In geopolitical terms, the phrase strategic autonomy is often used to describe the desire of countries such as India and Turkey to negotiate treaties and engage in military activities without regard for the dictates of a stronger ally or superpower. In corporate or academic terms, strategic autonomy (along with its less mellifluous cousins autonomous strategic action and skunkworks) refers to a leadership philosophy that empowers individuals or small groups to engage periodically in activities that lie outside the scope of the institution’s strategic plan. (See, for example, http://tinyurl.com/lff84l8.) Strategic autonomy is common practice at businesses such as 3M, Hewlett-Packard, and Google, where employees are permitted to devote a certain portion of their time—typically 10 to 20 percent—to whatever they feel like doing. (See http://tinyurl.com/k8ktpvn.) It’s the officially sanctioned version of the practice known as bootlegging in which employees pursue their own projects on company time, usually without the knowledge or permission of their supervisors.
In the corporate world, the benefits of strategic autonomy are numerous. To begin with, skunkworks often develop products that no strategic plan could ever have envisioned. Famous examples include Post-It Notes, Gmail, and the HP DeskJet Printer. Genuine innovation is often the result of one person’s vision and dogged determination to make that vision a reality. Formal planning, on the other hand, usually results in a simple elaboration or improvement of current products, not groundbreaking invention of new products. Strategic autonomy tends to be effective because it permits people to follow their passion, even if they’re pursuing “an idea so crazy that it just might work.” Moreover, by trusting employees with the freedom to engage in activities that excite and stimulate them, strategic autonomy improves morale, boosts creativity, and reduces turnover.
In higher education, strategic autonomy is usually informal and, as a result, highly disorganized. Relatively few institutions require the teaching faculty to be at their desks Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Thus, for professors, there’s sufficient opportunity for individuals or small groups to adopt a skunkworks approach as they develop new courses, invent new disciplines, or create new fields of research. But chairs, deans, and other administrators aren’t quite so lucky. They usually do have prescribed workdays. And the sheer amount of administrative work involved in accreditation activities, program reviews, assessment reports, course scheduling, budget requests and allocations, strategic planning and evaluation, faculty performance reviews, and the like produce more than enough responsibilities to fill every available minute.
But what if they didn’t have to? What if we were able to offer academic leaders a small cushion of free time (perhaps every other Friday afternoon) to reflect, dream, and devote their energies to what they want to do, not just what they have to do? The result would probably be a threefold benefit to the institution. First, the school would gain a surprising number of new ideas. Admittedly, many of those ideas will not be worth pursuing. Most of the concepts developed by any skunkworks prove to be impractical or unsustainable. At the same time, some of the ideas will turn out to be brilliant and unexpected. Strategic planning and the other mechanisms that institutions traditionally use to produce long-term improvements are far more effective at implementing innovative ideas than at generating them. In higher education as in business, truly game-changing ideas often result from the work of a single person or a small group of like-minded individuals who are given the freedom to let their imaginations soar. For this reason, even if 9,990 of every 10,000 ideas generated by strategic autonomy prove to be worthless, the institution still ends up with 10 good ideas it wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Second, strategic autonomy alleviates administrative stress and burnout. By its very nature, this type of officially sanctioned independence gives administrators a little breathing room in which they can set aside the stress of their positions and remind themselves why they took their jobs in the first place. Faculty members commonly assume that chairs, deans, and vice presidents have all the freedom they need to set their own priorities and control their own calendars. But a significant amount of administrative work is set for academic leaders by their supervisors, accrediting agencies, the demands of the academic calendar, and the policies of the institution. As a result, most administrators feel that they gave up most of the autonomy they had when they were serving on the faculty. By giving some of that autonomy back, institutions offer academic leaders an opportunity to recapture the enthusiasm they had for their work before they lost it in the sheer pressure of their responsibilities.
Third, strategic autonomy reinforces the notion that no two units are alike in higher education. Although we frequently give lip service to the notion that the needs of the English Department are very different from those of the Mechanical Engineering Department, many institutional policies contradict our claims. Organizations tend to favor consistency, and so we require the same reports from units where the information included in the report is highly relevant to what they do as we require from units where that information doesn’t equate at all to their identities or mission. Strategic autonomy allows these programs to reclaim their uniqueness. It gives them permission to pursue goals that may not be meaningful anywhere else at the institution but that are absolutely vital to the role they see themselves as playing. Strategic autonomy improves the quality of programs by recognizing that they have needs no one else has and by giving these programs a systematic opportunity to address those needs.
Carving out time for these activities is challenging. But if strategic autonomy is regarded as a priority, it can be done by consolidating or eliminating the sheer number of meetings administrators are required to attend, reducing paperwork (such as eliminating forms that require an administrator’s signature even if he or she never reads or examines them), and having the president and provost emphasize that they expect administrators at all levels to innovate new approaches, not merely implement the goals established by the upper administration. While it may at first be difficult to document precisely how students are better educated and research is more capably conducted because administrators now have a degree of strategic autonomy, the benefits will ultimately be significant and undeniable.
Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, is available from Jossey-Bass.
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