An Agile Approach to Strategic Planning

Strategic planning is an opportunity to evaluate and prioritize resources so your institution can optimize its strengths and achieve its goals. Every campus has a strategic plan, but the process and approach for developing that plan varies. 

Strategic planning experts Dr. Scott Cline, Mike Moss, and Dominique Raymond weighed in on current approaches and how to evolve your process for continued success. 

What are strengths and limitations of current strategic planning approaches?

Managing the larger plan along with day-to-day operations. On campuses, there’s often a disconnect between strategic direction and implementation so it’s helpful to acknowledge that strategic plans are simply change documents. But there are also the day-to-day operations, which can be fairly, if not extensively, chaotic, meaning many of your colleagues and workforce aren’t focused on change, they're focused on the day.

One thing we learned from the COVID pandemic is there’s a need to intentionally design for planning interruptions. Developing an integrated, agile learning-centric approach helps us feel comfortable adjusting and recalibrating as we go. 

Grounding plans in data. Strategic plans are grounded in data. At the center is the story of the student, then it builds out as you examine how to support students through each phase of the plan. Tactically it's a day-to-day plan, but it considers how to pivot over multiple years and optimize through annual plans or work plans. A plan is meant to be adjusted and honed so you go back to the original data story to make sure your plan is heading in the right direction. An example of learner-focused strategy is calendaring

Do you find specific inadequacies in strategic plans you've seen?

Defining milestones. Strategic planning can fill unlimited amounts of time. If you don’t create hard imposing deadlines and mile markers to check off, it can consume everything and you still have the day-to-day work of running campus. It’s also critical to be intentional about when people are available, for example if your students aren’t on campus in summer and you’re planning to have sessions with students or faculty, you need to adjust your schedule.

Keep in mind that life intersects with planning—a more agile, continuous planning structure makes it an ongoing, active sport to constantly integrate people, conversations, and results.

Celebrating milestones. Take a continuous improvement, incremental approach of small things adding up to big things that are both good and bad, but mostly good. Always celebrate along the way so transparency moments are acknowledged, even if they didn’t hit all of the right notes. Acknowledge what worked. It goes back to following the calendar and being structured in your recognition of assessment. Take small assessments along the way to celebrate the big victories later, so you’re in constant communication and acknowledging the people working on the plan in the ways they have time to.

How are the annual plan and strategic plan connected?

The strategic plan is a framework. A budget isn’t money—it’s the plan for the money. But it's also misinterpreted that there’s a budget, and there's confusion on how things get resourced. Start with the strategic plan as a framework that’s supported by the budget, academic plan, facilities plan, DEIB plan—all these things support the students and the organization's mission. The strategic plan isn’t a tablet we pull down every three or four years to see how we're doing. It's an ongoing, living document supported by the resource and allocation budget. Regular monitoring and evaluation helps all units on campus build up their planning muscles and disciplines in order to implement and assess what's working and what's not. 

Annual planning often is another set of meetings that everyone is excited for to fight for the dollars they need, but if we move toward an ongoing, interlaced framework, perhaps things become a little bit easier for people to align with.

Build a strong foundation. Strategic planning is a top down, bottom up approach that really has to connect. If you're having weekly one on ones with your team, it should be part of the standing agendas. It doesn't necessarily have to be discussed every week, but you should talk about goals and connect them to the strategic plan. Once you do that day-to-day and week-to-week work, by the time you get to the quarterly report, yearly report, or three-year report, the strategic planning process is much easier. But you have to do the foundational work from the bottom up to have a strong base.

Create connections to break down silos. It’s critical to get all of the different departments together so there’s an understanding that no department is on its own. Everything is interrelated and interdependent in moving the plan forward. It's really important to know what other departments are doing in terms of changes. So the dean of undergraduate studies or the provost should be in touch with the vice president of academic affairs. The chief of student affairs in the same way with facilities and operations. It’s all interrelated, but if departments continue to have separate conversations and don’t connect around data, it becomes an annual plan, free floating away from the original strategic framework.

How do you use data in the strategic planning process?

Incorporate hard and soft data. When we talk about data, people think we're talking about quantitative, hard numbers data. The data story also applies to qualitative data.


It looks different, but it's critical to the process. Higher ed institutions are 100% about people and it's constantly churning—you get a new chancellor, you get new cohorts of students. It's the framework of the strategic plan that allows you to bring in new students with the same attributes and characteristics. The data story of the people is actually the bigger data story. Some of the process is data required, then the rest is data informed around the student human experience.

How do you foster buy-in for the strategic planning process?

Provide the opportunity for questions. Resistance can be seen in different ways and there's a level of picking your battles, but if you center your plan on the learner, you engage faculty and staff. People aren’t obstructionists, the issue is often that they have questions. You can significantly diminish the number of questions by bringing people in early and giving them an opportunity to ask questions on the front end. This decreases the resistance to change. And resistance isn't an issue when you have the majority of the people. At the Lumina Foundation, Domy shares they strive for adoption of more than 60%. The rest of the time it’s important to bring people along through power mapping and answering questions to move closer to how and why this change helps students.

From a leadership level it’s important to listen and not jump to answer the questions now. Listen and acknowledge the question, unpack it, and ensure there's a pathway to explore their concerns. 

A concept SCUP is embracing is drift. Let people drift and learn to figure out what might work and what might not without being shut down. Also, at the beginning of a planning process you have to have the ability to self regulate—to listen, be quiet, practice silence and service. Let the comments come and then you can figure out what you can find and what you can't, but, most importantly, it doesn't happen on day one. That's a really important point.

How do you maintain direction as a team on a strategic plan when leadership changes?

Collective ownership of the plan. It’s a leadership team. It's not actually a person, and each person on the leadership team has a role. Presidents are amazing for spark events and great discussions with the board, but all of the VPs, boards, directors, the registrar—everyone pushes the plan forward and they are leaders where they sit. It’s not only on campus; you've got champions outside of campus, which may include the governor to the legislature, the state higher ed executive officer, etc., depending on the political realm of your state. When you get a new president, a new chancellor, or new board members, it’s the plan that keeps them together. There might be an adjustment period, but the plan is there, and it's the guide to ensure everything stays on the right path. It also supports institutional knowledge and change management to avoid losing too much momentum during changes in leadership.

Watch the entire roundtable discussion to hear more from our experts, including specific examples.

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