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Keys to Strategic Planning Success

Original material adapted from The Board's Role in Strategic Planning,
published by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB).

By Senior Consultant Larry Butler

Colleges and universities undertake strategic planning for a variety of reasons. An increasing number view strategic planning as a necessary, ongoing responsibility of effective management and governance. More often, strategic planning is driven by a particularly compelling issue a decline in enrollment, a retention problem, or a threatening deficit, for example. It can be prompted by a major institutional transition, such as the installation of a new president. Or it might be tied to a recurring obligation, such as an accreditation review.

Whatever the impetus for strategic planning, the process adopted should be informed by the following realities that hold true across all institutions:

  • A fixed, long-range plan becomes outmoded, because the world quickly and unremittingly changes. Strategic plans need to be refreshed at least annually.
  • People at all levels of an institution are making daily operational decisions that have strategic consequences. Their knowledge and experience should be incorporated into the planning process from the start, and their decision making should be informed by clarity of direction and common purpose.
  • An organization benefits most when equipped with a set of strategic thinking skills and decision-making tools that are firmly rooted in reality and employed on a continuing basis throughout the institution.
  • To succeed, strategic plans have to be “operationalized”—that is, integrated into the annual operating plans, budgets, board meeting agendas, and day-to-day behaviors of the institution. Again, it is through successfully managing the present—over time—that a strategic vision is achieved.

Signs of Failure
It’s not difficult to recognize the signs of a failed strategic planning effort. Some key indicators of failure include the following:

  • Many people spent a substantial amount of time (and money) attending meetings, doing research, and writing documents with not much of substance to show for it.
  • Undifferentiated departmental wish lists were generated without prioritization or meaningful trade-offs.
  • The plan failed to specify clear objectives, assign responsibilities, or establish a timeline. In other words, it was never translated into real-world terms.
  • The entire exercise was disconnected from ongoing operations, leaving behind a voluminous but rarely consulted strategic planning document.

Keys to Success
To lessen the likelihood of a failed strategic planning effort, consider the following:

  • Keep it simple. There’s a lot of truth in the adage “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” A process that requires inordinate research and numerous meetings to deal with every possible contingency not only will fail to provide universal assurance of the “best” direction but will fail to clarify and gain commitment to the direction that is chosen. 

  • Be open and transparent. It’s not essential for strategic planning to be incessantly participatory in order to be broadly understood and accepted. As long as people have meaningful opportunities to weigh in with their ideas at key points in the process, they are much more likely not only to accept the results but to “own” them. For this to work, though, the process needs to be transparent and supported by a communications program that keeps the campus community informed about timing, process, conclusions, and decisions as they are reached and provides milestone documents as they are produced.

  • Forgo criticism in favor of learning. The planning effort can be undermined if it is perceived as a vehicle for personal criticism rather than critical evaluation. Strategic planning requires a disciplined approach to understanding an institution’s history (including the negative as well as positive episodes) so that the campus community is better prepared to attain a desired future. However, great care should be taken to reassure all concerned that affixing blame is not part of the process – especially in institutions under financial, operational, or reputational stress.

  • Bridge the implementation gap.  By their nature, colleges and universities tend to accommodate a great deal of discussion and sharing of views via multiple gatherings, forums, committee meetings, reports, white papers, and the like. What emerges from such extended exchange is likely to be more in the nature of guidelines than actionable, step-by-step plans. This can frustrate those looking for practical, less “academic” outcomes. This potential disconnect between strategy and operations represents a formidable gap to bridge if the institution is to gain the full benefits of strategic planning. Fortunately, there are tools available—such as action planning matrices and strategic budgets—that can help convert broadly stated strategy initiatives into actionable operating plans and budgets. There also are ways of transforming guidelines into something more tangible through the use of selected institutional performance metrics displayed in powerful “dashboard” reports that enable board members as well as key administrative staff and others to track how the institution is performing over time in relation to its stated goals and targets.

  • Add value. The underlying values and overarching visions that emerge from the strategic planning process can be embodied in a set of strategic themes that shape the college’s positioning, branding, and marketing efforts. They can also inform and energize fund-raising campaigns and internal and external communications programs. Thus, strategic planning can be seen as having added value in a host of observable ways.

  • Make it enjoyable. People easily become bored by organizational processes that proceed from meeting to meeting, report to report, mechanical in their structure and presentation, and laden with jargon, charts, and numbers. Ideas that stir passions and engage imaginations are critical and should be built into the process from the start. For example, instead of a deadly dull discussion of mission and vision, why not organize a series of working sessions, as Wheelock College did, in which participants were encouraged to imagine what headlines in a newspaper or blog might say five years from today about the accomplishments of the college? More than 700 exciting ideas came out of one such series of what were sometimes raucous, campus-wide envisioning sessions. Not only did some of these ideas find their way into the resulting strategic plan, but constituents from different parts of the institution had a lot of fun and got to know one another better in the process.

  • Celebrate success. In the same positive spirit, don’t be stingy with praise for those who have worked hard to bring the strategic planning effort to fruition. Recognize their individual contributions and collective achievements. Celebrate not only the successful completion of the planning process itself but the accomplishment of key implementation milestones as they occur.

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In the end, for strategic planning to succeed in empowering institutional success, it must inform and be informed by strategic thinking that  permeate the life of the institution every day and at every level.

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