What Does Collaborative Strategic Planning Actually Look Like? An Informal Case Study

illustration of a report with graphs and charts

If the case study below intrigues you, you can learn the 5-phase Collaborative Strategic Planning process that Anoka Ramsey Community College undertook in Pat Sanaghan’s book Strategic Planning: 5 Tough Questions, 5 Proven Answers.
Case Study: Anoka Technical College & Anoka Ramsey Community College
by Andrew Aspaas, Patrick Sanaghan, Donald Lewis, and Kent Hanson

“Collaborative” Strategic Planning (CSP) has a nice ring to it, sounds a little like mom and apple pie, inclusion, and lots of participation. Who wouldn’t want that?

In reality, authentic collaboration is a difficult process for leaders to undertake and do well.

The challenges of conducting a collaborative planning process are many: you can get lost in too much process, where seemingly endless loops of engagement become confusing and exhausting for stakeholders; in an attempt to be inclusive, way too many people are informally involved in the planning effort, with no real ownership for the outcomes; the process can lose focus quickly, or people become overwhelmed by all the data that is gathered, and sense making becomes almost impossible.

In this informal case study we want to show how you can actually conduct a large group collaborative planning meeting with 200+ faculty and ensure the meaningful engagement of all participants.

We were able to manage the challenge of information overload and emerged with a collective “agreement” about the most important strategic themes that would inform our strategic planning process going forward. This particular faculty meeting was part of a 5-phase Collaborative Strategic Planning (CSP) process that the colleges undertook in 2014.

This case study will give you insight into how we carried this out — and what we learned. In this article, we’ll walk you through:

  • Our guiding principles
  • The situation when we started
  • The process we undertook
  • The practical takeaways and lessons learned

1. Guiding Principles

The kind of collaborative planning we are talking about in this paper had several guiding principles that provided discipline and integrity to the planning process. They were:

  1. We were committed to being completely transparent throughout the planning process. If we asked participants for their ideas, insight and perspectives, we had to ensure that their thoughts were captured and shared with other stakeholders, especially difficult information.
  2. We wanted the authentic engagement of all the colleges’ stakeholders. All of the planning activities we used involved different stakeholders (e.g. faculty, students, staff, parents, community members, K-12 educators, and business people) and actively solicited their ideas and perspectives about the future of the colleges. There were no hidden leadership agendas or predetermined outcomes. We did not know what our shared “Vision” for the colleges would be until we heard from over 1,000 stakeholders, and together we shaped the preferred future and goals for the institution.
  3. We wanted to make sure that our communication processes were effective, a planning portal where stakeholders could view any information that was collected during the planning process).
  4. We were committed to real “ownership” for the planning process. Although we generally followed a well-known and tested, Five Phase Collaborative Planning process, we felt that this process connected to our institutional values, leadership philosophy and aspirations. We made sure that this was not consultant driven, but something we created together. We also wanted to make sure that our faculty had real faith in the process and that their ideas would inform and influence the planning process in visible ways. (We know that all stakeholders matter, but if faculty don’t believe in the strategic plan, you don’t have a plan that will get implemented)
  5. We wanted to further build on our sense of community and connection with each other and believed that you could authentically create the relational capital necessary to actually implement a strategic plan, through a collaborative process. We were conscious that trust is a strategic asset that would enable us to have the sensitive conversations essential to making the tough decisions that faced our colleges.

2. Context and Background: The Situation

This case study involved two 2-year colleges that are part of a larger 31 public colleges and university state system.

The colleges function as separately accredited institutions and maintain distinct curriculum and distinct student bodies. Both function as two year institutions; one maintains a mission to train individuals to service the workforce needs through providing skills expertise, the other institution’s has a dual mission; to provide the pedagogical resources needed for students to commence his/her college experience with the intent of transferring and furthering their education at a four year institution; or to earn a 2-year degree and enter the workforce in the related field. The two colleges are comprised of three campuses, with two separated by only six miles; the technical college is situated in the largest manufacturing sector in the state, the community college has a typical suburban campus in a middle class community as well as a second campus 40 miles distant in a rural, agricultural community. All three campuses have unique geographical environments.

