Strategic Plans: The Agony or the Ecstasy

Say “strategic planning” and you’ll see almost as many eye-rolls as you would if you said “assessment.” Listen for the crickets when you ask for volunteers to serve on a strategic planning committee. Put “strategic planning” in the title of an article, and get swept away by the breeze created when so many readers quickly turn the page. 

But writing about strategic planning, like doing, it, can be a risk worth taking. The “upside potential”—which is that the process of strategic thinking serves as a powerful learning experience that builds community and that the plan itself becomes a compass to keep big and small decisions aligned with overarching goals—can far exceed the “downside risks”—which are chiefly about uselessness (the finished plan, archived in a binder, sits passively on the shelf after getting approving nods from the accreditation team), wasted time and effort (the plan has no influence after it is written), or duplicative drivel (the plan sounds like a thousand others that say nothing specific, never mind inspirational or honest). We don’t need to tell you which is the agony and which is the ecstasy. But we do need to think about how you get the one and not the other. 

Start here: strategic planning—determining what a department, or division, or college, or whole institution will do with its most precious assets (which are people and their time)—works best (actually, only) when thinking hard with colleagues, the essential part of the process, is possible. It is difficult, and maybe impossible, to think strategically and superficially at the same time, and it is certainly impossible to design a collective future without involving colleagues. Thinking hard also requires having certain raw materials in hand—notably information and data—that provide the launching point for reflection and serious thought. But most importantly, getting to the point of really engaged, collective, and rigorous thinking requires time and trust. A successful strategic planning process, which is what produces a useful strategic plan, sits on that foundation—trust—and building that foundation takes time.  

With the need for trust-building in mind, envision these scenarios: (1) the leadership, faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community of a major School with 11 disparate departments in a large, diverse university trying to come to consensus on a few “big ideas”—goals that will advance the whole school; (2) a vice president for student affairs, new to an institution, taking the opportunity of her transition to build community and consensus around priorities and direction; (3) a national fraternity looking for new energy, and possibly new directions, while sustaining strong loyalty to its traditions and values. These scenarios are real examples of strategic planning done well: (1) New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development; (2) Northwestern University’s Division of Student Affairs; and (3) Alpha Sigma Phi Fraternity. What do their strategic planning stories have in common?

All three have benefited from an intentional and well-designed process. In each case, leaders—from the very beginning of the process—took careful, transparent, and explicit steps to foster the development and growth of trust; they did not assume it would just appear on its own, like Venus on the half-shell. While details and specifics always vary from place to place and project to project, their actions illustrated a few ways to strengthen trust while keeping focused on outcomes: 

  • Balanced and Transparent Approach: Trust-building and the creation of a strategic plan that inspires, motivates, and guides an institution demand a process that is simultaneously vision-driven and inclusive, community-based, authentic, and transparent. No matter how much pretty language is used to prop them up, planning processes that are exclusively top-down or bottom-up always fail. Trust and success both arise through a balanced approach to planning in which (1) leaders articulate their vision, and (2) all constituencies in the institution’s (or organization’s) community have, and take advantage of, several opportunities to have their voices heard. So a sound planning process blends the vision of leaders with the ideas of the community—the
    C-suite with the grassroots—and it creates the space and time for that blending to occur iteratively over enough time to allow two or more cycles of input and reflection. In other words, space and time must be created to allow both leaders and members of the community to think hard with their colleagues—and then to share those thoughts with each other in inclusive and respectful ways. That process in and of itself not only brings people together in the literal sense of meeting and talking, but also brings them together in a conceptual and organizational sense. The purpose is not to avoid conflict or create greeting card niceness; it is, instead, to allow and work through conflict, which is far easier when it’s clear that any given conversation is probably not the last one that will be held on a particular topic.

    “The process eliminated any divisiveness and was efficient. Now we can spend time on the most important part—implementation.”

    -Gordy Heminger, President and Chief Executive Officer
    Alpha Sigma Phi Fraternity

    “The process solidified people around our core values.”

    -Dr. Mary Brabeck, Gale & Ira Drukier Dean 
    NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development

    “It allowed everyone to be on the same playing field.”

