10 Critical Lessons I’ve Learned About Implementing a Strategic Plan

Pat Sanaghan leading a strategic planning discussion
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I have been involved with over one hundred planning efforts on a variety of campuses (including DePaul University, Central Community College, Tarleton State University, Stephen F. Austin State University, The University of the West Indies, Saint Joseph's University, The University of California, Santa Cruz, Cornell University, Anoka Ramsey Community College). I have had my share of successes and failures with implementation efforts. Both the failures and the successes leave important clues.

The success rate for the implementation of strategic plans is dismal, with the percentage of failed implementations ranging anywhere from 63% to 90%. In fact, Robert Kaplan of the Balanced Scorecard fame (1996, 2000, 2008) estimates that 90% of strategies fail due to poor execution.

Actually creating strategies and inspiring strategic plans is not hard work. We have many intelligent, dedicated people throughout our campuses who have powerful hopes and aspirations.  But having beautiful pictures of the future is not enough; we must be able to produce them.  That's the hard, difficult part of strategic planning. We must become world-class at actually executing our strategic plans. This will not be easy.

I want to talk about some practices I've learned that work. Here are 10 of the most critical.

1. Always Have a Designated Responsible Party

One person (leader) must be designated as the visible, responsible party for each strategic goal. The "senior team" is not a responsible party; the "finance office" is not a responsible party. One person (e.g., Provost, Chief Business Officer) is a responsible party.

Strive mightily to identify one person and communicate this widely across campus on a regular basis. This is also true for divisional and departmental goals and objectives. Names attached to specific actions communicate an implementation mentality. Get rid of all the fancy pictures that usually exist on most plans and replace them with actual names.


I have a former client, Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, that has four (4) powerful strategic goals with 21 supporting strategies. Each strategy has an "Owner," a specific person named as the accountable party for the accomplishment of that particular strategy. This is a best practice and creates an implementation mentality throughout the campus. To see more of their approach, please read their plan, which you can find on their web portal.

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