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Most strategic plans fail to set useful goals. Why these mistakes make it impossible to meet institutional objectives.

August 28, 2023 , By David Attis, Managing Director, Research

Everyone agrees that a strategic plan should set clear institutional goals. The plan should serve as the “North Star” guiding what is otherwise “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over car parking,” as Clark Kerr famously quipped.

Having reviewed over a hundred college and university strategic plans, I have found that while they all include goals, the majority fail to set “useful” goals, by that I mean goals that can actually galvanize concerted action toward institutional outcomes.

Here are the three most common failure paths for strategic plans:

  • They set obviously unrealistic goals
  • They propose a list of activities to be completed rather than outcomes to be achieved
  • They set goals that cannot be measured

Each of these “mistakes” has understandable root causes. Fixing them is conceptually straightforward but politically challenging. And yet not fixing them will make it impossible to achieve your institutional objectives.

Unrealistic Goals

“We will grow total enrollment by 20% over the next five years”

“We will become an AAU university”

“We will improve six-year graduation rates by 20 percentage points”

“Visionary” presidents tend to believe that bold proclamations will inspire people to perform better, but clearly impossible goals have the opposite effect. The statements above could be achievable for some institutions, but in the situations where I saw them, they clearly were not. When I asked the president who projected 20% enrollment growth, how he planned to achieve this given that his institution had lost enrollment for every one of the past seven years, he replied, “That was meant to be aspirational!” Ambitious goals can be effective if backed up by a clear strategy but lacking that they breed cynicism and burnout among staff being asked to achieve what they know to be impossible.

Solution: Look at historical data and future projections for your institution and your competitors, and ask yourself:

  • What would we have to assume for us to hit our target?
  • Are those assumptions reasonable?
  • If we are projecting a dramatic change in our performance, what is the strategy that we believe will achieve that change?

UNCOVER YOUR ENROLLMENT DRIVERS AND OBSTACLES

Activities Rather than Outcomes

“Increase spending on marketing and branding by 20%”

“Create a plan for internationalization”

“Fund additional professional development for staff”

Universities typically have more ideas than money or people to implement them. Therefore, an essential role of a strategic plan is to help faculty, staff, and administrators prioritize those ideas that are more likely to lead to the most important outcomes. But in the absence of that agreement, it is much easier to list activities that sound good rather than to decide which outcomes are the most important. Many plans imply that if we just “do more” or “try harder” we will achieve our goals. But in the current environment, most faculty and staff are already doing as much (or more) than they can manage.

“Planning to plan” is my personal pet peeve. An institutional plan should not be expected to outline in detail every aspect of the institution’s strategy, but it needs to set clear goals rather than simply call for more plans.

Solution: A good plan frames a small number of institutional outcomes to be achieved and suggests the most impactful activities to accomplish them. In reviewing your goals, ask yourself:

  • Is this goal a means to an end, or an end in itself? (e.g., would we be satisfied if we increased marketing spend even if it led to no other results?)
  • If it is a means to an end, is that the most important end? (e.g., is improving our brand one of our top 3-4 institutional goals or is it really a potential means to improve overall enrollment?)
  • Is this the best means to that end?

Unmeasurable Goals

“Increase academic excellence”

“Become a student-centric university”

“Improve Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”

Nearly every strategic plan talks about “academic excellence,” but I have never seen it defined in a measurable way. There are many ways that one could measure academic excellence: graduation rate, faculty credentials, special accreditation, rankings, incoming student qualifications, high-impact practices, etc. The problem is not that academic excellence is not measurable, it is that academic communities cannot agree on which of these measurable outcomes is the most important. “Academic excellence” is a feel-good phrase that stakeholders can agree is a good thing without having to acknowledge that they disagree on what is actually important.

Similarly, DEI is (or was until recently) something that all stakeholders could agree on in the abstract without having to ask whether the focus should be on recruitment, retention, or outcomes; students, faculty, or staff; or which underserved populations. To those who say, “Yes, we need to address all of those factors!” I often ask, how will you prioritize your limited resources to have a real impact in those areas that are most urgent or important for your community?

These phrases show up so often in strategic plans because the plan writers are more focused on producing a document that no one will object to rather than proposing an actual strategy. The question of what should actually get done is handed off to an implementation group or to unit leaders who will interpret the phrase in different ways and implement solutions to different problems. The price of consensus is ambiguity and a lack of strategy focus.

Solution: The public strategic plan will require some tradeoffs to motivate a broad range of stakeholders. But the planning process must push decision-makers to clarify the specific goals they need to achieve. As you review your proposed goals, ask yourself:

  • How will we know if we have achieved the goals of the plan? (e.g., how will we know if we have achieved “academic excellence” or “equity”?)
  • How will we determine if a proposed action is more or less likely to help us make progress toward the goal?

Remember, the fundamental goal of the strategic plan is to help all of your diverse stakeholders understand what they should be doing more of (and less of) so that the university can have the impact in the world to which it aspires. As you get more specific, not everyone will agree, but ultimately, they will be grateful that you have set clear and achievable goals with measurable impact.

Setting achievable goals for your strategic plan is just one part of developing a more dynamic and market-responsive strategy for your institutional future. Current Strategic Advisory Services partners should visit our Dynamic Strategy Resource Center for more resources.

David Attis

Over the past decade, David has worked with more than five hundred colleges and universities in the US and Canada, leading workshops and strategy sessions for boards, cabinets, deans’ councils and department chairs and presenting to a wide range of audiences on the major trends impacting higher education.

His studies have explored data-informed decision-making in higher education, innovative academic program design, university budget models, academic organizational structures, managing large-scale multidisciplinary research, and the future of doctoral education.

Prior to joining the EAB, David was a senior director of policy studies at the Council on Competitiveness. While there he worked on the National Innovation Initiative, contributed to the National Academies’ Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, and collaborated with Professor Michael Porter of Harvard Business School on the council’s Competitiveness Index.

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