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Avoiding the Common Pitfalls of Failed Strategic Plans

Leadership and Management

Avoiding the Common Pitfalls of Failed Strategic Plans

Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign themes song in 1992 was Don’t Stop (Thinking about Tomorrow) by Fleetwood Mac. It expresses the optimistic side of strategic planning that “yesterday’s gone” and “tomorrow will soon be here.” Meaning one should act assertively to create a better future. The realistic side of strategic planning was evident in Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008, where she misinterpreted history, believing that designing the future was best rooted in past successes rather than fully understanding emerging trends and changes in the environment in which any strategic plan will find its relevance and success. She assumed the importance of big state primaries and war chest fundraising, but did not see or evaluate properly the importance of caucus primaries or raising small amounts of money from many donors via the Internet. These historical events point out the importance of balancing the optimism of strategic planning with the realism of strategic planning. Most strategic plans do not pass this litmus test and fall victim to the common pitfalls that disrupt and destroy the effectiveness of plans for colleges and universities in an ever increasing competitive and changing environment.

Strategic planning needs to be seen as a change process with a time horizon of three to five years. Anything less than three years is to be defined and acted upon through sensible budgeting. Anything more than five years is unrealistic about the effects changes will have on even the most thoughtful and well constructed strategic plans. Strategic plans are at their core an exercise in changing people’s minds about things that matter. The change must be created and delivered for both constituencies of relevance within the college or university and outside of the college or university in its competitive marketplace. One must always place a laser focus in strategic planning on the sustainability of changed behaviors that the plan intends beyond a particular president or academic leader. One is always trying to change permanently key actors’ perceptions and behaviors regarding valued realities rooted in their previous successes or their current standard operating procedures.

Famous management guru, Peter Drucker, always said the best way to predict the future was to shape it by one’s actions. Strategic plans that are successful shape the future by their blend of optimism that inspires change with realism that does not overstretch the organization and its leadership’s capacity to invent the change it seeks within the time frame or realization of a three to five year period of time. Beyond that time the environment will change dramatically and what might work three to five years ago will neither inspire nor create the change the organization and its leadership intend.


For a strategic plan to be successful it must deliver a resonance and provide a representation of a future valued and doable reality that is sufficiently strong to offset the forces of resistance. Those forces of resistance must be measured and accounted for in successful strategic planning. One of the main forces of resistance is established informal leaders and communicators within a college or university, who have the ear of a critical number of faculty and other employees. Another is to estimate the critical messaging control of subunits in the college or university such as the chief financial officer, student development leaders, athletic icons, and critical gate keepers in public relations, fundraising, and the alumni. Without a proper analysis of the forces and strengths of resistance, any developed strategic plan will either fail to achieve results intended or underachieve results desired in a very disappointing way.

Why do so many strategic plans start off wrong and end up achieving far less than they intend? Most plans begin in a misguided manner. They frequently are visions of new presidents without adequate and informed appreciation for the history or the market position of the college or university. Others are the dreams and aspirations of new or newly inspired academic leaders rooted in knowledge acquired from readings about other institutions successes in transforming themselves or from national conferences and/or professional organizations’ defining the future of higher education. Some are inspired inappropriately by consultants, who define planning as a process involving spreadsheets, teams, and plan definitions of resources and timelines necessary for specific subgoal achievements within a plan. All these starting points lack any common sense understanding of realistic goals and doable institutional achievements.

Strategic plans to be successful must start off right. They need to understand and build off of potential futures. To understand potential futures in higher education one needs to be thoroughly committed to environmental scanning. Namely, one has to anticipate the future of higher education and a particular college or university in terms of how the environment of competition, prestige, faculty attitudes and resources, endowment, market share, and changing student and parent perceptions of higher education will affect future choices of individuals willing to invest in an institution or willing to enroll in the institution.

How can understanding of the future be achieved in the present? One needs to tap into sources of interpreting the future. With regard to higher education several illuminating sources of information would include futures predictions, Educause’s estimations of technologies affecting the future, trends of competition between and among educational sectors for college attendance, trends from the Department of Labor regarding predictions and prognostications about future employment trends, CIRP data on entering college student attitudes for a three to four year period, and state and federal government budgetary trends of support for college going students and higher education institutions. Without this baseline of data no strategic plan will be successful over the long run and certainly will underachieve in the short run.

What are some of the most common pitfalls that lead to ultimate failure of many strategic plans? First, many colleges and universities underestimate their current lack of realistic talent in the organization or the organization’s ability to attract that talent. Wishing to have the people capable of creating and sustaining the change desired is not the same as actually having people to get the job done in the timeframe desired. Next, many underestimate the critical importance of implementation of the plan by not laser focusing on the tipping point goals of a plan versus all the elements of a plan. Plans also frequently underestimate the need for key role players such as the established and credible leader to promote the plan, the necessary cheerleaders for the plan, and the necessary agitators to hold persons responsible for plan implementation accountable. Another weakness of many plans is unrealistic estimates of the financial and human resource time commitments to achieve the plan. Plans are always in competition with established and continuing budget commitments relative to the loyalty and commitment to the plan of subunits and leaders in the organization. Plans often founder on the shoals of inadequately inspiring and clear messages about the value of changes defined in the plan for the faculty and other university employees. Finally, successful planning must employee the 80-20 principle related to focusing most efforts on achieving most important parts of the plan.

Henry W. Smorynski is a Midland University Leadership Fellow.


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