Think of one of your favorite bands. In fact, think of a band that you admire and appreciate that has stood the test of time. They have been around for a decade or two and have many albums under their name in the iTunes store. They have had hit records, experimental moments, country or blues crossover, and maybe sold out to "pop" a time or two. They've done it all, and each album reflected their unique story, themes, and priorities at the time.
Great bands that have some longevity are really good at their ongoing relevance to culture. They go into the recording studio every five years or so and write, record, and produce a new album. That album has a name, a theme, a set of 8 to 12 songs, and an upcoming tour where they have to promote those songs and sell them. Each album - and subsequent tour - has a distinct sound, voice, and theme, but you can always hear the "band that you love" in the music somewhere. My favorite band is U2 and yes, each album is unique, but you can always hear The Edge and his guitar today just as you did in the early 1980's. And, Bono's voice is the same, but yet different. Great bands simply enjoy an ongoing relevance to culture that is uncanny. Every five years, they reinterpret themselves in relationship to the landscape. They read the tealeaves, focus on what they are really good at, and produce an album that has a distinct theme. And, it has to sell and keep their name top of mind in a world where differentiation and distribution modes (SoundCloud, iTunes, Pandora, etc) is relentlessly changing.
Strategic planning is the work of rock stars. Our five year cycle in schools and colleges is no different than great bands. Every five years, we have to step into the recording studio, discern where the world is going and how that intersects with what we do, and develop a set of integrated priorities around a theme that will hopefully propel people to support our mission. Our strategic plan "singles" need to sell - to parents, students, and donors - and we will have to sell them - in our promotional plans and our communication to stakeholders. Ultimately, our "listeners" have to hear a new version of a tried and true sound that they have come to enjoy. We have to be careful to not be too experimental, or we will be thought of as drifting astray from our roots, but we also have to be innovative enough to show our listeners we are ahead of the curve.
The next time you step into the strategic planning process at your school or college, don't think of it as "stakeholders going into a planning session". That's boring. Instead, think of yourself as a rock star, going into the recording studio and perfecting that next album. Set the stage: plug in the guitars and the keyboards, get out the cool studio rugs and some good food, get all of the band members, the production crew, and the writers together. It's going to be a wild ride.