Vision-Centric Strategic Planning, Strategy Publishing

Vision-Centric Strategic Planning for Colleges and Universities


A Thoughtful Guide to Strategy Formation and Execution

Vision-Centric Strategic Planning for Colleges and Universities presents a new approach to strategic planning that is vision-centric, directly addresses the realities of today’s dynamic marketplace, and emphasizes campus involvement and ownership at every step.

Product Description

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Table of Contents


Section I – Foundational Issues of Strategic Planning


Chapter 1: A New Approach to Strategic Planning

Interchapter 1a: Engaging the Campus in the Strategic Planning Process

Chapter 2: What is Strategic Planning?

Interchapter 2a: How Strategic Plans Differ from Other Kinds of Plans

Chapter 3: Organizational Culture, Paradigms, and the Fear of Change

Interchapter 3a: Assessing Readiness for Planning and Change

Chapter 4: A Vision-Centric Approach to Strategic Planning

Interchapter 4a: Understanding Competitive Advantage

Chapter 5: The Art and Science of Measurement

Interchapter 5a: Dashboards

Chapter 6: Laying the Foundation for an Effective Strategic Planning Process

Interchapter 6a: Planning Assumptions

Section II – Plan Development and Implementation

Chapter 7: Affirm the Strategic Core

Interchapter 7a: Visioning Exercise

Chapter 8: An Overview of the Situational Analysis Process

Interchapter 8a: Debunking Persistent Myths About the Higher Education Marketplace

Chapter 9: Undertake a Situational Analysis

Interchapter 9a: Refining Your Academic Portfolio

Chapter 10: Identify and Prioritize Strategic Issues

Interchapter 10a: A Few Thoughts About Budgeting

Chapter 11: Formulate Strategic Goals

Interchapter 11a: A Few More Thoughts About Budgeting

Chapter 12: Write Strategic Action Plans

Interchapter 12a: Linking Budgets and Plans

Chapter 13: Review and Adopt the Strategic Plan

Interchapter 13a: 10 Strategic Planning Resolutions

Chapter 14: Plan Launch and Implementation

Interchapter 14a: Thoughts on Execution and Implementation

Chapter 15: Conclusion

Strategic Planning Assistance


Appendix A: Terms and Definitions

Appendix B: Planning Resources

Appendix C: Planning Retreat

Appendix D: Operational Area Assessment Questions

Appendix E: Strategic Planning Worksheets

Appendix F: Conducting a Planning Postmortem

Appendix G: Bibliography


There is probably no activity that is likely to have more of an impact on institutional success than strategic planning. With this realization, however, comes a hard truth: too many strategic planning processes and plans fail to live up to expectations. It appears that there is a big, and perhaps widening, gap between the possibilities of strategic planning, and the plans that many colleges write and struggle to implement.

Recognizing the importance of strategic planning in institutional success, we decided to write a book that would close that gap.

As you will quickly see, this book is unlike other books on strategic planning in a number of ways.

First, it focuses exclusively on colleges and universities.

Second, we introduce a new, simple model for strategic planning that has three foci:

  • It is vision-centric. We believe that creating or affirming the vision is the first step in the planning process. The vision is also the lens through which the situational analysis is undertaken and the strategic goals are identified. Finally, it is the achieving of the vision that is the leading measure of whether or not the strategic planning process and plan implementation were successful.
  • It is market-driven. While we understand that colleges, universities, and schools are distinct from the marketplace, we also recognize that they are highly dependent on that marketplace. Too often, strategic plans are so institutional-centric that they ignore, to their peril, the impact the marketplace has and will continue to have on their future. This model addresses that problem.
  • It is highly inclusive. From our perspective, the involvement of faculty, staff, and others in all steps and activities is essential for plan success. Not only does their involvement build ownership, but their insights and ideas make for a better plan.

Third, we have refined the situational analysis so that it is more streamlined, focused, and intuitive. Our model identifies barriers, opportunities, and competitive advantages rather than the traditional strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

Fourth, we have developed an extensive array of detailed strategic planning worksheets to help walk you and your team through every aspect of plan development and implementation (see Appendix E).

Next, we wrote a series of interchapters that expand on key issues and themes like budgeting, plan launch, and plan execution that are often overlooked in many books on strategic planning.

We also included examples from some 35 colleges and universities to illustrate each step in the planning process.

This book also contains a number of tools and techniques to help you with plan implementation, a critical but often overlooked part of the planning process.

Finally, Appendix G contains one of the most comprehensive bibliographies ever assembled on strategy, strategic planning, and the issues facing higher education.

