• Article
  • 04.10.20

Strategic Plan Models: Making an Informed Selection

  • by Justin Rose, Director of Institutional Effectiveness, Southeastern University

In recent decades, the iterative development and publication of strategic plans has become a nearly universal practice in higher education. This universality has been accompanied by a predictable mediocrity in what one might term the “lived experience” of such plans at many institutions. That a process which is catalyzed in large part by accreditation mandates, developed in inefficient committees, and evolved from competing interests should result in a product that is less than transformative comes as little surprise to most of us. In fact, many higher education consulting organizations now offer training and best practices in reinvigorating stalled strategic plans and (re)cultivating stakeholder buy-in. But, perhaps there would not need to be such a niche aftermarket for strategic plan reboots if institution leaders were deliberate in the selection of the right strategic planning model from the outset. The following models comprise a variety of approaches to strategic planning that might be more or less desirable given your institutional context.

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)

This strategic planning model inverts the normative hierarchical models by starting with the desired objectives and key results (or goals and indicators) of a staff and departments before moving up toward the objectives and key results of leadership. The OKRs model is useful for organizations that need to produce adaptable, organic strategic plans, unbound by the strictures of traditional higher education. This model might be most suitable for institutions with missions geared toward innovation and those who are willing to take the risk of leaving the security of more conventional approaches behind.


The Goal or Outcome-based strategic planning model is among the most common for postsecondary institutions today, as it readily aligns with the language and frameworks of the more rigorous regional accrediting bodies and is relatively simple in design. Once outcomes have been determined at the institutional level, associated objectives and supporting initiatives, along with corresponding timelines and budgetary measures, can be built into the plan. Objectives and initiatives are typically granular enough to be representative of the aims of particular departments and teams on campus, allowing for broad-based support of larger goals.

Hoshin Kanri

A strategic planning and action model popular with devotees of lean management, Hoshin planning involves four essential stages: 1. Strategic plan creation by organizational management. 2. Development of tactics by department leads to accomplish strategic goals. 3. Operational action execution by staff. 4. Assessment and improvement -- often referred to as closing the loop. Hoshin is also well-known for its complex matrix that allows the planner to visualize the multiple dimensions at play in the planning process. This model may be useful for institutions endeavoring to improve the flow of communication in their organization, as it is based on the concept of “gemba,” whereby communication flows by design from the top down and back up again throughout the organization in order to create a feedback loop on quality.

Gap Planning

As the ostensible looming enrollment crisis grows ever larger, strategic planning models like gap planning, also known as need assessment, may be attractive to those responsible for planning efforts. This model calls for charting projected realities 3-5 years out, identifying preferred/optimal realities on the same timeline, and assessing the gap between those markers. Essentially, the question is “Where will we be in a few years if we continue with business as usual and where would we rather be at that time?” Then, it is a matter of determining requirements to close the gap. Higher education institutions are facing a growing list of vulnerabilities caused by changes in market realities, demand for accountability, and demographic factors. This model may have some utility for those seeking to mitigate the effects of the volatility that will accompany those factors.

Ultimately, strategic planning model selection, though important, will be only as effective as the degree of buy-in from institutional stakeholders and the caliber of management responsible for steering the plan. Strategic plans very quickly become abstractions, documents cited in dry, technical accreditation reports, and dust-collecting artifacts of a once enthusiastic planning committee. The requisite conditions to sustain the life and energy of a strategic plan is another matter altogether. However, without the proper selection of a planning model from the beginning, the decline of the plan into such a pitiable state will almost certainly be hastened. Campus leaders should take care to attend to the many options they have (far more than those listed in this article) before assuming that there is only one way to develop a strategic plan.