Building the Strategic Plan: Part 1

Now comes the fun part of the strategic planning process, building the plan.

A strategic plan should contain elements of “want to do’s” but must contain the “need to do’s.” So how do we figure this out?

The most important tool we can use is the SWOT analysis. As I described in a previous Reflection, the SWOT analysis gives us a true and real description of what is going on with our organization.

When I get started with the building process, I like to take time to revel in the successes of our Strengths. As we review our strengths, I like to look at growth trajectories of our successes and truly understand what we do well. As part of this step, it is time to build some strategic goals that address these strengths. That is, what are some short- to intermediate-term objectives that improves what we already do well or actions to maintain strengths?

As I described previously, a strategic goal should have a time frame and some quantification of what needs to be done. That is, a strategic goal is an objective that should take 2-5 years to accomplish. However, it should not be a description of a specific task or a specific list of identified tasks. Identified tasks, in my framework, are tactical measures. At this stage, I like to have everything developed as strategic goals. And, the more strategic goals that are written, the better. It doesn’t matter if the goals are similar or address the same issue. Go ahead and write them down. In a later part of the process, we will talk about how to whittle down the strategic goals. The main thing is to get them all down for now.

It is typical for most of us to develop tactical measures instead of developing strategic goals. Tactical measures describe things we do. What I like to do is to keep the tactical measures and associate them with strategic goals that have been already developed. However, it is essential that the primary task at this stage is to develop strategic goals.

The next thing to do is to review the Threats. Threats are the external forces that can negatively impact our organization. For all threats, I like to address each with three questions:

  1. Can one of our Strengths address this threat?
  2. Can improvement of one of our Weaknesses address this threat?
  3. Can action on an Opportunity address this threat?

If the answer to any of these three questions includes a “yes,” then we can do something about it.

If all three answers are “no,” then the question is whether or not the threat addresses the fundamental mission of the organization. If it does, then we have to ask the question of why we are not doing something to address this threat. Can we do something and what would it entail? How would it mesh with our Strengths, Weaknesses, and Opportunities? Was it something we had missed in the SWOT analysis?

If we are absolutely sure that there is nothing we can do about this external threat, then we should monitor the threat and otherwise ignore it. It is a waste of time, energy, and emotional strength to focus on that about which we can do nothing. I must admit that I have come across very few threats in this category.

Threats are best addressed by identified Strengths and Weaknesses (“yes” to above question 1 or 2). The reason is simple; we are already doing something that addresses the threat. We may be doing something well (Strength) or not-so-well (Weakness), but we are already doing something. At this point, we should be writing out strategic goals that address the threats.

Next, we should address the Weaknesses:

  1. Can one of the Strengths address this weakness?
  2. Can we improve what we currently do to address this weakness?
  3. Can action on an Opportunity address this weakness?

If the answer to question 4 is “yes,” that is terrific. What we need to do is to develop strategic goals that amplify the Strengths to address the Weakness. If the answer to question 5 is “yes,” then this is also terrific. What it says is that we can develop some strategic goals that involve work we are already doing. Again, I think it is perfectly appropriate to write out strategic goals that may be similar to ones developed previously. The key is to get the strategic goal written.

If the answers to question 6 is a “yes” or if the answers to questions 4, 5, and 6 are “no,” then we need to develop strategic goals about things we currently do not do. This can be challenging in that it asks us to look beyond our current scope. At the same time, it can be exciting to look at new opportunities and actions. Regardless, as the mantra goes, write down the strategic goals.

Now, we should look at Opportunities. There are two components for analyzing Opportunities. First, does this opportunity fit with our mission? If the Opportunity fits our mission, then, what are the strategic goals that address this Opportunity? If the Opportunity does not fit out current mission, but is part of the vision of what we do, then we need to ask the questions (a) do we need to revise our mission and (b) should we incorporate some “nice-to-have” strategic goals that address this Opportunity.

Lastly, we should ask ourselves, are there new strategic initiatives that we want to achieve that was not addressed in the SWOT analysis? In my experience, many of the most exciting ideas can come from this discussion. As far as Opportunities and new initiatives are concerned, I believe that we should document them and include them in the discussion. The more ideas, the richer the strategic aims will be when we develop them.

At this stage, what we should have is a list of many strategic goals. In some cases, it is not unusual to have lists of a couple hundred strategic goals. Many of these goals have associated tactical measures as well.

The next question is how to take this huge list and pare it down to a Strategic Plan. This will be the topic of a subsequent Reflection.

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


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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