Welcome to Vision-Centric Strategic Planning for Colleges and Universities: A Thoughtful Guide to Strategy Formation and Execution. We hope the insights, ideas, and techniques contained in these pages will help you realize the potential that strategic planning has to offer your campus so that it may not only survive in the decades to come, but triumph.

Chapter 1—A New Approach to Strategic Planning

Because our approach is designed to address the shortfalls in current strategic planning models and practices, we think it is important to summarize why, in our opinion and the opinion of a number of practitioners, plans often fail to achieve their goals.

Why strategic plans fail

In a blog posted to The Higher Ed CIO, the author notes that only 19 percent of leaders believe that their strategic plans achieve their objectives, and only 25 percent of these leaders are even motivated by the plans they create.[1]

The author went on:

  • 85 percent of leadership teams spend less than an hour a month on strategy issues
  • Many organizations don’t have a consistent way to even describe their strategy
  • 92 percent of organizations do not report on their performance indicators
  • 60 percent of organizations do not link their strategic priorities to their budget
  • Most devastating, 95 percent of employees (staff) do not understand their organization’s broad strategy

Practitioner perspective on planning

During our research, we asked college and university presidents and vice presidents why their strategic plans either failed or did not live up to expectations. To their list of insights we added our own observations. At one point our list included nearly 30 reasons. We did a bit of condensing and emerged with what we believe are the top 10 reasons why plans fall short:

  1. The plan did not begin with a compelling vision
  2. The planning model was too complicated, took too long, and focused too squarely on processes and not on people
  3. The plan was built on faulty assumptions and did not include a thorough and unbiased situational/marketplace analysis
  4. Senior administrators and faculty leaders were reluctant to make unpopular decisions
  5. The goals were unrealistic, too many in number, and largely unmeasurable
  6. The plan did not capture the imagination of the campus and its stakeholders
  7. The plan was not linked to a budget
  8. There was no sense of how the plan would enhance the future of the college and the people who work there
  9. The demands of day-to-day activities got in the way of implementing the plan
  10. Key people were not in place to help implement the plan 

Our approach

The approach to strategic planning we present is dramatically different from other models in 10 ways. As you will see, it:

  • Is vision-centric
  • Stresses strategic focus
  • Values inclusiveness
  • Is market-driven
  • Seeks alignment
  • Creates a sense of urgency
  • Seeks competitive advantage
  • Emphasizes prioritization
  • Is simple
  • Values talent more than titles

Strategic Planning, Chapter 1

1. Vision-centric

At its most basic, your vision is your destination. The purpose of the strategic plan, then, is to equip you for the trip. With this in mind, we’ve always wondered why so many colleges and universities put the vision so late in the planning process. It is like loading the luggage and gassing up the car and then deciding where to go.

2. Strategic focus

Of the many problems we see in current planning approaches, perhaps the one that makes us the most nervous is the feeling on many campuses that all functions (broadly defined as curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular) have the same value and are worthy of the same level of support.

We believe this orientation further dilutes the resources committed to the primary mission of colleges and universities: to educate students and prepare them for productive and fulfilling lives.

We know that many of the elements that contribute to college life are important, but in the final analysis it is the array of programs you choose to offer, the quality of those programs, and the support structures you put in place to help students succeed that matter most.

There is a basic equation that is worth acknowledging at this point: curriculum drives student enrollment, student enrollment drives revenue, and revenue drives everything else.[2]

3. Values inclusiveness

Colleges are an assemblage of diverse ideas, insights, goals, and motivations. A great strategic planning process not only acknowledges this diversity, but welcomes it.

4. Is market-driven

This has two dimensions. First, the need to consistently gather and use internal and external data in decision-making. And second, the need to not let historic paradigms (a fixation on times past) cloud our understanding of current circumstances and future opportunities.

We often use an analogy of a group of faculty and staff sitting in a car to describe the problem. Some faculty and staff prefer to look out the rear window. They fondly remember the way things used to be and wish they could just turn the car around and go back. Others are looking out the windshield and imagining the road ahead. Same group of people. Same car. Same road. Dramatically different perspectives.

Leonard Schlesinger, former president of Babson and now the Baker Foundation Professor of Business Administration at Harvard University, once wrote, “A prevailing view among college leaders is to batten down the hatches and cut costs on multiple fronts for the short term, assuming a return to the old normal. But there is ample evidence the old normal may never return…We must recognize the ground is shifting in fundamental ways for higher education. We must reframe our approach to managing colleges and universities in the face of the new normal.”

It is one thing to cherish your past. It is quite another to attempt to relive it. Strategic planning is all about the road ahead.

