The Strategic Planning Process
A Model for Planning and Thinking Strategically
The Washington State University 2020-2025 system strategic plan describes a desired vision and the elements essential to achieving that vision. The plan is grounded in core ideology and driven by an envisioned future that realizes the full potential of WSU’s ability to support its faculty, staff, and students. The University’s commitment is articulated in goals that declare the outcomes or attributes the organization intends to achieve. Objectives represent key metrics affecting WSU’s ability to achieve a goal and articulate the direction in which these issues must be moved.
The University system must continue to evolve to meet the needs of the constantly changing environment in which it operates. Therefore, underlying this plan is the adoption of an ongoing process of planning and thinking strategically, designed to ensure relevance of direction and action over time.
This strategic plan reflects a model that organizes conversations about the future into four distinct planning “horizons.” This helps organizations in setting and implementing priorities as well as in ensuring relevance of long-range direction over time.
Core Ideology and Envisioned Future
The four planning “horizons” framework consists of crafting a comprehensive strategic direction based on the balance between what doesn’t change—the timeless principles of the organization’s core purpose and core values (core ideology)—and what the organization seeks to become within a ten-year horizon—what would be possible beyond the restraints of the current environment. The ten-year horizon is characterized by the articulation of an envisioned future—an aspirational goal—and a vivid description—what it will be like to achieve the goal.
Assumptions About the Future
The articulation of the envisioned future guides the organization as it considers the factors that will affect its ability to achieve its goals. Building foresight about the five-to ten-year horizon—assumptions, opportunities, and critical uncertainties in the likely relevant future as well as emerging strategic mega-issues—suggests critical choices about the potential barriers the organization will face. This foresight also suggests the responses the organization will need to consider in navigating its way toward achievement of its aspirational goal.
Strategic and Operational Planning
The linkage continues into the three-to five-year horizon through the development of a formal long-range strategic plan, in which WSU articulates the outcomes it seeks to achieve for its faculty, staff, students, alumni, and other stakeholders. How will the world be different as a result of what the organization does? Who will benefit and what will the likely results be? Further, the articulation of strategies will bring focus to the organization’s annual operational allocation of discretionary resources. Action plans, checkpoints, and milestones will be developed through a process of operational planning, indicating progress toward each goal in every planning year.
A strategic long-range plan is not intended as a substitute for an annual operating plan. A strategic plan does not detail all the initiatives, programs, and activities the organization will undertake in the course of serving its members, stakeholders, and industry, nor can it foresee changes to the underlying assumptions on which key strategic choices were based. Instead, the system strategic plan focuses on the future and outlines—in broad strokes—how WSU will need to evolve to succeed. Consequently, the strategic plan implies change—doing new things or doing more or less of current activities to ensure successful outcomes. The University’s campuses, colleges, and units will further define the operational aspects that support the framework of this plan, and they will also create or revise existing plans to complement and build on the direction established by the system plan.
Strategic planning for WSU should become the methodology for the organization’s operations. If it is successful, this process will not have yielded a plan to be placed on the shelf but will have served as a catalyst for the process of planning strategically at all times and at all levels throughout the WSU system. In order to achieve its vision, the University must not look at strategic long-range planning as a one-time project that produces a milestone document of its best thinking at the moment. Instead, the entire WSU system must adopt strategic planning as an operational philosophy of ongoing re-evaluation of the critical knowledge bases that form the framework of its world, including:
- sensitivity to the needs of its constituencies;
- insight into the future environment;
- understanding of the capacity and strategic position of the organization; and
- effective analysis of the ethical implications of policy, program, and service choices.
Conducting an Environmental Scan
Environmental scanning is the ongoing tracking of trends and occurrences in an institution’s internal and external environment that bear on its success, currently and in the future. The results are useful in shaping goals and strategies and selecting annual priorities. Effective environmental scanning examines both quantitative and qualitative changes. Ultimately, an institution should create a set of key environmental indicators—internal, external, qualitative, and quantitative—that have the most important potential impact on the work the institution does.
Considering Internal and External Factors
These indicators may include internal issues and trends that are inherent to the institution, such as budget issues, enrollment fluctuations, fundraising opportunities, and changes in leadership. They may also include external factors in the environment outside of the institution that are out of the University’s control such as:
- Demographics—locally, regionally, nationally, and increasingly internationally (e.g., population, racial/ethnic mix, immigration status, education levels, etc.)
- Politics and public policy—changes in governmental regulation, federal financial aid policies, and public attitudes toward institutions of higher education
- Economies—local, regional, national, and international
- Labor market—the demand in relevant fields and the associated skills desired by employers
- Academic interests—popular fields and the employment interests of prospective students and their families
- Technology—the increasingly rapid changes that impact nearly every aspect of higher education
- Research—changes in interests and funding from governmental, private, and foundation sources
- Philanthropy—changes in available funding and in the attitudes, interests, and approaches of donors
Environmental scanning will be conducted throughout the WSU system on an ongoing basis but an environmental scan document will be created annually, which will serve as a knowledge base. Strategic plan assumptions about the future support annual environmental scanning to inform the development of new initiatives, updates to the strategic plan, and SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis conversations system-wide.
Annual Strategic Plan Review and Update
The WSU system’s strategic long-range plan represents a compass the organization will use to guide its work over the next five years. Each year of its life, the plan will be updated based on experience or new circumstances or as new opportunities or challenges emerge. By 2024 or sooner, WSU should author a new strategic long-range plan based upon the new environment expected to exist in the latter half of the decade.
WSU System-wide Strategic Planning Process—Campuses, Colleges, and Units
The system strategic plan will serve as the foundational document that guides the evolution of WSU’s statewide enterprise from 2020 to 2025. The plan reflects the vision identified in the Drive to 25, and it also aligns with, and incorporates, other recent institutional planning efforts, including initiatives focused on modernization, campus culture, student success, and strategic research priorities. WSU’s campuses, colleges, and other administrative units will develop or update their unit plans in the coming months. Those plans will complement and flesh out the big-picture goals, objectives, and strategies established by the framing of the system-wide plan.