Strategic planning - or essentially the art of making good plans with clear strategy - is about finding the intersection between mission and market. And, to understand mission and market, you have to first understand that mission is internal to the organization and market generally is external. It is the old SWOT analysis in practice, as the SW of a SWOT stands for strengths and weaknesses (internal) and the OT stands for opportunities and threats (external).
For most of our educational clients, understanding the mission side of the address is easy because they have a solid understanding of internal mission, culture, and the values of the school or college. It is not hard for them to make plans that address concerns of internal stakeholders because they have researched them, asked them questions, and generally have a good idea on how to be responsive to their issues and concerns. Our experience is that most colleges and schools have a real handle on how to create plans that are aligned with mission.
Here is the challenge, though. Most schools and colleges are less adept at reading the tea leaves of the external environment. They are not adept at understanding demographic trends, competitive forces, and large shifts in delivery or business models. These leaves them at a distinct disadvantage in understanding the trends and forces that are likely to shape their industry. As a result, they tend not to be responsive to external trends and forces.
Our experience tells us that the biggest ideas, opportunities, and resulting strategies generally come from the outside. Creating plans that align with mission are important, but if most ideas in the strategic plan generally pander to internal needs rather than external forces, the resulting strategic plan is incremental at best, usually absent of a big idea. More importantly, it fails to find the right intersection between mission and market because external trends were less important in the data collection and planning process.
Finding the intersection is a tough balancing act, because at the end of the day it means managing change and tension between what internal stakeholders believe is sacred to an organization and what the market wants or needs. Our experience tells us that the best plans possess an equal measure of internal and external data and reality, and those research inputs must be carefully synthesized and applied to the unique circumstances of the school or college. And, perhaps most important, best practices would tell us that it is important to revisit the external trends side annually, because that is generally where the dynamic shifts occur.
Great strategy finds the intersection between mission and market. Mission changes little over time, but market opportunity is shifting constantly. The best schools and colleges are constantly challenging their assumptions and reading the external environment to find the right address.