    -Gordy Heminger

    Engaged and thoughtful leadership is essential, but, especially early on, it is important that leaders not dominate a strategic planning process; the community should witness leaders’ willingness to listen before speaking. In many institutions and organizations, opportunities to give feedback and provide input toward direction and vision are limited, usually because of organizational structure, workloads, and time constraints. But when members of the organization are given multiple opportunities to have their voices heard (such as through surveys, interviews, idea walls, and town hall meetings or forums) and then discover that their ideas and priorities are generally aligned with those of their peers, colleagues, and leadership, the sense of common purpose develops and deepens. When community members are given ample opportunities to participate, it is more likely that they will affirm that the strategic planning process is a genuine exercise rather than a pretense for the implementation of administrative priorities. That belief helps participants make genuine commitments to the strategic plan, the organization, and one another, and that, in turn, facilitates greater investments in both the community and the plan. 

    “If people are included they’ll buy into it and own the plan much more.
    The planning process helped create a greater sense of
    unity and community.”

    -Dr. Patricia Telles-Irvin
    Vice President for Student Affairs
    Northwestern University

    “Being inclusive” is not, however, enough by itself; to be truly balanced—which means that both leaders and members of the community can think seriously and advance their views—the process must also be open and transparent. Hidden agendas, obscured facts, undisclosed conflicts or ethical concerns, and resistance to dealing with hard questions and issues will sink even a broadly inclusive planning process. Breach of trust is one of the most—if not the most—difficult incidences to avoid in creating a strategic plan. 

“We accomplished a greater sense of community and we can partner with each other. It also helped people understand that they are part of a
greater good or purpose.”

-Dr. Patricia Telles-Irvin


“As faculty began to share their concerns and see them reflected back…that did a lot. They realized, ‘Oh, we were heard. They really are listening.’ K&A’s analysis of the faculty feedback was complete and digestible, so that we could hear what the faculty had said and adjust in light of it.”

-Dr. Mary Brabeck

  • Organizational learning: The development and implementation of a strategic plan is meant to be a learning tool for the organization and everyone who participates. The planning process, by its inclusive and transparent character, is predicated on the idea that constituents and members of the community have, and will share, their own critical knowledge and perspectives. And the development of the plan helps the organization recognize its own capacity for change while pacing change in a way that respects traditions, values, and the organization’s historical and cultural significance and identity. Strategic planning, done well, serves to educate participants as they engage in its activities; everyone walks away with a better appreciation for the organization, how it works now, and how it may work differently in the future. 

“I learned a lot in this process—about the School, myself as a leader, and strategic planning. The one-on-one meetings with Rich provided me with a sounding board to process everything.”

-Dr. Mary Brabeck

  • Assessment, a Friend: Learning how to develop implementation steps—specific activities, with timelines, assignments of accountability, and assessment metrics—and collaborating with colleagues to assess the achievement of goals and objectives are educational processes; when conducted openly and transparently, they are also trust exercises that move the entire community closer to achieving a culture of assessment while maintaining a focus on goals. More and better assessment, applied both in and outside the classroom, supports improvements in the quality and quantity of student learning. 
  • Adding Administrative Value: A well-done strategic planning process more often than not identifies a group of tactical, non-strategic items that need attention from the organization (everything from “replace the worn carpet in the Student Activities Office” to “simplify the online procurement process”). Recognizing these problems and responding to them in parallel with the strategic planning process, as it moves forward, is an excellent way to show (1) the process is not useless, (2) input is taken seriously, and (3) trust in the process is reasonable.

Outcomes of a successful strategic planning process 

The purpose of a strategic plan is to establish an organization’s vision, direction, overall strategy, priorities, goals, and objectives for a defined set of time, typically 3-10 years. A good plan links mission and vision to goals and objectives in a logical and meaningful way; such a plan defines the ways in which the organization will anticipate and respond to the challenges and opportunities of the knowable future. A good strategic planning process and the resulting strategic plan therefore set a cornerstone for the organization’s future development; taken together, the process and the plan will frame major decisions and create criteria against which to determine how best to allocate resources. 

