Strategic Advocacy in HigherEd

I work for the central IT department of a non-profit higher education institution. HigherEd has a number of unique challenges in itself. For one thing, a good number of our IT projects are internal, which means either a new product (websites, applications, software, etc) or a new service (Identity Management, Printing, Computer Labs, etc). It’s virtually impossible to gauge the success or failure of a new project by simply using monetary metrics. In the corporate world, the first measure of success is usually the return on investment. In other words, is this project profitable? But in HigherEd, there really is no bottom line, therefore gauging success based on profits and losses is nearly impossible. So how else can we determine the success of a project? The next metric for success is usually time and budget. Did the project finish on time and within budget? For those readers who may not be familiar with working at HigherEd, resources are limited, time is relative, and budgets are immutable. So when you have all three forces, headed in opposite directions, required in order to successfully complete a project, chances are, the project will fail.

Strategic Advocacy

Strategic Advocacy is defined as “adding value…by cultivating alliances and establishing personal and functional influence through helping to define and respond to the adaptive and generative challenges that confront the organization.” [1]  Strategic Advocacy is a three-pronged approach: Strategic Thinking, Political Savvy, and Strategic Learning. All three concepts lay the framework for strategic advocacy and can help guide you in overcoming any challenges that HigherEd may present.

Strategic Thinking

Strategic Thinking is regarded as a process of continuously asking challenging questions and critically and creatively thinking through the strategic issues. [2] Thinking strategically is not a “tip-of-the-triangle” model of thinking within an organization. Strategic thinking doesn’t, and shouldn’t, only come from the top of an organization. Instead, strategy can come from all levels of an organization. Of course it’s the job of the leadership to be able to filter and organize intent, but every organization needs to be open to input from everyone from within the organization, as well as the customers. HigherEd is no different than any other organization in this regard.

Given the nature of the industry, HigherEd naturally cultivates an effective formal learning environment. However, when it comes to new technologies, some educational institutions can be frustratingly mired in bureaucracy, as well as the old “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” type of attitude, especially when it comes to internal projects. In order to break out of the stagnant thinking rut, organizations need to encourage and support strategic thinking activities, such as participation in the arts and creative life experiences. This will help develop what Sloan calls the five personal attributes for strategic thinking and the critical-reflective processes: imagination, broad perspective, ability to juggle, deal with ambiguity, and an adamant desire to win.

In order for change to take effect at an organization-wide level, individuals will need to formulate the new culture. This can be done on a per-project basis. For instance, instead of immediately saying “no,” ask questions that will help better understand the project, as well as the customer’s needs. The open-ended questions will remove the surface-level thinking and help everyone take a deep-dive into the level of thinking necessary to move the project along. It may seem like asking a lot of questions is scrutinizing and slowing down the process, but as long as everyone is actively listening, then deep-dive, open-ended questions will only help to fully realize the project’s needs and requirements. It’s not an easy attribute to listen, but if you can hold back and suspend judgement, active listening and reflecting on the answers is an extremely effective tool for understanding multiple perspectives.

Political Savvy

Politics affects all aspects of our daily lives, whether we are actively aware of it or not. Various types of politics can range from begging your children to finish their dinner, all the way to convincing your supervisors, that a $20 million project you proposed, will work. Political Savvy is defined as ethically building a critical mass of support for an idea you care about. [3] Every organization has to deal with politics, none more so than HigherEd. HigherEd has no notion of measuring an individual’s performance based on sales or profits. The lack of quantitative performance metrics within an organization is a breeding ground for a political minefield. HigherEd is no different.

DeLuca argues that there are several effective and productive Political Styles, such as the Leader, Responsible, Speculator, and Advisor styles. He calls these styles the “Savvys”. The savvy takes a positive or neutral view of organizational politics and depending on their style, usually are the initiators or predictors. From an effectiveness perspective, you want to surround your organization with savvys.