5. Seeks alignment

Truly effective strategic plans establish internal and external coherence by aligning themselves along five dimensions:

  • With the institutional vision
  • With marketplace needs (we call this being market-driven)
  • With both stated and unstated campus culture
  • With the anticipated resource base (time, talent, and dollars)
  • With existing, operational plans

6. Has a sense of urgency

Creating a sense of urgency on campuses that are already overwhelmed with the crush and distractions of the day to day is a huge challenge for any leadership team.

We believe that the establishment of a compelling vision will heighten the sense of urgency. So, too, will reducing the cycle times of the steps in the planning process.

7. Identifies competitive advantage

Competitive advantage, for those not familiar with the term, occurs when a college or university develops an attribute or combination of attributes that allows it to outperform its competitors in the areas of:

  • Student recruiting
  • Fundraising
  • Attracting public and media attention
  • Efficiencies that allow for lower cost
  • Attracting talent (faculty and staff)

Competitive advantages focus on how you are different from your competitors in ways that students, donors, and others value. Importantly, a competitive advantage is not the same thing as a distinctive competency. Distinctive competencies focus on how you are different from your competitors. They do not consider whether that competency is of interest to the marketplace.

For more on understanding competitive advantage, see Interchapter 4a.

8. Prioritizes

One of the big challenges facing colleges and universities is the need to align (there’s that word again) resources with vision. Because there is only so much time, talent, and dollars to go around, and there is every indication that scant resources are actually shrinking, the alignment between vision and the existing resource base will mean an increasing degree of prioritization.

We know that prioritization is tough. It requires the recognition that some goals and actions, in the final analysis, are more important than others. It means, further, that you must be willing to invest more in those aspects of the college that offer the greatest measurable return.

Management consultant, Joseph Juran, is principally remembered as an evangelist for quality and management. As part of this work, he often reminded business leaders that it is critically important to focus on the vital few and to avoid the less vital many.[3]

Prioritization often goes against the culture of many colleges and universities. We also know that in the months and years ahead, the ability to prioritize may well spell the difference between those schools that are successful and those that are not.

A truly compelling vision will help with this prioritization.

9. Is simple

We are big fans of simplicity. Based on our review of hundreds of strategic plans, it appears that many strategic planners are not. These plans often had too many goals, too many action plans, and too many KPIs (key performance indicators). Thoughtfully created, lavishly illustrated, and often beautifully presented, these plans, in many cases, were more often a testament of what is wrong with planning than what is right.

William of Occam (also Ockham) was a 14th century philosopher. He once opined, loosely translated, that the better answer is usually the simple answer. From his observation came Occam’s Razor, the idea that one should not make more assumptions than the minimum needed. A translation for our generation might be, simple is better.

We love simple plans; plans that are 15 to 20 pages in length, held together with a paper clip, dog-eared, and covered with coffee cup stains and margin notes. Not surprisingly, these plans remind us of a well-used road map you would find in a door pocket of an automobile. These plans are for colleges and universities that recognize they are on a journey.

The situational analysis model we will present is at the heart of our simplified approach to planning. It is intuitive, adaptable, and builds on existing team and committee structures.

In the final analysis, simple plans are generally easier to explain, easier to execute, and in almost all cases easier to evaluate. Sadly, in an industry that often equates intelligence and sophistication with complexity and length, simple plans may be viewed as unworthy. We view them as elegant.

10. Seeks talent before titles

Dr. Robert Smith, president emeritus of Slippery Rock University, once observed that it appears that the titles of the people sitting on key teams were often more important than the talent of the people sitting on key teams.

Bob’s observation is critical. As you assemble your teams, and even select the team leader, be mindful of the talent that surrounds you. Remember, it is likely that some of the most talented people on your campus may not be in positions of leadership. Be willing to dig deep in your organizational charts.

Key takeaways

  • The sole purpose of the strategic plan is to advance the vision
  • The planning process and plan implementation is a significant opportunity to build internal coherency and commitment around a compelling vision
  • Today’s strategic planning model balances the need for inclusiveness and thoroughness with the need to shorten time to completion and implementation
  • The five dimensions of alignment are essential for plan success
  • The ability to focus and prioritize is critical and will become even more critical in the months and years ahead
  • Simple is almost always better than complex


[2] Well, mostly. We recognize that there are actually nine or 10 different sources of revenue for colleges. The other sources include: annual funds, capital campaigns, planned giving, endowment performance, auxiliary services, grants, enrollment, retention, sponsored research, athletic marketing, and earmarks.



Additional Information


Dr. Robert A. Sevier, Dr. Ronald P. Mahurin, Becky L. Morehouse