But a well-articulated set of goals and objectives is not the only desired outcome of a successful strategic planning process. Effective strategic plans also have certain other key characteristics, including: 

  • Aspirational: A sound strategic plan does not set a course defined by “more of the same,” should not be incremental in its aims, and will not bore its readers. Instead, the plan should embody and articulate the aspirations of the community and its leaders. It should show how the organization intends to reach beyond its current and historical accomplishments to achieve something new, or different, or greater; it should capture attention and inspire its readers.
  • Feasible and Practical: Aspirations that are not grounded in feasibility nor linked to practical implementation plans become broken promises. Every goal, objective, and activity in the plan must be tested for practicality. That does not mean that its goals have to be limited by currently available resources; it does mean that goals that require additional resources have to be linked to plans for garnering those resources. The plan must specify clear implementation goals, timelines, and measures of accountability.
  • Parsimonious: Pursuing too many goals produces a plan that cannot be easily recalled, quickly summarized, effectively monitored, and rigorously evaluated. Three to six goals can usually be implemented in practice.
  • Institutionally resonant: The format, content, and tone of a strategic plan and its goals and objectives must resonate with the culture and values of the organization. The archives of disastrous strategic plans are filled with examples of the contrary; for example, a staunchly values-based organization with a steady history of mission-driven achievement will not be well served by a strategic plan that seems to have been dropped in from a public relations firm. 

When to engage in a strategic planning process

Certain institutional turning points provide particular opportunities for successful strategic planning:

  • Planning cycles: Organizations often re-kindle strategic planning when their existing strategic plans runs their course, whether or not their goals were accomplished; this pattern can represent enlightened management, when it means the organization recognizes the need for strategic guidance in making decisions, or simply compliance with institutional, governmental, or regulatory requirements. Routine planning cycles have their own challenges: If the previous plan was poorly designed or implemented, there may be little to no energy or enthusiasm to undertake a new planning process, and if the previous plan was successful, there may be a sense that there is no longer a need to plan for the future.
  • Termination or enhancement of a previous plan: Several conditions may lead an organization to terminate an existing plan before its expiration date or discontinue a strategic planning process that is in progress. The most common reason is that the existing plan, or the process underway for generating a new plan, evinces a vision but fails to describe a practical way to achieve that vision. In that situation, halting implementation or planning in order to rethink the process, scuttle a non-functional plan and replace it with a workable strategy, or meld practical steps onto an inspiring vision is an appropriate step.
  • Accreditation/Reaccreditation: Most higher education accrediting bodies require that organizations have in place a formal strategic plan that includes a mission statement, a limited number of strategic priorities, and action steps to achieve those priorities. An upcoming (re)accreditation review can be leveraged to provide the rationale to embark on a new planning process.
  • Leadership transitions: Whether in anticipation of or in response to a leadership transition, the strategic planning process can be enormously informative to the incoming leader and helpful in uniting and motivating faculty and staff in that leader’s jurisdiction—whether the leader is a president, vice president, or director. The information gathered in the community input phase of a robust planning process quickly gives the new leader a foundation of knowledge that is both broad and nuanced, which can vastly accelerate the learning curve faced by any new administrator. Beginning a strategic planning process upon arrival communicates to the community a genuine intention to consider their feedback in setting the direction of the organization. 

“When I started out as Vice President, I scanned the campus and the division.
The University had just finished a strategic plan and I wanted to align the Division of Student Affairs strategic plan with the University. A strategic plan provides staff with a clear sense of direction, helps prioritize needs, and
determines how to execute them.”

-Dr. Patricia Telles-Irvin


The outcomes of a successful strategic plan include a well-articulated set of goals as well as an inclusive, well-designed, and transparent process that brings an organization closer together. An organization both learns about itself and sets a course for the future through strategic planning. The planning process—its activities, dialogues, learning, speed bumps, “a-ha” moments, and consensus building—is just as crucial, necessary, and relevant as the final strategic plan.

“K&A’s questions helped me think about what else we needed to do;
they helped me sit back and realize what we’ve accomplished.”

-Gordy Heminger

Richard P. Keeling, Joseph DeSanto Jones, and Christine Priori contributed to this article.