PRISM Magazine Online - April 2000
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Research
The Art of the Possible

By Douglas M. Green

The Art of the PossibleMy first brush with strategic planning came about four years after I entered the professorate. One of the full professors in my department invited a half dozen junior faculty members to an informal afternoon retreat, across campus from the departmental offices. Our objective was to identify the hot technologies of the next five years, and each of us gave compelling arguments supporting our points of view. We wrote on easel paper, and used all the standard techniques of strategic planning.

At the end of the day, we came to three conclusions.  First, we defined the research areas that we felt were the technological linchpins for the next five years. Second, we noted that we had no current faculty members with expertise in these areas. Our third conclusion, therefore, was that the department should rush out and hire faculty members who knew something about the research areas we had chosen.

In hindsight, we wasted that afternoon. Had we been charged with starting a new department from scratch and given an unlimited budget, our actions might have been constructive. As it was, we were recommending that our department go on a hiring spree and build up a critical mass of new faculty members in multiple new research areas. Not only did we have little chance of selling this plan to the department chair, it was even more unlikely that the dean and the provost would have approved our concept. Our sins were that we lacked experience with strategic planning, and we were wildly overambitious.

Like politics, strategic planning should be the art of the possible. Many people within a university must buy in to a research plan if it is to provide a blueprint for the future. Faculty members should be at the core of any research planning, but others--such as industrial advisory groups--can also provide extremely useful insights. Industrial strategists proceed with great care and forethought to steer the expenditure of vast financial resources, and university planners would do well to heed their advice and understand their way of thinking.

For faculty members to take a strategic plan seriously, they must see the plan as both realistic and well-considered; otherwise, the plan will sit on the shelf and be of no benefit to anyone. Most successful strategic research plans build on areas of existing strength, and are accompanied by detailed implementation plans. Faculty members gain confidence in a research plan that includes a timetable for an orderly achievable set of actions, and that identifies individuals who are responsible for implementing them.

Strategic planning provides a wonderful framework for weighing alternatives, seeking input, and selling ideas. But the planning process is only a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Planning that is not followed by aggressive strategic action is a wasted effort and a lost opportunity. A wise man once said "Don't confuse motion with action."  Planning is motion, but what we need is definitive action.  The engineering profession is famous for the things it builds, not for projects that remain forever on the drawing board.  Similarly, in a hundred years, no one will remember a wonderful strategic plan that was never implemented.

As you plan, try to keep your feet on the ground.  Strategic planning can allow you to reach for the stars, but a successful plan should keep you focused on the stars that are only a few light years away.                              

    Douglas M. Green is chair of ASEE's Engineering Research Council
    and the dean of engineering at Marquette University.

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