SAN DIEGO — Creating a strategic plan is only the beginning of a long process. Many obstacles can interfere with implementing the plan, said Hannah Stewart-Gambino, dean of the college at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.

Administrators need to be able to identify those obstacles and understand how to overcome them, said Margaret Plympton, vice president for administration and finance at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

They spoke at the Society for College and University Planning’s annual international conference.

To ensure that your plan will make a difference by helping students succeed or creating a meaningful work environment for faculty members, you need to be ready to address the following impediments to its success, Plympton added.


If the president isn’t interested in the institution’s plan, officials will end up implementing a series of divisional plans, Plympton said.

And without leadership, action won’t occur. “Left to our own devices, we humans will do the same thing tomorrow we did today,” Plympton said.

Several specific leadership problems can derail strategic plan implementation, including:

  • Focusing on crises rather than long-term goals.
  • Failing to take an active role.
  • Not paying attention to detail.
  • Relying on wishful thinking.

Solution. The following components need to be in place for successful implementation of the strategic plan:

• Presidential ownership. At a minimum, the president must be committed to implementing the strategic plan, Plympton said.

If not, other top-level administrators must give the appearance that the president is committed. Someone fairly high up must be responsible for choreographing that appearance, she said.

  • Senior commitment. Teamwork, a steering committee and effective meetings are important.
  • Distributed leadership. Department heads and other key members of the team need to own components of the strategic plan. Achieving goals should be part of their performance review.
  • Structural clarity. People across campus need to know how the plan is being implemented.


Academic administrators work with numbers all the time. “It’s the conferring of meaning around those numbers that’s the human element,” Stewart-Gambino said.

Officials might encounter the following problems with data when they work to implement a strategic plan:

  • Focusing on assessment rather than strategy.
  • Having too much data. Officials don’t know what part of the data to use to drive their efforts. And sometimes people use numbers to overwhelm others because they don’t respect their colleagues’ views, Stewart-Gambino said.
  • Lacking the right kind of data. Officials might need baseline, progress or benchmark data to evaluate the success of efforts.

Solution. Ideally, officials should determine what type of data they will need when they construct goals, Plympton said.

Individuals, e.g., staff members in the institutional research office, should have responsibility for data and know the time lines for communicating it to community members.

And officials need to construct a simple story with the data. Narratives help people understand progress toward achieving goals in ways that raw data does not, Plympton said.


Lack of funding or other resources can derail strategic plan implementation. The following problems can arise, Plympton said.

  • Unrealistic goals. Sometimes officials don’t think about the resources they will need when they create the strategic plan, Plympton said.
  • Vague assumptions. “All this stuff will be paid for by fundralslng” is an example, Plympton said.
  • Wishful thinking. Wanting money doesn’t make it appear.

Solution. Considering resources when creating the plan prevents problems. And officials also need to align resources with the plan, Plympton said. Reallocating existing resources requires courage, she added.


Over time, people start to lose track of progress on the strategic plan, Stewart-Gambino said.

Most administrators are good at tactical communication, she said. For example, messages about street closures are clearly conveyed. But clear updates on the plan over a five-to-eight-year period are much more difficult, she said.

Empty rhetoric can also be a problem, Plympton said. Officials sometimes communicate what they think is the right thing to say that week.

Solution. Communication is good, and more communication is better, Stewart-Gambino said. But less is more in a communication, she said.

Consider whether your audience is internal or external and whether you need them to do something or just understand information, she said.

Use a variety of media types, including your website, email and print, Stewart-Gambino said. Regularly make strategic plan issues agenda items at meetings. And your president should use his bully pulpit to advance the plan.

Be playful with messaging, Stewart-Gambino added. An annual report is important, but a T-shirt might also get across an important message.


Content problems go back to the creation of the plan, Plympton said. Sometimes what’s labeled a strategic plan is really just a description of the operational plan, she said.

Solution. Perform a mid-course gut check, Plympton said. You might need to reframe sections of your plan.

And the process can give you an opportunity to harness the energy of members of the community who are new since the plan was created.

Engage your community in implementing the strategic plan

The campus community needs to be involved with implementing an institution’s strategic plan, said Hannah Stewart-Gambino, dean of the college at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.

Answer the following questions to help you engage stakeholders:

  • Who is the community to be engaged?
  • Who are the stakeholders and what do you need from them?
  • Who are the audiences who need to be informed? These are the people you don’t need anything from, but they need to know what’s happening, Stewart-Gambino said.
  • Are these audiences listening? You might be sending them information, but do you know if they are paying attention?

If no one is tasked with making sure the strategic plan implementation remains integrated, the work will be done in silos. “Usually lots of people think they’re doing just what they’re supposed to, but they’re not talking to each other,” Stewart-Gambino said.

When that happens, what one group does can cause problems for another group, she added.

Solution. Administrators must master the “rules of engagement” at their institution.They should understand how the faculty senate, committees and other formal structures operate. These vary among campuses.

They also need to understand the informal networks, Stewart-Gambino said. For example, who do others listen to? Identify key people and take them out to lunch, she said.

Also, administrators should distinguish between stated and unstated interests. You might be looking for information, but staff and faculty members might think you are trying to eliminate their jobs, Stewart-Gambino said.

Faculty members are important partners for constructing and implementing a strategic plan, Stewart-Gambino said.

They stay at the institution longer than anyone else and care about it, she said. Their long view can be helpful. “How did that go wrong 25 years ago?” could be a good question if they are skeptical about aspects of the plan.

Plus, it’s important to recognize that they are rewarded through publications by disagreeing with others. And they teach their students to question what’s presented to them rather than to be agreeable. You might as well embrace the reality that they will ask questions and voice disagreements, Stewart-Gambino said.

And use their time wisely.Ask them for their perspective in a one-hour meeting, and report back on how you acted on their ideas in the next meeting, she said.

Embrace politics to get work done

Efforts to implement your institution’s strategic plan could be met with conspiracy theories or other types of resistance, said Hannah Stewart-Gambino, dean of the college at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. “There are some crazy people in every single population,” she added.

But sometimes there are real issues. “People can legitimately disagree and they’re not nuts,” Stewart-Gambino said.

And sometimes real problems with leadership cause the strategic plan to become politicized. Leaders might really be cutting back-room deals or acting naive. And sometimes leaders start to hear every comment as a complaint and stop listening, she said.

Solution. “Embrace the political,” Stewart-Gambino said. Politics is the art of getting things done, she added.