Leeds University Union: strategy review

Leeds University Union (LUU) is the students’ union for all students studying at the University of Leeds. Its main purpose is to represent the voice of Leeds students; it is also a significant provider of services on campus and last, but not least, it creates tomorrow’s leaders. The students who are elected as the key representatives work in the union on a full-time basis for a year and move on to take roles with an influence on wider society. This article provides a practical walk through of the strategic review process used by Leeds University Union. We are great believers in simplicity – and you’ll see from our process that it doesn’t have to be complicated – in fact the easier the better! What is strategy review? So what is a strategic review? Well put simply it is about an opportunity to take a step back and looking at where you want to be – and then considering how you’re going to get there. What prompted LUU to undertake a strategic review? Well, for us the real driver was financial. When your finance director tells you that without change the organisation will run out of money in five years time that’s a real spur for action. But my advice would be don’t wait until you have to do something. You come out of such a process with a stronger sense of purpose and as a result a more effective organisation. Consulting your beneficiaries Our starting point was to talk to other organisations that had been through a similar process. We were keen to learn from others and weren’t embarrassed to use their ideas. The first part of the review process involved talking to our beneficiaries – students at the University of Leeds. We knew that we couldn’t do everything, for everybody, all of the time. So we wanted to know from students what their priorities were, what kind of students ’ union they wanted to see going forward. We started with focus groups to really get a feel for the issues that were concerning students. This feedback informed a questionnaire that we then sent out to a sample of 20 per cent of all students.  Analysing the results The results were then analysed and the key issues and themes were drawn out. Some of the results took us by surprise – however, we’d asked students what they wanted so it was important that we listened to what they had to say. We then set up working groups to look at how we might respond to the issues raised; this is when we started to put some meat on the bones. We involved staff from right across the organisation in this piece of work; it was important that staff had a sense of ownership as ultimately they would be delivering the work going forward. Building a consensus Given our structure – all 30,000 students at Leeds are members of LUU – the final proposals went out to a vote. To ensure that our proposals were hitting the right targets we undertook a consultation exercise before we went out to referendum. The proposals were broadly welcomed. However, there were some sticking points. As a result we made some important amendments. Putting the proposals for the future direction of the organisation out to a vote may seem unusual, but for us it is enormously powerful. Of the students that voted over 90 per cent agreed with the proposals – a huge endorsement from our key stakeholder group. Developing your plan Getting the review through referendum seemed like the end of a journey, but in reality the work was only just beginning. The next task was to turn the proposals into a working plan, which is shown here as a one page plan (PDF). Managers were internally appointed to lead on our key themes from the review. This led to some staff being involved in cross-organisation teams for the first time. Our new objectives were then cascaded through the organisation via departments – with each department picking up key actions from the corporate plan. Once the departmental plans were finalised, the staff appraisal meetings started. Each staff member’s plan was based on actions that fell out of the department plan. This way each staff member was able to see how they were contributing towards their department’s success and how that was contributing to the overall success of the Union. Although it may appear multi-layered, the simplicity and effectiveness of our planning process has been noted by Investors in People as well as the Students’ Union Evaluation Initiative – a government sponsored award for effective students’ unions. Bringing your plan to life And then there’s ensuring that the plan is a living document. Too many organisations spend a lot of time and effort writing a plan only to leave it on a shelf gathering dust. Clearly our method of cascading helps to bring the document to life. But how we really ensure that the plan is a living document is through the process of reviewing how we’re doing against our targets. Three times a year we look at our initiatives and objectives and produce a report for our Board of Trustees (Word). This not only gives our board a real sense of how the organisation is doing, but also gives that continued focus. Learning through experience So what have we learnt? Well, we’re just embarking on our next strategic review and as a result of lessons learnt last time (and changes in technology) we’re doing things differently. First of all we have the opportunity to talk to all of our students. With today’s technology, we can send the survey to all of our students via a web link, not just a representative sample through a paper-based survey as in the past. As I write this article, our survey has gone live via the web – and thus far almost 4,000 students have responded. We’ve also been able to track respondents via their demographic groups. So if we see that we have relatively few international students responding or we feel we don’t have enough responses from disabled students, we are able to target them directly to increase the numbers and thus their voice. We’re also talking to more stakeholders. Of course, our students remain our key stakeholders, but this time we’re talking to our staff, the university and the local community. We’re also much clearer about what we’re looking for from the research so we’ve been able to give the market research company a much clearer brief. We still have a long journey as far as this most recent review is concerned, but so far so good. In summary So to sum up I would say that in order to carry out a strategic review you should: learn from others – why reinvent the wheel? take your time to do it properly. If you try and rush through a project like this it will show in the results. Our first strategic review took 18 months from beginning to end. REALLY listen to what you’re being told. Some of it may be uncomfortable, but if you’re not prepared to action the results then don’t ask the questions. And finally ensure that the outcome of your strategic review is a living plan; otherwise you’ve wasted everybody’s time. (Help with reading PDFs – Adobe conversion tool is a free way to convert PDFs to web pages so you can read them online.)

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