The Strategic Planning Process

Jack Peterson, Managing for Mission
November 15, 2015

For faith-based schools, good Strategic Planning is critical to survival and growth.  We all know we need to do it, and if we can better understand what makes it so important, we’ll also understand how to do it effectively.

Strategic planning is the process of aligning all the internal factors within a school’s control in order to accomplish its mission in the face of external factors that are not within its control.  This definition sounds a little like an institutional version of the Serenity Prayer.  There are some things, like the economy, trends in culture and technology that we can’t change.  But by being aware of them, we can use the factors within our control, like our curriculum, tuition, the condition of our campus, to harness the opportunities and manage the threats.

Resources in our Faith-based schools seem scarce, but when we focus our people, our traditions and our assets on what is strategically most important to us, most schools have more than enough to accomplish their mission.  Strategic Planning is a discipline that creates and sustains that focused use of resources.  For the board, the Strategic Plan is a tool to provide governance level direction, without being drawn into the operations of the school.  For administrative leadership, it assures that they can follow through on sustained, multi-year initiatives.  They know they have the backing of the board, even as its membership changes from year to year.

For parents, employees and donors, it shows them how their efforts and generosity will translate into the outcomes the school promises.

From my work during three decades in Catholic School administration and my work with Managing for Mission’s clients, I’ve learned that there are some key characteristics, 10 in all, to a successful plan.  Right now, I’d like to talk about 3 of these:  The plan needs to be Strategic, Broadly owned and Implementation oriented.  

First, to be effective, the Strategic Plan must be truly STRATEGIC.  It can’t just be a grab bag of nice things to do, or pet projects of particular individuals.  It must focus on the game changers, those few directions that will make all the difference in the long-run.

Second, the Plan must be BROADLY-OWNED.  After all, who owns the school?  Not a small group of shareholders, but a broad group of stakeholders: teachers, students, parents, donors and supporters.  Their generosity in one form or another, must be sustained day in and day out, year in and year out, for the school to accomplish its mission.  To move the plan from theory to reality, these stakeholders must come to embrace it as their own.

Which brings us to the third characteristic:  it must be IMPLEMENTATION-ORIENTED.  The Strategic Plan itself will be a visionary document, providing the general direction for the next 5 to 10 years.  But it must flow into an implementation plan which is formulated by the administration each year.  This annual implementation plan must identify the specific steps, targets and responsibilities that will keep everyone on track to accomplishing the plan’s goals.

So how do we do all that?  We recommend a process that generally takes 9-12 months in all.  Can a Strategic Plan be done in less time?  Sure.  A school can produce a plan in a weekend.  But it won’t have those three characteristics.  We recommend a process that begins with the Board, casts a broad, participative net, and then draws all the input back in to a concise, coherent and compelling document.

The Board begins with a retreat to reflect on strategic issues and set parameters.  Then it commissions a Steering Committee to guide the process.  The steering committee reaches out to a few dozen leaders in various sectors of the school community to analyze the Opportunities and Threats facing the school, as well as its Strengths and Weaknesses in responding to them.

Using this SWOT analysis, the school prepares a survey to be sent to all its stakeholders: parents, alumni and friends.  Using their input the school then invites its stakeholders to a town-hall type Stakeholders Meeting with 3 sessions in which participants can chose from several planning areas to discuss and give input.  From these, the Steering Committee selects 4-6 strategic areas for which special Topic Teams will be impaneled to drill into and make goal recommendations.  The Steering Committee receives these goal recommendations and distills them into the strategic few that will form the Strategic Plan.  While this last step is happening, the Administration begins working with the school team to develop the Annual Implementation Plan for the first year.  The Strategic Plan is then presented to the Board for its approval.  At the same time, the administration presents the Annual Implementation Plan to demonstrate to the Board how it will be working toward those goals.

As important as the Strategic Plan is, even more important is the planning process.  Done right, it will engender a discipline of thoughtfulness and collaboration which are themselves the biggest dividends.

If you’d like to learn more about the Strategic Planning process, additional resources are available under the Resources tab of this website (www.managingformission.com).  More is also available in earlier Blog posts in our Archives.  Also a 6.5 minute video tutorial is available on our YouTube Channel.

Thank you for not letting your school drift in the crosswinds of external forces and instead using a strategic plan to navigate to the future God wants to provide.

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