic planning, of course. But strategic plans often fail because they are not flexible enough for today’s climate. Instead of relying solely on a traditional process of strategic planning, school leaders may get better results with a more adaptive, flexible approach.

It’s the difference between a strategic plan and a strategic planning mindset. A strategic plan is linear and may even be static. It results in a concrete planning document that is meant to be followed.

A strategic planning mindset, on the other hand, empowers an organization to move forward even when nothing in the environment is stable. It results in transformative actions, irrespective of whether they are included in a planning document.

Linear strategic planning: A good start, but not good enough

In spite of its limitations, the traditional strategic planning model offers valuable ideas and tools that leaders can use to map their way toward the future they envision for their organization. The various processes in strategic planning are simple and powerful: reflection; analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (the SWOT analysis); vision casting; strategy development; the all-important implementation phase; annual goal setting; and the establishment of key performance indicators (KPIs). With regular assessment, a school can make incremental improvements.

Yet when change is happening rapidly, the ground may shift even as plans are being implemented. That is why some believe the strategic plan itself — the end result of the planning process — is not as valuable as the insights and skills acquired during that planning process. Put more bluntly by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the master planner of the D-Day invasion: “Plans are worthless, but planning is indispensable.”

Adaptive strategic planning and key initiatives: A better approach for confronting change

A strategic plan cannot be created or sustained in isolation of how key publics — students, donors, church leaders, and accreditors — respond to the educational outcomes and impacts that lie at the heart of its vision, strategy, and initiatives. It is at this point that a strategic plan collides with reality. Because of the fast-paced nature of innovation and disruption, and because of uncontrollable outside market forces, a school’s original strategy must be adapted regularly. New initiatives must replace those that have failed in the marketplace or have been rendered obsolete through innovation and new educational alternatives.

A linear planning approach will fail an institution if it does not anticipate the nimble responses that senior leaders need to take. When conditions in the real world do not line up with the core strategy that was “in the plan,” leaders may not be prepared to take timely corrective actions to get back on course.

When timely corrections are deferred too long, pressure for change builds. Institutional strength may be sapped. Morale may sink. When this happens, there can be an inclination to overreach and overreact. Risks are increased as untested strategies and initiatives are approved too quickly and launched, almost in desperation, like a Hail Mary pass in football.

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So, how can theological school leaders make use of strategic planning when constant change makes it challenging to create a strategic plan that remains relevant by the time it is implemented? Below are three processes that can make strategic planning efforts indispensable to the missional success of a school:

1. Imagine future impact. Instead of focusing on operational metrics alone, think about the long-term impact of the institution on the ministries and careers of graduates, and the churches and organizations — and society in general — that benefit from the education that the school provides for its students. The objective analysis of impact is critical to setting a future course for a school.

Impact measurements are more difficult to gather and quantify than operational metrics. Operational metrics include:

  • Revenue statistics. These include tuition revenue, income from donors, and endowment income.
  • Enrollment performance results. These include the number of new students, the number of graduates, and total enrollment.
  • Ratio analysis. This includes endowment value per student, student-to-faculty ratio, student retention ratio, and percentage of applicants who enroll.

Yet as important as these operational metrics are, they do not measure future impact. The objective analysis of impact is critical to setting a future course for a school. If you are not gathering information on the impact your institution has already had, consider starting now. Send surveys, host events on campus to discuss impact, or try focus groups. Send teams of faculty and administrators to talk to graduates, church leaders, and others who have benefited from the institution’s programs and degrees.

Be curious and ask lots of questions. Which of the programs you offer have had deep impacts or have filled important gaps left by other institutions? How might those programs have had an even greater impact? What clues does this offer for your visionary thinking? How might you design your educational model to have a greater impact in the future?

2. Develop shared vision and compelling impact goals. The most important work of a theological school leader is to discern God’s purposes for the institution — that is the key to being found faithful as a wise steward. Based on that understanding, it is important for school leaders to discern the most strategic impact their school might have on the world, both now and in the future. Most leaders gain insight to God’s purposes through a process of reflection, prayer or discernment that aligns with their own theology and spiritual practices.

A seminary leader can communicate the vision most effectively by describing the institution’s impact on the church and society — a vision around which donors, church leaders, and other stakeholders can rally. Such a vision then demands a course of action that can be achieved through a tailored strategy — a strategy that is undergirded by a sustainable business model. A sustainable business model then enables the school’s mission to be fulfilled with economic vitality, and it provides the rationale for the realignment of resources necessary to fund its strategic initiatives.

