Lessons Learned from a Strategic Planning Participant

Mary Tosch, Ed.D., Student Life Manager, Waubonsee Community College

June 28, 2017

Summer, a time for reflection, report writing and preparation for the new academic year.  The hustle and bustle of the spring semester is over and hopefully, projects are completed or nearly completed as the fiscal year ends.  Usually when I hear the term ‘strategic planning’ or am invited to a meeting with those words in the title, I am not that excited.  I think we have all experienced various different strategic planning processes with a final report that gathered dust, did not affect the day-to-day and was never/hardly used.  However, I know that there are others that have had positive experiences with strategic planning that were purposeful, intentional and produced action for the department, area, division or institution.  The challenge is how do we get more of the latter and less of the former? 

I have been fortunate to see the fruits of a team’s labor when strategic planning can produce something that inspires action, creates opportunities and engages the team, department, and/or division in the process.  In those instances, magic happens and the fire that has been waning with the wear and tear of the academic year is rekindled. The excitement of the newness and knowing that everyone is on the same page can be contagious.  Here are some lessons learned from a strategic planning participant:

Lesson Learned #1:  Mission of the organization is critical.  All the planning is built upon the foundation of the mission of the organization.  Keeping this central to the work that needs to be done is essential for success of any process.  As the team works through the strategic planning process, does the product align with the mission?  Can the outside observer see the connections to the mission? 

Lesson Learned #2: Lay the groundwork.  Do your homework and get organized for the process.  In addition, gather the pertinent data and information to engage with the participants before, during and after the planning process. This includes any prep work that the participants might need to do to be prepared for upcoming meetings. Are there any guiding documents that the team should review? Does the team need any data to assist in making sense of the issues and priorities?  Is the team clear on the steps and their role in the planning process?

Lesson Learned #3: Context for the plan.  The outcome for the planning process is about moving the organization in a strategic direction to accomplish the outlined goals, but this doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  Context of the organization’s culture, local, state, and national issues influence many things that happen in education and understanding this context is important when planning.  There are also different ways to engage with context.  This could be future looking, such as Goldstein and Sahaghan’s (2003) article, and thinking about the next ten years, what events, issues or tends could impact the organization.  An event is a single occurrence such as a mayor, mid-term or presidential election or retirement of key leadership (president).  An issue is a significant theme/topic that has substantial power and influence to impact the institution.  This could include staff compensation, use of adjunct faculty, or technology.  Lastly a trend is an ongoing set of circumstances that has consistency and momentum such as demographics, aging employees or the slowing down of the regional economy.  It is easy to predict events such as elections as we know the schedule and can prepare.  The issue and trends are a little harder to predict, as these tend to be more complex. Context is key to grounding the plan in the reality of the organization.  Another way to think about context is a SWOT/SCOT analysis.  What are the organizations strengths, weaknesses/challenges, opportunities and threats?  A similar exercise to engage with participants on the context of the situation.  These are two examples that can help the team understand and think contextually about the strategic plan.

Strategic planning processes can be positive, interesting and engaging for the participant.  Understanding the expectations and ground rules is helpful for engaging the team, along with context, mission and laying the appropriate groundwork to set yourself up for success.  These are just a few of the lessons learned as a participant for an engaging strategic planning process.  


Goldstein, L & Sahaghan, P. (2003). Looking beyond the moment. Business Officer, 36 (12), p26-30.

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