Strategic Planning in Education – 3 Keys to Success

Clare Morrison-Porter

6 minutes

In the corporate world, strategic planning has become a bit of a buzzword. Don’t get us wrong, having a plan in place will almost always get you better results than throwing caution to the wind. The problem is, many of us are too familiar with strategic planning gone awry—the descent into endless meetings, the countless rounds of edits to goals and tactics, and ultimately, a plan that is never fully realized. 

The numbers back this up, with researchers concluding that more than 70% of strategic plans are never implemented in the business world.

The rules of the game are a little different in education. Results aren’t based on winning new customers, gaining market share, or exceeding quarterly targets. Instead, strategic planning in education has evolved to become a way to align the broader community around better student outcomes. 

Let’s take a look at the benefits of strategic planning for key education stakeholders and three best practices to make it successful in your school district, college, or university.

What is Strategic Planning in Education?

In essence, strategic planning is the process of setting goals, deciding on actions to achieve those goals, and mobilizing the resources needed to take those actions. A strategic plan describes how goals will be achieved through the use of available resources.

Fun fact: Strategic planning, as we know it today, evolved out of military strategy. Strategus literally means “a general of the army” in Greek. And when you think about it, we’ve retained the language of military strategy in the way we talk about our work life today: “front line workers,” being “in the trenches,” and “war rooms,” to name just three examples.

Thankfully, strategic planning in education has taken its own path to become a far less confrontational discipline. While it initially flowed from business practices due to people moving from the private sector into educational leadership positions, many of those planning tools and paradigms have adapted to focus on engagement and consensus.

This is because strategic planning requires community support at the school district level, both functionally and legislatively. School districts of all sizes use strategic planning to achieve the broad goals of improving student outcomes and responding to changing demographics while staying within the given funding box.

In top-performing schools, leaders have proactively shifted their strategic planning process to genuinely include and involve parents and other key constituent groups. They know that without community support and the insight that comes with community engagement, their strategic plans are likely to fail.

Strategic Planning in Higher Education

Strategic planning in education doesn’t only apply to K-12 school districts. Higher education colleges and universities invest in strategic plans to help guide the institution’s direction, differentiate appeal in an often competitive marketplace of prospective students, and foster the right conditions for truly distinctive research.

Does it work? Sometimes not. Peter Eckel and Cathy Trowe, two higher education commentators, highlighted the problem of overgeneralization in strategic planning:

“Too often strategic plans fall short of serving as a guiding light for the future. Some are triumphs of form (or wordsmithing) over substance. Their key points often are expected, and they share much in common with those of similar, but also dissimilar, institutions. “Educate students for the global 21st century,” anyone? How about “Produce cutting-edge research?”

Strategic plans that underdeliver are particularly in the spotlight as the pandemic forces institutions to focus on conserving cash. A 2020 survey of college and university presidents revealed that only 25% plan to continue executing their plans as usual, suggesting that a more resilient planning approach might be needed.

What that looks like is up for debate—a strategic plan that is both more effective and can better weather the storms of unexpected crises like COVID-19. One former university president, David P. Haney has suggested that a renewed look at the private sector provides the answers.

He explained that universities could benefit from adopting a designer’s mindset, more akin to a Silicon Valley researcher than a school administrator. Reflecting on the process of developing transformative technologies like the smartphone, he said: “One of the lessons learned in those practices is that we no longer simply design products but rather human experiences with products.” Only time will tell if human-centered strategic planning makes traction in higher education.

Strategic Planning Models in Education

There are several different ways to approach strategic planning in education, depending on the priorities of the school and the needs of the community it serves. Defined models provide a good springboard, but we recommend adopting an iterative process to find what works best for your school.

Sometimes, less really is more. This Plan on a Page is just that—one page. It works by identifying four areas of strategic planning, with goals, measures, and an action plan to achieve each one. The four areas are broadly applicable to all schools: student performance, human resources, partnerships, and equity.

Alternatively, the VMOSA model stands for Vision, Mission, Objectives, Strategies, and Action Plans. It’s designed to help education leaders define a vision and develop practical ways to bring about the necessary change. 

Or, the Five-Step Model is another straightforward approach that begins by asking “How well are we doing?” before defining improvements and a path to achieve them.

3 Keys to Strategic Planning Success

As we’ve mentioned, engagement and collaboration are both central to strategic planning in education. The good news is that involving the community is easier now than ever before. Technology reduces the time it takes to engage a disparate group of people and improves the quality of their discussions. Our extensive work within the education sector has revealed three best practices that consistently result in better, more effective, and supported plans.

1. Get Everyone on the Same Page

Different understandings of what strategy involves can hinder even the best plans. So the first step in creating a successful strategic plan is getting everyone involved to agree on one strategic planning model. 

Explore the models we outlined above to create your own, then develop a “terms of reference” document to help align all your key stakeholders. Pro tip: Go a step beyond simply sharing the strategic approach and terms of reference by engaging stakeholders in real-time, anonymized discussions to ensure everyone understands the plan and is on board with it.

2. Be a Collaborative Leader

Much like early reading programs, every minute and every dime invested in gaining community support pays off exponentially. So it’s concerning that in research from 2020, less than 40% of the teachers surveyed said that strategic planning was a collaborative project in their school.

Collaboration is critical, both for ideation and developing an actionable plan. It’s also becoming more urgent. Experts have used the experience of past crises in Japan and New Zealand to advocate for more student involvement in shaping school culture and decision-making in the post-pandemic era. They make the case that collaborative decision-making particularly helps disadvantaged groups and, as home-schooling has widened the opportunity gap, this will be an increasing focus for many educational leaders.

Commit to becoming a collaborative leader and put a plan in place to ensure you can achieve that goal. That may include implementing technology that can support scaled, real-time discussion safely and inclusively for students, teachers, and other stakeholder groups.

3. Engage Your Community Early and Often

Understanding your community’s preferences is invaluable. School districts that engage early in the planning process have a much greater chance of building a successful and community-supported plan. 

Enterprise Discussion Management (EDM) software has been proven to contribute to more effective strategic planning in education. EDM empowers leaders to run and scale confidential, unbiased Exchanges where they can learn what the people that matter really think—explore ThoughtExchange success stories to learn more.

The Future of Strategic Planning in Education? Just Ask

The aftermath of the pandemic has left many of us uncertain about what the future holds. In education, hybrid or blended learning that reduces the time students spend on-site looks set to remain in place for some time. However, it might change education forever. 

Whatever happens, you don’t have to figure out the next normal on your own. Strategic planning in education is at its best when it is inclusive and collaborative. Engage your wider community of stakeholders and start asking the questions that will shape the next decade in your school. 

Not sure where to begin? We gathered a selection of the Exchanges that education leaders have used in the past year (along with learnings from previous times of crisis and uncertainty) to help give your next strategic planning cycle the strongest start possible.

About the Author

Clare Morrison-Porter

Born in London (UK), Clare now calls BC her home. After a stint spent marketing folding bikes, she took on new biz for an agency before landing in the heart of Canada’s tech scene. Today, she writes for companies including Google Cloud, Hootsuite, and ThoughtExchange.