Five Reasons to Throw Out Your Strategic Plan:

Strategic Management, Planning, and Disruptions in Higher Education

Table of Contents

Strategic Management meeting with man and woman

How will you know if you should stick with your current strategic plan or if holding on is holding you back?

Strategic management and strategic planning are critical parts of a higher education leader’s tool kit to deal with disruptions. A strategic plan is a well-thought-out institutional roadmap for the future, but more importantly, the planning process should bring diverse stakeholders together to discuss and develop the college’s or university’s path to its ideal future. This leads to a shared vision and buy-in, alignment across the campus, and helps to create focused, positive energy to propel the effort forward.

However, higher education institutions are increasingly facing serious disruptions—and those disruptions in today’s world could make the institution obsolete if appropriate action is not taken. These situations beg the question—are there times when leaders need to consider scrapping a strategic plan before the designated endpoint?

A Review of Strategic Planning

Before addressing this question, let us review what strategic planning entails. As noted in our earlier post, Strategic Planning in Higher Ed 101, strategic planning requires a college’s or university’s leaders, boards, and the planning team to analyze and answer five strategic questions:

  • Where do we want the institution to be?
  • What will determine when we get there?
  • Where are we now?
  • How does the institution get there?
  • What environmental factors will or may change in the future?


The strategic planning process asks a diverse group of stakeholders to work together to project the institution’s future. By assessing the organization’s current state, the environment, and potential risks and disruptions, this group can create a roadmap toward the institution’s desired future. This process also requires that stakeholders revisit the institution’s vision, goals, purpose, and outcomes to align them with the ideal state. The planning process also involves creating a quantifiable feedback system that ensures accountability.

Five Reasons to Throw Out Your Strategic Plan

This brings us to the key question – which situations may (or should) trigger the need to throw out (or modify) your current strategic plan? The following describes five situations when the institution’s strategic plan may no longer be relevant and should be put in the round filing cabinet.

#1: When Assumptions Radically Change

A strategic plan is based on assumptions – and assumptions can (and do) change. For example, your team made an assumption that the institution would have a certain level of revenue. However, your institution instead experienced a significant shortfall, which has blown the assumption. Moving forward with the current strategic plan would not be prudent.  

Assumptions can change based on a variety of factors beyond just financial considerations. What if a major campus dormitory needs to be shuttered due to mold? Or your university system decides to eliminate the requirement for SAT/ACT scores, resulting in a significant increase in the number of applications? These types of situations can quickly shred the strategic plan’s assumptions.

When and if these types of situations happen, it is important to reconsider your current strategic plan and begin revising it. Bring the strategic planning team together to look at the data, including the latest numbers that exploded your initial assumptions, and reset expectations, goals, strategies, and tactics.

#2: When Major Disruptions Happen

COVID-19 gave higher education leaders a crash doctoral-level course in disruption through an unexpected event. While the pandemic offers one universal example, there are other types of disruption. For example, Tennessee’s state historically black colleges and universities may receive a financial windfall because the state’s legislature historically underfunded these institutions. This sudden infusion of money will be disruptive in many ways.

Another example is the University of Puerto Rico, which was closed due to Hurricane Maria in 2017 – it still hasn’t reopened at the same level that it was before the event. And then there was COVID…

Or an institution being put on Show Cause or denied accreditation by their accreditor. Only 1 in 20 institutions ever recover from Show-Cause – it usually is a death knell for an institution.

These types of situations show why enterprise risk management (ERM) is such an important part of the strategic planning process. ERM allows institutions to systemically plan and prepare for risks through risk management planning and risk oversight. Risk management – which is the administration’s responsibility – is the process that institutions use to identify potential disruptors, mitigate their impact, and manage potential risks.  Risk oversight – which is the board’s purview – requires the board to evaluate whether the higher education executives are effectively managing the organization’s risks. Additionally, the ERM process involves developing scenarios upon which strategic plans can be built.

