• November 9, 2023

Use “Big Rocks” Planning to Smooth Your Institution’s Road to the Future

Use “Big Rocks” Planning to Smooth Your Institution’s Road to the Future

Use “Big Rocks” Planning to Smooth Your Institution’s Road to the Future 1024 536 Vantage Technology Consulting Group

Identifying the right institutional planning horizon for information technology can be challenging. Having a good plan that’s been well-vetted by institutional stakeholders and IT staff will help to set priorities and answer the questions “What are IT’s goals and what is IT working on?” Everyone recognizes that the technology itself changes quickly. Two years ago, not many institutions were considering generative AI a key area to consider. Now generative AI is at the very least an area to watch and prepare for, and for some it’s already a cornerstone of their planning. Beyond the technology, institutional plans can change quickly. As senior leaders, especially campus presidents, move among institutions with increasingly shorter tenures, an institution’s direction can pivot quickly depending upon the goals of a new leader. CIOs and other IT leaders also tend to measure their stop at a single institution in years, not decades. Establishing a long-term plan may seem futile at best, and counterproductive at worst. Good planning takes time and effort, and putting work into a plan for what’s going to happen in five or ten years may not merit the investment. 

In this environment, IT organizations often adopt a planning cycle that’s two, perhaps three years in scope. For many changes, projects, and investments, this short-term planning horizon can be very effective. However, there are certain important events that are large, costly, risky, and have a big impact on IT and, in many cases, an entire institution. These long, costly, high-risk projects not only require significant financial investment; they also tend to require so much attention that they “suck the air from the room.” We call these projects IT’s “Big Rocks,” with a nod to the method for prioritization that was popularized by Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People 

Big Rock projects tend to: 

  • Require a medium and sometimes long-term financial commitment that’s beyond the reach of a typical institutional IT budget;
  • Depend upon executive support from cabinet-level colleagues, often including the institutions president and sometimes the governing board;
  • Require a long-term communications plan;
  • And often span the tenure of more than one CIO. 

A responsible CIO doesn’t want to see an institution be forced to carry out a Big Rock project without proper resource commitments, a good communications plan, and executive sponsorship that will span multiple years and likely the tenure of multiple senior administrators. Therefore, we suggest that an institution benefits from thoughtfully identifying the Big Rocks on an institutional horizon of at least ten years, perhaps more. Such a plan by its nature is tentative, and the rocks might be moved forward or backward on the timeline depending on institutional plans and priorities. However, building this calendar will prepare institutional leadership (especially the CFO) to be aware of the timing for major financial commitments, and the enable the rest of the institutional team to assess how the Big Rocks project might impact their areas, particularly when they have their own Big Rocks to contend with.  

Build A Big Rocks Calendar for Your Institution 

1. Identify the Big Rocks 

To build your Big Rocks calendar, you first need to figure out what should go on it. We recommend setting an informal threshold for dollars and time, and considering institutional impact. Include an item on your calendar if: 

  • The capacity to fund it rests outside IT. Depending on the size and funding model for a campus, this could be projects that require more than $100,000 or more than $1,000,000. We’ve seen campuses that could set an even higher threshold. 
  • The time to implement the project spans more than one budget cycle. 
  • Extensive change management is required for the project because of the impact on a large number of offices or individuals. 
  • The project would benefit from executive sponsorship from multiple areas, e.g. IT and Facilities, or IT and Academic Affairs. 
  • The failure of the project has the potential to cause institutional financial, reputational, or compliance risk. 
  • A project is critical for creating the foundation for a future Big Rock. 
  • The project will require a substantial commitment of time from IT leadership, campus leadership, and organizational resources, making it difficult to manage more than one such project at a time. 

Once you’ve determined the criteria, list your Big Rocks. Some will be relatively obvious (e.g. replace a large enterprise system; undergo a major hardware refresh; update a generation of classroom hardware; replace obsolete door access hardware; or move/replace/eliminate a data center). Others might be less obvious, but no less important. For example, have you had major construction in recent years that provided funding for IT hardware that is now coming to end-of-life? Is there a major new initiative on the horizon in student success, fundraising, research, data analysis, or some other area that’s important strategically for your institution? Are you opening a new campus, or closing one? Did you make a big IT investment using Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) money that will require a refresh down the road? Is your institution preparing to make a strategic pivot, such as becoming more research intensive or shifting to accommodate more online learners? Is there a major change in the physical plan that will impact your network topology or require a data center move?  It may require several passes to get a complete list, and we recommend you consult with campus strategic and master plans and talk to colleagues in other divisions and on your own team along the way. 

2. Build a Calendar

Now that you’ve identified the Big Rock projects, you can begin to lay them out on your annual calendar. Look first for projects that have dependencies that require them to be completed by a certain date (e.g., an enterprise system that’s likely to be reaching end-of-life or a major construction project that requires a technology to be in place) and put those down first. Then fill in around those relatively immobile projects. Ideally you will be able to spread things out so that you have no more than one project in process at a time, but that may not be possible. Spread them out as best you can. 

3. Look for Opportunities to Break Down Your Rocks

Treating a large project as a monolith increases risk, stress, and cost. Can you break some of the big rocks into smaller rocks that can be completed in an iterative fashion to get quicker wins and lower risk? Now is a great time to consider what the institution could be doing over the next year or two to make the project in year three or four easier and less risky. The temptation is always to postpone these decisions and smaller efforts and let them all roll up into one huge project – resist that temptation! 

4. Share Your Plan and Get Feedback  

Now that you’ve created your Big Rocks plan, use it as a discussion starter with your peers, your direct supervisor, and other campus decision makers. Some of them will be shocked to realize all that needs to be accomplished, and you may feel the same way. But remember, the work was always there, this is just the process of exposing it. Some groups may realize that they have Big Rock projects that depend on IT’s or that IT will depend upon. The goal for the institution should be to avoid unanticipated conflicts in priorities that may delay critical projects and cause unnecessary risk. Be prepared to take feedback and make adjustments where you can.  

5. Use Your Big Rocks Plan to Build Annual Plans, and Update as Needed

As you work through your annual planning and budget cycles, use the Big Rocks roadmap as a guide. As things change (and you know they will!), adjust your long-term outlook.  

If you’ve already created a similar process, we’d love to hear from you. If this is your first exposure to this concept and it leads you to creating your own Big Rocks roadmap, let us know if you find it useful and what changes you’ve made to adapt it to your environment.  

This post was co-authored by Executive Strategic Consultant Michael Berman, who advises clients on strategic planning; organizational assessments and development; CIO executive advisory services; and culture and engagement, and Vice President Jon Young, who guides clients on network modernization, technology strategic planning, and initiatives that transform institutional academic, administrative, and research capabilities.