On the other end of the political spectrum are the “Machs.” These are the folks that fall under the negative political spectrum. They usually fall under the Machiavellian, Protector, or Cynic style. The machs are folks that know politics exists, and have taken up a manipulator role, the “I told you so” role, or the “I refuse to be burned again” role, respectively. These are the folks who ultimately drag a project or an organization down and if they are not handled appropriately, can become very toxic within an organization.

The trick with any organization is the ability to find the savvy individuals and remove the machs from the situation. An effective political mapping tool called Organization Political Mapping Technique, or OPMT, will assist in this endeavor. OPMT is a tool that allows you to combine three variables in order to map out your organization’s political terrain. The combination of the perceived influence of the various key stakeholders within your organization, their applied influence on your project, and their relationship amongst the other stakeholders, are key to understand the likelihood of getting your project off the ground.

OPMT is a great tool that will allow you to break down the course of action you should take in order to get your project off the ground, and build your sphere of influence. OPMT will also help you get to the “51 Percent Guide.” This technique requires that you focus on getting at least 51% support for your project. This could be in the form of a single, highly influential person within your organization, or from several coalitions, which together, will garner enough support to get your project off the ground.

I can’t stress how important influence and gathering majority support for your project. DeLuca’s techniques and tools are a huge asset to any organization, but especially HigherEd. From my long experience in the education industry, HigherEd lacks any sort of rewards and incentive programs, therefore being Political Savvy is the only effective way to get things done in HigherEd.

Strategic Learning

“Strategic Learning is a leadership process that generates a cycle of ongoing discovery and adaptation.” According to Willie Pietersen, the author of Strategic Learning, the rules for success have changed. No longer can you rely on a new product or service as a competitive advantage. In order to stay ahead of the competitive curve, an organization must be able to adapt to the ever changing environment of technology. An organization must define, and sometimes redefine, their strategic framework.[4] Pietersen helps define the practical process and tools required for organizational leaders need to adopt in order to adapt.

The process Pietersen defines can be handled in four linked steps and should be repeated in a continuous lifecycle. Pietersen calls this the Strategic Learning Process and can be done in four steps that build off each other. The first two steps form the basis of the organization’s strategy creation process and the last two steps are ways in which the organization can implement its strategy. The key elements here is focus and balance, analysis and creative thinking, finally learning and experience. The idea is to combine all the key elements in a linear process that will help the organization grow strategically.

  • The Situation Analysis (Learn) – The goal of this step is to create an understanding between your organization and its competitors.
  • Strategic Choices (Focus) – Based on the insight gathered from the Situation Analysis, the goal of the Strategic Choices step is the key deliverable of strategy creation. It represents the strategic aim of the organization. This is the step in which your organization’s strategy and leadership must intersect.
  • Align the Organization (Align) – In order to successfully align an organization, the leadership will need to get all the key business units to be in line with your Winning Proposition. Sometimes this involves small cultural changes within each unit and sometimes it may involve massive restructuring of staff.
  • Implement & Experiment (Execute) – With the Situation Analysis in hand, the Winning Proposition in mind, and the organization aligned, now comes time for the actual implementation step.

Conclusion

Whether you work for a small business with minimal market share or a non-profit organization that doesn’t have (or care about) a bottom line or an international Fortune 500 company that lives and dies on quarterly profits, Strategic Advocacy is a framework that can be used by any organization as a tool to gain an advantage over your competition. Strategic Advocacy combines strategic thinking, political savviness, and strategic learning in order to achieve success. HigherEd is no different. Despite the general snail’s pace of change in HigherEd, chipping away and changing the organization’s culture is possible if using the different approach for Strategic Advocacy effectively and consistently.

Notes:

[1] Langer, A. M., & Yorks, L. (2013). Strategic IT: Best practices for managers and executives.

[2] Sloan, Julia (2014). Learning to Think Strategically (2nd ed.).

[3] DeLuca, Joel R. (1999). Political Savvy: Systematic Approaches to Leadership Behind the Scenes.

[4] Pietersen, Willie. (2012) Strategic Learning: how to be smarter than your competition and turn key insights into competitive advantages.