Tips for a Successful Strategic Planning Process

When you think about your school’s strategic plan, what words come to mind? Academic exercise? Waste of time? Dust collector? Paper weight?

All too often, and despite the best intentions, a department, school or even entire campus will put great effort into creating a strategic plan, and then everyone moves on to their other responsibilities without communicating the plan to the rest of the stakeholders or ensuring its implementation. Before long, the strategic plan is long forgotten.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In Successfully Implementing Your Strategic Plan, Kathleen A. Paris, PhD., consultant distinguished emeritus for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Office of Quality Improvement (OQI), explained how to bring your strategic plan to life.

“I know there is skepticism about whether strategic planning can work in higher education, and some people have had disappointing experiences,” Paris says. “But I have had so many positive experiences where people got together, identified key priorities, and then really achieved them, that I know that it works if it’s done right.”

At UW-Madison, Paris was involved in the study of campus planning practices in which nearly 70 leaders of departments, schools, and colleges were surveyed. The survey asked about their planning processes — from the day they decided they needed the plan until the plan was completed — how successful they feel the plan was, and what benefits they’ve seen as a result of the plan.

At the end of the survey process, the group discovered that there are six practices that correlated with successful planning, which was defined as “achievement of goals set forth in plans” or “leader’s view of planning exercise was beneficial.” The six practices identified are:

  • Meetings to get input prior to planning
  • Collective review of data
  • Meetings to review proposed plan
  • Establishing metrics to measure success
  • Identifying annual or short-term goals
  • Period checks on progress

Some of the benefits the group identified as a result of successful planning are:

  • More effective resource allocation
  • Improved climate (collaboration, trust, morale)
  • Expanded awareness of external environment
  • Development of leadership capacity
  • Process improvement

“I think that first bullet point about resource allocation is very important because sometimes people say, ‘Well, how do we get anyone to take strategic planning seriously?’” Paris says. “If people realize that this is how we’re going to allocate resources, they take it much more seriously than, ‘Oh, this is something we just have to do to keep the dean happy.’”