Strategic Planning is, by most definitions, long-range and broad in scope. If you are doing a strategic plan for an organization, you are looking at the long-term goals of the organization and coming up with a plan as to how you will achieve those goals. If done correctly, this planning must be preceded by the strategic goals, which are statements about what and where the organization wishes to be in five or ten years or beyond. It seems simple enough at first glance; set your long-term goals and then come up with a strategy for how to achieve them.

The first problem arises when an organization has more than one person, which by definition is the case. Having more than one person requires some sort of agreement on which long-term goals are to be pursued. The more people involved in the planning, the more difficult it is to reach an agreement. If you have ever gone to a video store with one or more friends or family members and tried to agree on which movie to rent, you know how trying it can be. Most of the time you can't agree, so you end up renting two or more movies in order to appease the people who can't agree. You canŐt do this in an organization. Well, actually you can, but you shouldn't.

Imagine a newly married couple trying to decide on some strategic goals for their marriage. The strategic goal of how many children to have may be conceded to the wife–who must endure the pregnancy and give birth. She decides that two kids will be the goal, and the husband reluctantly agrees even though he wanted three or four. Since he conceded on the number of children, she bows to his wishes as to where they will be living. The husband wants to live in a rural area of Alabama since that's where he grew up. Then comes the strategic decision of whether she should work or not. She wants to work and have a career, but she is trained as a clinical psychologist. They don't even know what that is in rural Alabama, so she has virtually no chance of a career there.

This brings to light the second problem. When multiple people with different perspectives and interests start compromising over strategic goals, you end up with goals that don't fit well together. Some may be mutually exclusive at worst, or at best they will lack synergy.

Now let's apply this to an organization such as an institution of higher learning. A business school should be the organization most adept at strategic planning since they teach it to future business leaders. A business school consists of a large family of independent thinking faculty who are linked only by a common desire to think independently. You also have a variety of discipline areas, all of which are non-profit and lack performance incentives. The incentives to conform, agree, and to be team players are as rare as loggers in a gay bar.

I've had the opportunity to observe, first hand, the process of strategic planning in such an environment. The first ten years that I was a member of a well respected business school, there were no strategic goals, no mission statement, and no strategic plan–at least none that I'd ever seen. This was not a big problem however, since the intuitive mission of most schools is to give students a quality education that will enable them to become successful contributors to our society.

During year eleven some administrator, who probably went to a weekend seminar in Hawaii, learned about goals and objectives, and decided that each department should have them. After several months of arguments and teeth gnashing, the faculty in each department came up with a list of goals and objectives (I still don't know the difference). Once these were approved, everyone sighed with relief and went back to their normal routine. The lists were filed away and everyone was happy in much the same way that you are happy when your migraine finally fades away.

During this goal setting there was never any distinction between short-term, medium-term and long-term goals. And none of the goals (or objectives) had any time constraints or measurable outcomes–two essential requirements of goals that we tell our students goals must have. Of course time constraints and goal measurability are not needed if there is never any effort made to achieve the goals, as was the case, so no problem.

Enter year seventeen. The school (actually it was someone, but I have no idea who) decided to pursue national accreditation, and appropriate measures were taken to comply with the rigorous standards. One of these was a mission statement. Mission statements are essentially statements for public consumption. They tell the potential customers how the organization is going to genuflect itself in the name of getting business or, in our case, attract students. A mission statement was created and prominently displayed on the wall and in brochures. Unfortunately, as the accreditation team aptly noted, there was no strategic plan, and there never had been. There were also no strategic goals, but the accreditation team didn't have that on their list of requirements.

By the end of year seventeen, national accreditation was achieved, thanks to scrupulous attention to developing a strategic plan. However, as in the past, there were no time constraints or measurability for most of the strategic goals. 

The strategic plan was filed along with the now obsolete six-year old goals and objectives, assuming that things which have never been used need to make a transition to obsolescence. But one unwritten strategic objective had been achieved–the goal of getting academic accreditation. I believe it was the only strategic goal that was achieved in my first seventeen years with the organization. And it was achieved without ever having formally been stated as such, which led me to the conclusion that it is not what you put in writing, but what you do that counts, and often there is no connection between the two. 

A change in top leadership usually carries with it an assumption that the organization must be "revitalized," whether revitalization is needed or not. The new leader feels compelled to make his or her mark on the organization in much the same way that a male wolf marks his territory by peeing on things. It can be equated to a residential house that changes ownership. The new family moves in and does its best to give the house a personal look and feel, but no matter how many changes are made, it is still a residence that serves the same basic purpose.

Revitalization in organizations almost always involves restructuring, which is a fancy word for moving existing things around like rearranging a living room. Some gains in efficiency and effectiveness may actually be achieved by doing this, although they are usually temporary. Accompanying this rearranging is a revisiting of the mission statement, strategic goals and the strategic plan. In theory this is good–especially if no one is sure what they are or where to find them. 

At my 21-year mark, the college had a change of academic leadership, and the new wolf started marking its territory. This required the business school to reexamine that which it had laid aside: the mission statement, strategic goals and strategy. These were dusted off, spiffed up and proudly put back on the shelf.

Three years later a new leader in the business school appeared and immediately started marking his territory, but this was no wolf. This was like a cow and the proverbial flat rock. Forget the old mission statement, strategic goals, strategy and structure. Totally new ones deemed necessary. Forgetting the old ones was the easy part, and had already been accomplished. Establishing the new ones became an ongoing project that was approached with enthusiasm primarily by the very few who were disgruntled with the old leadership and had never taught or done strategic planning.

There is nothing more disconcerting than having your organization's new structure, mission statement, strategic goals, and strategy developed by a small group of largely clueless, disgruntled people. It's equivalent to going to your local auto body shop for a massage. But then the school has always treated its strategic plan like a road map that was left on the kitchen table, so I am not too concerned.

We have had a couple of new leaders since then, so we got to do it all over again a couple more times. I guess if Rand McNally can come out with a new atlas every year, so can my school, but it hasn't changed how I get from my house to work and back, and it hasn't changed how we teach.