Strategic planning is essential for progress, but often nearly impossible to give adequate time to do effectively. In fact, when the Community College Executive Forum interviews member presidents and VPs, we often hear that strategic planning is dictated by accreditor demands and a "check the box" activity for many campuses. When we dig deeper, we find the same strategic planning pitfalls repeated on campuses across the country.
It's important to remember what a strategic plan is supposed to be: A document that outlines where the college will focus its short- and medium-term investments in pursuit of its mission. The document provides concrete goals with initiatives designed to achieve those goals. Because time and money are finite, an effective strategic plan should be focused on a few core objectives. It defines the specific efforts that the college is going to take to better achieve its mission.
However, we identified three common barriers that prevent community colleges from achieving the goals set in their strategic plans.
1. Unguided solicitation leads to aspirations, not plans for execution
When strategic planning starts with an open question like where should the college focus for the next five years? expect the final strategic plan to focus on…well, everything. One EAB member college took this approach with their 70-person strategic planning committee, which included faculty, students, staff, alumni, and community members. The goals that emerged from their year of strategic planning included vague aspirations such as "Offer transformational education."
There may have been two problems with this member’s approach. First, the goals became intangible. In the president’s words, they could not pursue that goal since "'transformational education' doesn’t mean anything. No one or office can be charged with 'transformation' and then be held accountable for it."
Second, the size of the strategic planning committee was overwhelming. While broad committee structures can be effective for gaining buy in, the risk of slowing and stalling progress is high. And when those committees aren’t on the hook for execution, it’s easy for them to devolve into assigning other departments work and avoiding structural change.
2. Vision is sacrificed for comprehensiveness
Strategic plans that pursue too many goals act merely as a reflection of the functions that a college is expected to do. This is a missed opportunity to prioritize and inflect an institutional vision that translates into a ranked set of priorities. Because time and funding for strategic initiatives can only go so far, strategic plans with too many goals fail to invest enough time or money in any one area to create change. As a result, the status quo continues and the strategic plan becomes an afterthought.
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For signs that the process is constrained on functional responsibilities and thoroughness over strategic direction, watch for these warning signs:
- Dozens of strategic goals(over 5-7 strong priorities)
- Isolated department goals (instead of cross-campus objectives)
- Misalignment between strategic goal setting and the budgetary process
3. Lofty statements with low measurability
While strategic plans are approved by campus leadership, ultimately deans, faculty, and frontline staff are responsible for implementing change. To be effective, goals need to be translated from high-level targets to actionable initiatives that can be measured by metrics that are relevant to the implementing staff. Even when initiatives are measurable, employees are often too busy working with students or doing day-to-day work to make progress toward them and are rarely incentivized when they do.
Colleges need to ensure their goals are cascaded effectively down through staff and that their dashboards reflect a combination of both lagging and leading indicators that can signal progress to the broadest possible audience.
Cascade of strategic plan to frontline staff initiatives