Dr. Kim Burns

In my almost three decades as a community college administrator, I heard a lot of people groan when discussing strategic planning. Often people felt they were too busy to participate in a process that they felt wasn’t worth their time.

When facilitated properly, strategic planning can be a meaningful and energizing process to bring all areas of the college together to recommit to its mission.

Years ago, I heard a story that the college’s annual plan was determined by whatever priorities the president mentioned in his fall convocation speech (can you imagine?). The demands on colleges today require a thoughtful, structured, and inclusive approach.

Inclusivity does not mean that everyone’s agenda is thrown into the plan. It means that all voices are thoughtfully invited to the table and listened to. Faculty, staff, students, governing board members, corporate partners and community members are invited to participate, resulting in the consideration of different perspectives and ways of thinking.

Here are the conditions for a successful and inclusive strategic planning process:

  1. Executive leadership recognizes the benefits of planning and is committed to an inclusive and structured process. The president and her leadership team are willing to dedicate resources (time, energy, and money) that will engage the college community in structured planning. Who contributes to the plan and who makes final decisions are clearly communicated.
  2. Executive leadership is clear on what the planning process will accomplish. The president is clear on the purpose of planning, what issues need to be addressed, constraints that must be considered, and the resulting final product. For instance, some public institutions must gain approval of their strategic plan from their state-level board of higher education. Therefore, an outcome of the planning process would be a document meeting external requirements.
  3. The college is not in the middle of making high-impact decisions that would change the course of the institution (e.g., a presidential search, a merger, a new campus, a major funding or policy change). Volatility and uncertainty are becoming the norm in the higher education landscape, but thoughtful strategic planning won’t be effective if everyone on campus is distracted or anxious.
  4. Leaders and planners understand the difference between strategic issues and operational issues. Strategic issues are focused on long-term, high-level goals that are fundamentally connected to the college’s mission and desired impact. All members of the college work collectively to achieve strategic initiatives. Operational issues are short-term, day-to-day, specific activities that support and execute the strategic plan and are implemented by specific departments. In my experience, employees get nervous when their area is not part of the strategic plan. Leaders and planners can alleviate fears and reduce anxiety by explaining the difference between strategic and operational issues and help employees understand how their units will contribute to the plan’s goals.
  5. The institution is willing to ask the hard questions and make difficult choices. A strategic planning process is a gift of reflection on the college’s potential and an invitation to employees and partners to co-create its future. It’s an opportunity to decide what the college will stop doing as well as what it will continue and start to do. Typically, we are not good at sunsetting programs and initiatives, even when their expiration dates are clearly known. Strategic planning is an opportunity to direct resources to initiatives that will significantly impact the college’s mission.
  6. Leaders are committed to pairing the strategic planning process to the college’s annual planning and budgeting processes. The main point of strategic planning is to take the college’s limited resources and maximize them for students’ and the community’s benefit; to live the college’s mission. The goals identified in the strategic plan will only be achieved if the units directly responsible for implementing them have the time, people, and funding they need.

What have you experienced that contributed to a successful and inclusive strategic planning process? Share in the comments below or contact me at hello@drkimburns.com or on LinkedIn.

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Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Organizations: A Practical Guide for Dynamic Times by Michael Allison and Jude Kaye (2015) inspired this post.

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