Strategic Planning

Table of Contents

What is Strategic Planning?

Strategic planning is the process by which an institution develops a shared vision of its ideal future vision and the action steps of how to get there.

Generally, the strategic planning process consists of a series of exercises designed to create an understanding of and flesh out 10 elements:

  • Future environment in which the institution will operate
  • Current brand positioning of the institution
  • Ideal future vision (vision, mission, values, goals, and objectives) the institution desires to achieve
  • Metrics to measure attainment of the ideal future state
  • Current state assessment of the institution
  • Strategies, tactics, and actions needed to achieve the ideal future vision
  • Annual and multi-year budgets for implementing the plan
  • Risk planning including mitigation plans to ensure the plan stays viable and can be implemented
  • Departmental plans that roll up to and align with the overall strategic plan
  • An implementation plan that enables you to achieve the ideal future vision. 

 

Most higher education institutions (universities and colleges) do some form of strategic planning, either short term (2-3 year) or long term (5-10 year) plan, but they are usually just an “academic exercise” whose end product, the strategic plan, suffers from the SPOTS syndrome (strategic plan on the top shelf – gathering dust). This is primarily because most institutions and their leaders do planning as a top-down exercise, not understanding there are multiple purposes behind a strategic plan.

The holistic approach to strategic planning and plans starts with the end in mind, and measures outcomes, not processes.

See our presentation slides on how to build a shared vision and mitigate resistance to change through Strategic Planning and Management.

Benefits of Good Strategic Planning Practices

Good strategic planning practices enable a higher education institution to:

Create a shared vision focused on its mission for the institution and its faculty, employees, and students

Set a roadmap with goals, objectives, actions, and accountabilities for the  institution and its people

Create a culture of results and continuous improvement  that permeates the institution

Maintain the financial health of the institution and adherence to its mission

Build a culture of risk management that provides guardrails for administration

Hold the president and, through the president, staff, accountable for results​

Build structures that enable administration to closely monitor the institution’s progress and prevent “surprises”

Set high standards for academic excellence and performance, and remain in good standing with your accreditor

Signs Your Strategic Planning Practices Need Improvement

There are many telltale signs that an institution’s planning practices aren’t functioning properly. Unfortunately, many of them are things that institution’s have done and/or lived with for many years, saying “this is our culture / just the way we do things.” In reality, these are red flags that tell us that your planning practices are putting your institution (and your board members and administrators) at risk.

LACK OF SHARED VISION

People have unclear priorities, conflicted values, and no clear roadmap to the future

LACK OF STRATEGIC FOCUS

Your plan has too many goals and objectives, forcing staff to compete for limited resources

LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY

The plan doesn't have metrics to measure achievement or ensure execution

LACK OF FUNDS

The budgeting process doesn't take into account strategic priorities and possible disruptions

LACK OF EXECUTION

The departments don't have individual plans that roll up to the overall plan and/or metrics for accountability

LACK OF BOARD SUPPORT

The board isn't involved in the plan's development and/or approval and leave it to administration

LACK OF LEADERSHIP

Executives are not accountable for implementation, including breaking down barriers to success

LACK OF ALIGNMENT

The institution and its departments are going in different directions and not getting good results

LACK OF COMMUNICATION

There is little two-way communication so problems are not dealt with by senior leadership

Best Practices for Higher Education Strategic Planning and Management

There are a number of higher education strategic planning and management best practices that institutions should follow to ensure they are helping their institutions be successful while ensuring they fulfill their fiduciary duties. These duties include:

Strategic Planning Best Practices for Higher Education Institutions Include:

Build a core planning team that provides broad representation across the institution from the board, administration, and faculty

Assemble a broad stakeholder group that gives the core planning feedback and will implement the plan going forward

Start with the end in mind – map out your ideal future state and create strategies that will take your institution there

Plan for the future environment – not what is going on now, i.e., skate to where the puck will be

Create metrics that inform you when you have achieved your goals and objectives, and hold people accountable for results

Use metrics, e.g., student graduation rates, retention, and persistence to paint an accurate picture of today’s situation

Create multi-year budgets that are focused on achieving strategic priorities

Build departmental plans that roll up to the overall plan, and ensure the plans and processes are aligned for success

Conduct risk planning, including mitigation, that provide for possible disruptions

Roll out the plan to the entire campus, and celebrate the rollout and accomplishments

Create a separate implementation plan, including structures, for ensuring successful implementation of your plan

Review the plan annually, revisiting assumptions, metrics, and strategies to ensure continuous growth and success

What We've Done to Help Our Strategic Planning Consulting Clients

The Change Leader’s proprietary processes and methods have helped multiple universities and colleges improve their strategic management, including their planning and implementation processes.

Some of the areas we’ve helped boards with include:

  • Build multiple strategic plans for institutions, including departmental plans that roll up to and align with the institutional overall plan
  • Created implementation structures that enabled institutions ensure their strategic plan remained viable to its horizon
  • Implemented standing committees that periodically reviewed plan assumptions, including future environmental factors and plan assumptions, and enabled the institution to update their plan so that it remained viable
  • Updated the board and administration conflict of interest form to ensure members stay free of conflicts that would endanger its accreditation
  • Created board committees that oversaw the development and achievement of the institution’s plan, and established accountability mechanisms to ensure successful implementation
  • Facilitated multiple planning sessions with key stakeholder groups that enabled the institution to move forward with a shared vision and values
  • Created an annual board calendar that ensures needed planning and governance activities are conducted annually
  • Facilitated the institution’s annual strategic planning retreat

Strategic Planning Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Most frequently asked questions about strategic planning consulting for higher education

How is strategic planning different than strategic management?