Disruptions fall into four categories: hazards/accidents (such as hurricanes, floods, wildfires, or blizzards); societal (the pandemic, Black Lives Matter, MeToo!); governmental (policy changes, visas for international students); and technology (ransomware, platform malfunctions). Because the risk profile varies between institutions, higher education leaders and teams need to take the time to identify and analyze the potential risks through creating risk (heat) maps.

This four-quadrant diagram (or sometimes a six-quadrant diagram) is a tool by which institutions can analyze risks based on their potential impact (the vertical axis) and likelihood (the horizontal axis). As part of this process, leaders need to determine how much risk tolerance their institution has, which includes prioritizing the potential risks. From there, higher education leaders can begin to develop a plan for how to mitigate the risks so the institution can move forward in a timelier manner.

#3: For Faster Progress

It is possible (hopeful) that higher education institutions can accomplish their strategic planning goals earlier than expected. This unexpected rate of progress may be due to a sudden financial infusion or synergy among individuals or various departments that bring a programmatic effort to fruition sooner than expected.

When this does happen, it is important to create a new plan that causes the institution to stretch even more. What are the new horizons that the institution wants or needs to conquer? Can your team dream bigger so that you are creating transformational change instead of incremental movement? What are your institution’s Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) that will transform your organization?

#4: If There’s a Change in Leadership

When an institution has a change in the presidency, it is important to engage the new leader in the institution’s strategic plan and find ways to utilize their unique skillset. This engagement starts with sharing the strategic plan with the new president as part of the onboarding process. It’s also important to review the assumptions with the cabinet and other campus administrators as part of the team-building exercises with the new leader. Taking this approach creates an alignment between the new president and the institution’s senior and college leaders – in effect, a great team-building exercise with real-world implications.

Additionally, revisiting the strategic plan gives the new leader a chance to review what has been inherited from the previous administration and determine whether the identified goals remain valid. Taking the time to do this is crucial – new presidents are no longer given a “grace period” where they can slowly get to know the institution. Thanks largely to the pandemic, new presidents are being required to take the institution’s reins and manage the course immediately. Through deeply understanding the strategic plan as well as the cabinet’s strengths and weaknesses, the new leader can have a better picture of where the institution is going—or where a minor or major course correction is needed.  

#5: During the Annual Review and Update Process

The annual review of the strategic plan gives the institution’s leadership team a dedicated time to determine if the strategic plan and/or the strategic management need to be adjusted.

There is an important difference between strategic planning and strategic management. Strategic planning is the process that a team undergoes to develop a strategic plan that will guide the institution for 5-10 years. Strategic management takes planning to the next level – it entails the leadership team to annually review the institution’s accomplishments and assumptions using the SKEPTIC and SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analyses, reexamine assumptions and achievement of goals (metrics), and adjust the strategies and tactics moving forward. As a reminder, the SKEPTIC stands for:

  • S: Socio-demographic trends that the institution is facing.
  • K: Competition in the form of higher education institutions as well as entities offering certificate programs.
  • E: Environment/economic issues that are happening locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally that can affect the institution’s future.
  • P: Political/regulatory decisions that can have potential long-term ramifications.
  • T: Technology trends that will impact the institution instructionally as well as organizationally.
  • I: Industry trends that will help determine the viability of current programs and identify emerging needs.
  • C: Customers—students, parents, future employers—that are served by higher education.


The president and strategic planning team can analyze this information as well as the measurement data collected on progress toward the strategic plan’s goals. This information will help leaders determine whether to continue as is, make a course correction, or create an entirely new strategic plan.

Wrapping Up

The strategic planning process offers many benefits for higher education. This process meaningfully engages diverse stakeholders to do a deep analysis of a variety of data. They have an opportunity to envision the institution’s future and develop a roadmap to get there.

However, the plan is not set in stone. As the pandemic illustrated, significant disruptions can arise at any time. During these situations, it’s important for leaders to remain flexible—and to realize that the strategic plan that is currently in place may no longer be feasible. At this time, higher education presidents and boards need to consider what is happening and how/if the institution needs to recalibrate. That decision may require totally scrapping the strategic plan so the college or university can successfully determine how to move forward so it can reach its “new normal.”

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