Strategic Plans and Luxury Cars: They Look so Good on the Lot!

by Ross Peters, EXPLO Elevate, Vice President of School Strategy

“Check out the new 2020 Strategic Plan—well-equipped, versatile, nodding to the past, styled for the future.”

For a moment, think of a strategic plan as a luxury car comprised of elegantly styled components. It is flashy; the engine sounds great; the styling is sleek. It represents the best of the elements of other luxury cars, and just as importantly, it has a few components not found in any of its competitor’s vehicles. When it arrives off the assembly line, there is a celebration of completing its design and assembly. But in truth, the car hasn’t done anything yet. Paradoxically, it has arrived, and it has not arrived—it simply exists. It is all potential.

The greatest challenge for educational institutions is not finding ambitious language to define strategic goals—we have proven time and again we can create a good-looking plan (to extend the metaphor, we can build beautiful cars with a great deal of performance potential). The greatest challenge is executing fully toward the vision of the language we create. Read any group of strategic plans from secondary schools, colleges, or universities, and you will find ample worthy goals—we build some beautiful-looking vehicles for strategy. However, not all of them (or perhaps only a very few of them) have the muscle to lay the foundation for successful implementation. My premise is: the secret to high-quality implementation lies in creating the strategic plan as much as it does the components of the plan itself. The process we use to determine WHAT our strategy should be also determines our ability to achieve the plan’s vision (the HOW).

Plan creation and implementation are not separate tasks but one whole with two inter-related components.

Additionally, the goals of plan creation must include a vision of implementation. In short, our mistake is often that we focus on WHAT we want to create to a degree that dwarfs HOW we actually plan on achieving it. Indeed, the WHAT is often engaged without any vision of HOW to “get it on the road.”

Institutions don’t simply succeed or fail in strategic change implementation in the days, months, and years after the plan is announced. Rather the plan creation process itself significantly determines the degree to which a plan succeeds or fails.