There are important differences between strategic planning and strategic management.

Strategic planning is the process by which an institution develops a shared vision of its ideal future vision and the action steps of how to get there. It consists of 10 steps designed to answer 5 strategic questions:

  • Where do we want to be in the future? (i.e., what are our ends, outcomes, purposes, goals, holistic vision)
  • How will we know when we get there? (i.e., what are the customers‘ needs and wants in a quantifiable feedback system)
  • Where are we now? (i.e., what are today’s issues and problems)
  • How do we get there? (i.e., how do we close the gap from C to A in a holistic way) and ongoing
  • What will/may change in our environment in the future?

 

On the other hand, strategic management is the annual cycle of strategic planning and plan implementation memorialized into an organization’s culture. Only 5% of all higher ed institutions reach this level of excellence.

 

How long should the strategic plan be for?

It depends on the institution, their preferences, and their external environment.

Most strategic plans have a 5-10 year horizon to them. A 10-year horizon allows for an institution to dream big (think BHAG) and make incremental steps toward achieving those big goals. A 5-year plan generally doesn’t dream quite as big, but many feel that the shorter time horizon is better in times of greater disruption (e.g., COVID).

If an institution is practicing strategic management vs. strategic planning, the longer time horizon should be fine as it allows for the institution to go back and revise as necessary each year (or more frequently if circumstances dictate).

 

Is it important to have an implementation plan for our strategic plan?

Yes.

There are many good reasons for having a separate implementation plan for your strategic plan. First, a separate implementation plan provides the resources necessary for achieving your strategic goals.

Second, without a separate plan, “keeping the lights on,” i.e., the day-to-day operations will take precedent over the strategic plan, and a year will go by without any changes being made.

Lastly, a separate plan allows for better accountability, i.e., progress against goals and objectives can be more easily measured (and can be put into someone’s annual evaluation much more easily than can nebulous strategic goals).

 

What standing committees should we have to ensure successful plan implementation?

There are a few critical structures that need to be put in place to ensure successful implementation of your strategic plan.

First, the Executive Leadership team is responsible for ensuring follow-up on top 15-25 priority yearly actions from the strategic plan.

Second, the Change Leadership Steering Committee (which formerly called the Strategic Planning or Core Team) should meet bimonthly or quarterly to track, adjust, and refine the annual plan, as well as ensure follow-through on all implementation steps.

Third, the Program Management Office ensures fit, support and integration of project with your strategic plan, and manages enterprise-wide change with multiple projects. This is especially critical with multiple IT projects going on at once so that they don’t step on each other’s toes (or cause systems crashes).

Last, an Internal Support Cadre (Project team) ensures day-to-day coordination of implementation process, and, most importantly, ensures the change structures and processes don’t lose out to day-to-day.

What are the 10 steps of the strategic planning process?

Generally, the strategic planning process consists of a series of 10 steps designed to recreate understanding of and flesh out critical elements for developing a strategic plan:

  • The future environment in which the institution will operate
  • Current brand positioning of the institution
  • Ideal future vision (vision, mission, values, goals, and objectives) the institution desires to achieve
  • Metrics to measure attainment of the ideal future state
  • Current state assessment of the institution
  • Strategies, tactics, and actions needed to achieve the ideal future vision
  • Annual and multi-year budgets for implementing the plan
  • Risk planning including mitigation plans to ensure the plan stays viable and can be implemented
  • Departmental plans that roll up to and align with the overall strategic plan
  • An implementation plan that enables you to achieve the ideal future vision. 

 

How do I know my strategic plan needs revising or throwing out?

There are many indicators that your plan is no longer valid or no longer works.

  • Your institution is fragmented – there is no shared vision for the future
  • You achieved your plan goals and objectives too soon (which usually means the plan didn’t reach far enough – there were no BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals))
  • The assumptions on which the plan was based have changed radically or they weren’t right in the first place
  • The risk planning you did to mitigate potential disruptions was not complete or comprehensive enough (think COVID)
  • You have a new president and s/he wishes to revisit the plan based on her/his areas of expertise
  • You fail to meet the goals and objectives for the strategic plan in years 1 and 2
  • The world doesn’t look anything like what it did when you first developed your plan, and you did not update it in the subsequent years

 

How often should you review your strategic plan?

Higher education institutions should review their strategic plan at least annually to see progress against goals, check assumptions, review risk mitigation strategies, and update as appropriate. This is part of what is known as strategic management.

 

What is the board's role in strategic planning and strategic management?

A board’s role in strategic planning varies from institution to institution. Some boards are intimately involved in the planning process, including having board members on the planning team. Others take a more “hands-off” role in the planning process, but get involved with the approval of the plan and the budgets to implement it. Others still delegate the planning to board committees.

From a strategic management perspective, boards generally review plan achievement during their annual board retreat. Some boards delegate this to committees in which progress against the plan is discussed at least quarterly.

Regardless of how they accomplish it, a board’s job is to oversee administration and hold them accountable for progress against the plan.

 

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