The Terms in Strategic Planning

This week, I will step back into the discussion of strategic planning. To date, we have discussed my view of mission/vision statements and how they guide the process of developing a strategic plan. The next step was to do a SWOT analysis, one based on reality and data. The next step is to develop a Strategic Plan. There are steps after creating a strategic plan which are also essential. They are developing the tactical plans, implementation, and review. We will address those points later.

I must admit that I am an advocate of the Rule of Threes. In writing, rhetoric, and public speaking, it is alleged that people remember things in threes better than in any number combination. When I do planning, I tend to revert to using three items as the default number of items in a category. So, for each strategic plan, I start out with three main strategic aims, three strategic goals for each aim, and three tactical measures for each aim. It is critical that we are not bound into three items. Sometimes there are more; sometimes there are less. But, it is a good place to start.

But, before we start, let us define some terms – at least the way I use them. In a later Reflection, I will describe how I build a Strategic Plan using these terms.

Strategy vs. tactics

There is an abundance of literature regarding the differences between strategy and tactics. This is a crucial difference that must be understood. In the way I look at the world, a strategy is a long-term, broad-based objective. It is a description of what we want to achieve in the long-run. A tactic is a short-term focused action designed to achieve a specific goal.

Strategic aim

When developing a strategic plan, I like to have three (remember, Rule of Threes) Strategic Aims. These are the three main long-term objectives we want to reach. Sometimes there are more Strategic Aims; sometimes there are fewer. The key is that the Strategic Aim is the broad description of the direction in which we want to go. In my view, there should be minimal overlap between Strategic Aims. The combination of all the strategic aims is the compilation of the Strategic Plan.

I like to have strategic aims that are broad, action based, and aggressive. For example, “Increase diversity within the medical school” or “Enrich technology-based education within the medical school.”

Strategic goal

For each strategic aim, I start thinking about having three Strategic Goals. Again, the actual, final number of strategic goals will vary, but I like to start out with three. Strategic goals are subsets of a strategic aim. These are more focused and directed in the short- and intermediate-term. The combination of all the strategic goals should lead to the strategic aim coming about.

In my experience, it is useful to put a time frame and quantification on some (not all) strategic goals. The time frame tells you “how long” and the quantification tells you “by how much.” For example, “Increase enrollment of Hispanic, Latino, and Spanish-origin students by 100% in the next five years” or “Create technology-enhanced small group sessions in all first year courses within five years.”

Tactical measure

Tactical measures are activities we do to make strategic goals come about. These are designed for the immediate- and short-term. Thus, a group of tactical measures are the things we do to accomplish our strategic goals. By accomplishing our strategic goals, we achieve a strategic aim. By addressing all our strategic aims, we succeed with a strategic plan.

Tactical measures must have timelines and specific objectives. For example, “Triple recruitment trips to undergraduate institutions with large populations of Hispanic, Latino, and Spanish-origin students next academic year” or “Ensure all classrooms in which small group sessions are conducted have the same technology.”

When developing tactical measures, there are five components that must exist for each tactical measure:

  1. Timeline: What is the timeline is which this tactical measure is to be completed? In my opinion, tactical timelines should be never be longer than five years for full implementation and typically should be about 2-3 years maximum. Timelines of one year are appropriate for most tactical measures. It doesn’t mean that the tactical measure needs to be done now; it can be done a year from now. But the duration and time it takes to accomplish should be limited.
  2. Action: What is the specific action that is going to be taken? The details need to be developed within the tactical measure, but doesn’t need to be listed in the title of the measure.
  3. Implementation Process: Who is responsible for getting it done? Who is responsible for evaluating it? And what steps are needed to make this tactical measure happen?
  4. Resource Requirement: What resources (financial, personnel, space, transportation, etc.) are needed? Is this going to require a budget (New? Reallocation of finances?) If you need personnel, are these new slots? If they are not new slots, then who is going to do the work that they otherwise would have done?
  5. Evaluation Parameter: How often does the status of this activity need to be reported and to whom? What is the measure of success?


I like to think of four timelines for strategic plans. They are:

  • Immediate-term: Within the next 12 months.
  • Short-term: Within 2-3 years.
  • Intermediate-term: Within 5 years.
  • Long-term: A horizon of about 10 years.

I don’t know about other industries, but higher education is rapidly changing and there is simply no good way for me to predict or know what is happening in the next few years, much less in the next decade. Therefore, I like to keep timelines relatively short and with goals that I can achieve within those timelines. I admit that some things do not change and are more amenable to longer timelines, but that is atypical of my experiences.


You could think of an outline for a strategic plan as follows:

Strategic Plan

A.  Strategic Aim A

  1. Strategic Goal A.1
    1. Tactical Measure A.1.a
    2. Tactical Measure A.1.b
    3. Tactical Measure A.1.c
  2. Strategic Goal A.2
    1. Tactical Measure A.2.a
    2. Tactical Measure A.2.b
    3. Tactical Measure A.2.c

B.  Strategic Aim B

  1. Strategic Goal B.1
  2. Strategic Goal B.2
  3. Strategic Goal B.3

Using the examples we have above:

Strategic Plan

A. Increase diversity within the medical school.

  1. Increase enrollment of Hispanic, Latino, and Spanish-origin students by 100% in the next five years.
    1. Triple recruitment trips to undergraduate institutions with large populations of Hispanic, Latino, and Spanish-origin students next academic year.
    2. Increase participation of Hispanic, Latino, and Spanish origin students in recruiting trips.
  2. Increase enrollment of non-Hispanic Black students by 200% in the next five years.
    1. Refocus recruitment trips of non-Hispanic Black students to schools that have students that apply to our institution.
    2. Develop on-campus activities that highlight achievements of non-Hispanic Black students.
  3. Increase unrepresented minority faculty by 100% in the next ten years.
    1. Increase recruitment of underrepresented minority postdoctoral fellows into faculty positions

B. Enrich technology-based education within the medical school.

  1. Create technology-enhanced small group sessions in all first year courses within five years.
    1. Ensure all classrooms in which small group sessions are conducted have the same technology.
    2. Recruit six course directors to use technology-enhanced small group sessions in the next academic year.
    3. Provide technical support to faculty doing small group sessions before and during all sessions.

This Reflection is focused on developing the basic definitions that underlie a Strategic Plan. In the next Reflection, I will describe the process I have used to actually put a Plan together using the elements described here.

Note: The views in this commentary are my own and not necessarily those of my institution, employer, or colleagues.

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