The history of executive leadership at each college is also significantly different, and also played a major role influencing the campus culture at each college. One college has gone through a series of short-term presidents, assuming either an interim or a permanent role, as well as an extreme turnover rate with academic officers, deans, and financial officers. Senior leadership and decision making was often disjointed, lacked faculty involvement or considerations, and drove a short-term vision. There was intermittent stable leadership for a number of years. As a result of administration turnover, the faculty the staff were thrust into a working environment that did not exemplify transparency, that did not embrace consistent fiscal practices and one that did not support establishing long-term, trusted and collaborative relationships.

The other college has had very long term stable leadership in its President and Vice President. The administration made use of a centralized decision making style which, although efficient and financially beneficial, sometimes lacked transparency.   This long-term leadership ended when the President and vice president left within a year.

In addition, the two colleges have radically different financial positions. One struggled to consistently maintain positive net income, had limited resources for classroom improvements or the ability to invest in new initiatives. The administration was not always free-sharing and transparent and did not clearly or consistently articulate the financial state of the college with its constituents, and thus faculty were often “in the dark” about the financial picture of the college and any role they might play in improving this condition. Financial solvency became a concern and the need to establish a multi-year financial sustainability plan and to right size the institution was a pressing need. This college is also not in a position to take much educational risk, as its monetary reserves are not robust.

NOTE: Since the time of this case study (January, 2014) the college underwent a collaborative budgeting process that brought together faculty and staff to address the budget situation. Currently, the college is  on a more solid financial footing, has a plan in place supported by all constituent groups to respond to positive or negative financial information, has begun to have available resources for reinvestment, and is positioned for future success.

The other college routinely operates with a budget surplus, remains current on technology and learning environments and enjoys opportunities for faculty development, new initiatives and program research.

One college has an issue with little money to spend, the other with how to spend strategically to increase student success.

In 2009 a decision was made by the System Office to align the two institutions. The pragmatic details of this alignment were to be determined at the local college levels. There was not a clear “alignment” agenda articulated with this decision. This lack of clarity contributed to the uncertainty and apprehensions associated with moving towards an aligned, shared partnership arrangement with the two colleges – no one knew what it meant, or its ramification on teaching, learning or financial resiliency. Since the time the alignment was announced, there has been much apprehension within the colleges. Issues of trust, financial bailouts, stewardship of resources, annexation, curricula merger, forcing one agenda over another, corrupting unique identities, and unsubstantiated speculation of shutting down departments permeated conversations.

Conventional wisdom understood alignment as a precursor leading to merging and becoming one institution. Neither college’s constituency supported this direction, and thus resisted efforts to move forward in any “aligned” direction. Thus for the following three years there was little success in creating a high functioning collaborative partnership of two aligned colleges.

In 2014 a permanent President (Kent Hanson) was named to oversee both colleges; and at this same time a permanent Vice President of Administration and Finance (Don Lewis) was also engaged with responsibilities for the two colleges. Although several smaller positions were shared across both colleges, this was the first formalized permanent executive appointments between the now aligned colleges. With these appointments, a leadership and decision making transition occurred — one that stressed collaboration, transparency, and empowering the grassroots committees to lead change. The President also articulated a clearer alignment philosophy. He strived to instill his position that at this time, a merger was not in the best interest of either college. Rather, alignment was to be understood as finding efficiencies, leveraging resources, and strengthening the mission of each institution.

3. The Process

In an effort to leverage resources the decision was made that both colleges were to undertake a single combined “collaborative” strategic planning process that would lead to a shared vision and integrated plan: (3 campuses – representing 2 unique colleges). The strategic planning process was thrust into a climate permeated with apprehension, and anxiety. A core starting point in the planning process was to create a representative Planning Task Force, (PTF) and to work with this task force to establish lines of communication and professional relationships that emulated collaboration, honesty, and integrity.

The planning task force (PTF) that was created to champion and shepherd the process involved 50+ stakeholders from across the 3 campuses.( 60% of the PTF, were faculty,). This PTF was co-chaired by 4 leaders, two faculty, the CFO and the head of research.

NOTE: Having 60% of the PTF members be faculty is a distinctive element of the Five-Phase Collaborative Planning process. We have found that you need real faculty “buy in” if you are going to actually implement your strategic plan. Having the faculty be the majority stakeholder group on the PTF ensures that they will have real influence in shaping the future of the institutions.

