Developing A Strategic Plan

Developing A Strategic Plan
Developing a strategic plan is an exercise your school will probably undergo once a decade or so. Read what Alan Kennedy has to say on the subject.
Your worst nightmare is unfolding. The Board has asked you, as Head, to prepare a strategic plan for the school. Before you even start, consider these three tips.

1. Conduct a Rigorous Situation Assessment
A plan is only as good as the facts on which it is based. For this reason, a situation assessment is essential to support informed decision-making in strategic planning. A situation assessment addresses three major topics.

Know the Board's Appetite for Change
Be sure to scope the Board's appetite for change. After all, the Board will ultimately be asked to approve the strategic plan and the allocation of resources to support its implementation. If the Board doesn't buy into your plan, then the strategic planning process could come to an inglorious end, when presented to that very same unsuspecting Board by the soon-to-be ex-Head. With the Board on your side, at least you can do some proper advance preparation and lobbying on issues you know the Board finds difficult to accept.

Document the Way Things Work Today
Don't assume that you - or anyone else, especially the Board - understands the way things actually happen at the school.
  • Prepare a detailed description of every major functional area.
  • Include everything from the administrative functions through to the academic functions.
  • Identify who is responsible for the functional activity, the activities being managed, the way the activities are managed, staffing, and budget.
Without these descriptions in hand, it becomes almost impossible to describe how any change proposed in the strategic plan will impact the school.
This video offers a look at Sacred Heart Schools' strategic plan.

Study Relevant External Factors
The final topic in a situation assessment is a study of selected relevant external factors. These are factors beyond the school's ability to control such as:
  • Other schools that could be considered competition
  • Changes in demographics
  • Teaching personnel availability
These factors can usually be quickly identified by surveying the parents to identify their perception of strengths and weaknesses in the way the school manages its administrative and academic functions. Strategy is always developed in response to changing external realities; being emerging opportunities and threats likely to have a significant impact on the performance of the school over the long term.

2. Think of Strategic Planning as a Review Rather than a Development Process
Strategic Planning is not as much about the development of a new strategy as it is a review of the eight basic strategies that are the underpinning of any not-for-profit organization. These eight strategies (which are internal factors totally under the control of the Head and the Board) are reviewed to ensure they are aligned with the expectations of the Board and the likely evolution of factors in the competitive environment.

The eight strategies are:

Business Mandate Strategy
How narrowly or broadly the school interprets its founding mandate or charter

Sustainability Strategy
How much risk the school is prepared to assume in the implementation of any of its strategies

Growth Strategy
The type and rate of growth acceptable

Financial Management Strategy
How the school sources and uses capital
Technology Strategy
How the school uses technology either to enable administrative productivity or to deliver a competitive advantage
Organization Management Strategy
Whether the school focuses on the process or on results as the primary means to manage activities

Marketing Strategy
How the school finds and satisfies its customer base (parents/students)

Service Delivery Strategy
How the school balances efficiency with effectiveness

Finally, connect the eight strategy framework to the existing organizational structure of the school. Typically, this exercise raises questions about how one or more of the eight strategies are being addressed within the current organization structure and gives further insight into what the present strategy actually is. Remember that it is usually as difficult to describe present strategy accurately as it is to describe the proposed changes to that strategy.
This video from the National Association of Independent Schools explains how to visualize your strategic plan.
3. Forget Vision and Mission Statements until the End of the Process
So many strategic planning processes recommend beginning the planning process by identifying a long-term (5-10) vision statement and a shorter-term mission statement (3 to 5 years). This is a mistake.
For one, the terms vision and mission are synonyms for strategy. To attempt to develop any strategy without identifying and studying the relevant external factors the strategy is supposed to address is folly because the strategy is going to be based on internally-focused, wishful thinking rather than a deep understanding of the competitive reality.
Secondly, most vision and mission statements are nothing more than business positioning or marketing slogans applicable to any private school. They do little to provide faculty, staff, students, or parents with an understanding of what the school is trying to do.
Consider these typical examples:

Our Mission: To educate and equip students to become major contributors to, leaders in, and valued representatives of their national and international communities.

Our Vision: To develop a love of learning, promote excellence in all areas of endeavor, and provide access to outstanding educational experiences, teachers, and facilities.

The better course of action is to reach solid conclusions on each of the eight strategies of the eight strategy framework; both in terms of present strategy and the how's and why's of any proposed change to that strategy. Once those conclusions are solidly in hand, then it is possible to think through the 5 year and the 10-year consequences of the successful pursuit of those strategies. At this stage, you can draft vision and mission statements that really capture the essence of those conclusions.


About the author

Alan Kennedy has been teaching courses on Strategic Management for York University's Schulich School of Business, Executive Education Centre, in Toronto, Canada since 1992. For more information on Alan and his courses either contact him at or visit
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