3. Develop adaptive strategies and key initiatives needed to achieve the vision. A vision is brought to life through compelling impact goals. But schools need a planning process that produces more than just the all-important buy-in of the governing board, faculty, administration, and staff. To adjust to the uncertain world of theological education, leaders must intentionally prepare for adaptive change and learn how to test new ideas through “quick to market” pilot programs. That means learning to embrace new, adaptive strategies while also supporting the current operating model.

This is best done through the launch of a “balanced portfolio” of three types of key initiatives:

  • Manage the present. Initiatives that support the institution’s continuing core operations and strategies.
  • Selectively abandon the past. Initiatives that create margins for change through the selective abandonment of old practices, programs, and mindsets.
  • Create the future. Initiatives that test new strategies to create the “theological institution of the future.” This requires the development of a new mindset and competencies for market-sensitive program design, skills to test critical assumptions and feasibility, and courage to tolerate conditions of high uncertainty with moderate risk.

 How to move ahead with your board: A sailing metaphor for adaptive strategic thinking

“Know where you want to go. Adjust your sails to the winds. Even when they are against you.”

This quotation is from an address recently given at Harvard by the former president of Colombia, Juan Manual Santos, who won the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to negotiate a peace treaty with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Santos’s words can be applied to the stance theological school boards and other leaders might want to consider taking when discussing the future. Let’s take a closer look at each of these phrases:

“Know where you want to go.” This refers to vision and direction. As you meet with your leadership team, governing board, and faculty, consider one or more of these questions:

  • Have you entered into a prayerful discernment process to try to understand God’s agenda for your school’s future? If so, how did you go about it, and what have you discovered? (For more information, consider reading Spiritual Leadership: A Commitment to Excellence for Every Believer by J. Oswald Sanders.)
  • Have you reflected on the favorable impact your school has already had on the church and society? If so, how does that influence your thinking about your opportunities to have a future impact? (For more information, see Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability by Jeanne Bell, Jan Masaoka, and Steve Zimmerman.)
  • Have you brainstormed to discover new, untapped needs that your school is uniquely positioned to capture? If so, what are they and how might that influence your future impact as a school? (For more information, see Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant and Blue Ocean Shift: Beyond Competing, both by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne.)
  • Do you have a vision statement that you have  shared with your key stakeholders? If so, how do you know it has been understood?
  • Does your school have a compelling and achievable sense of direction? If you have established this core direction, how have you evaluated whether you are on the path toward this goal?

“Adjust your sails to the winds.” We cannot change the direction of the wind, but we can adjust our sails to reach our destination. Strategies, competencies, and resources can be adjusted to get where you want to be. To begin making these adjustments, consider the following questions with your leadership team, governing board, and faculty:

  • Have you defined the “smallest viable market” for each of your programs? This marketing concept refers to the smallest number of potential customers needed to sustain a program or product. By defining precisely whom you are serving in each of your programs, learning what your “customers” (i.e., students or potential students) want, and determining how you can deliver to these customers, you can decide whether each of your programs is viable. For example, if you’re considering adding or dropping a D.Min. program, you need to know how many students you need to make that program viable, how large your potential market is, how much it might cost to grow your potential market. (For more information, see This is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See by Seth Godin.)
  • Have you identified key initiatives that integrate with your core strategy? If so, are those initiatives helping you achieve your operations today while preparing your institution to become what you want it to be in the future? (For more information, see The Three Box Solution: A Strategy for Leading Innovation by Vijay Govindarajan.)
  • Do you have the competencies among your leaders, faculty, and staff to navigate toward your chosen destination? If not, are there ways to cultivate these competencies? Will you need to hire new staff or faculty, train existing staff or faculty, or move current employees into new positions?
  • Is your core strategy supported by a value proposition and a sustainable business model that generates enough resources to achieve success? If so, how would you describe your business model and your distinctive value proposition? (For more information, see Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers and Value Proposition Design: How to Create Products and Services Customers Want, both by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur.)

“Even when [the winds] are against you.” When the winds shift, it’s easy to go in the wrong direction even if you never turn the tiller. How do you stay on course when the winds shift? One way is to meet with the leadership team, governing board, and faculty to determine the best adaptive strategies and then weigh the pros and cons of each. Consider the following questions:

  • Have you identified the specific threats and opportunities that are in front of your school now?
  • Have you determined which are or will be the most significant for your school’s health?
  • In what ways can you adapt your strategy or change any key initiatives to stay on course?

The capacity to adapt in the face of changing conditions is likely already with you on your board, in your leadership team, or among your faculty. The key is to marshal the wisdom that is already at hand in a way that helps you stay the course with the flexibility to adjust as needed. It’s not an impossible task.

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