The PTF spent two days learning about collaborative strategic planning practices and were educated about the 5 phase planning process which has been used successfully on over 50 campuses (e.g. DePaul University, Saint Joseph’s University, The University of California, Santa Cruz, The College of New Rochelle, Eastern Illinois University, Central Community College & the University of the West Indies)

Organizing a Faculty Planning Day
As a key part of the collaborative planning process, we wanted faculty at both colleges to have an opportunity to spend an entire day working together to provide meaningful input into the plan, help us prioritize important themes and make sense of the insights that would emerge. We used the Friday before the start of the Spring semester 2014, which is traditionally used as a professional development day of workshops and seminars. This provided a convenient time where a lot of faculty were available and a great opportunity to engage our large faculty.

To create meaningful conversations and solicit ideas and feedback from 200+ faculty is a real, if not daunting challenge. We knew that the event had to be well organized, the activity designs had to be powerful and efficient, and the faculty had to be reassured that the process was of vital importance and therefore worth their time and effort.

The Schedule: The Nuts and Bolts of the Day
The following schedule was created to create a day of hard, guided work by the college faculty to produce clear strategic themes that could move forward in the planning process. A large gym was made available for the entire group of 200+ faculty, but would only be used for an introduction at the beginning, and a brief but powerful summary at the end of the day. Ten breakout classrooms were prepared for the majority of the day’s activities, and lunch would be served to participants in the rooms while the planning task force members met to combine data for the afternoon activities.

7:30 – 8:30Breakfast and registration (outside performance gym)
8:30-9:30Welcome and overview of strategic planning process (faculty PTF co-chairs)State of the College (brief presentation by the colleges’ president)

Recognition of PTF Members and Introduction of Pat Sanaghan (the planning consultant)

Instructions for the day (Pat Sanaghan)

9:30-9:45Break and transition to assigned breakout rooms
9:45-11:30Conduct the SWOT analysis and the Future Timeline activity in breakout rooms
11:30-12:30Lunch in breakout rooms for faculty
Lunch in cafeteria for PTF members
12:30-1:15Integrating data from the morning’s activities (in breakout rooms)
1:15-1:30Transition to gym for large group summary meeting
1:30-2:30Summary presentations by each breakout group (gym)

Operational Setup
The day before the event, a meeting was called with the planning task force members that would serve as facilitators for the event. The co-chairs went through the schedule, and reminded the PTF members about how to facilitate the room’s activities (themselves during the training a few weeks earlier, so it was just a refresher). A detailed handout was supplied that listed the schedule, assigned PTF member facilitators to the breakout rooms (2-3) facilitators per room), described the setup of the rooms, and the tasks that would be performed in the breakout rooms in the morning, the sense making activity during lunch, and the integration activity back in the breakout rooms in the afternoon. Facilitators then went to set up their rooms and prepare for the activities the next day.

NOTE: This kind of careful operational planning obviously takes some real time, but was essential to the success of the planning day. With such a large group of faculty, we wanted to make sure we were very well organized, so that faculty would feel confident that their time would be well used and that it would be a productive day. This is not a small detail, because poor logistics can really hurt you. If things appear disorganized or that no one is in charge of the proceedings, nice people can get aggravated rather quickly.

Schedule and Logistics
The day started with a continental breakfast served outside the gym, with faculty participants checking in by name at registration tables. They were given a nametag that indicated which breakout room they would participate in, and the registration attendant provided participants with a map so they could easily find their way to the room after the introduction.

The large group of 200+ faculty was convened in the gym with a welcome by the two PTF faculty co-chairs. The co-chairs thanked the faculty for their participation, and reminded them of the important role that faculty play in the planning process. The co-chairs briefly described the process to date, and indicated that the faculty at this planning day will be the largest single part of the data-collecting phase. They also reiterated that faculty members make up a majority (60%) of the planning task force, and that everything we did that day, would be completely transparent, and shared with every participant

They communicated that faculty that day, would have a role in not only providing broad input, but would also extract meaning from the voluminous data they created and help prioritize the strategic themes that emerged. Moving forward, the members of the PTF would make use of the insights from the faculty-planning day as well as all the other data gathered from dozens of other stakeholder groups to create a handful of powerful strategic themes and ultimately a strategic plan.

The president spoke very briefly, thanking participants for their time & efforts. Pat Sanaghan talked about the importance of meaningful faculty engagement, and encouraged their honest and open participation in the process, and then explained what the planning day would look like. From there, the faculty participants were dismissed to their assigned breakout rooms. The PTF members who were already in the breakout rooms welcomed the participants and introduced the activities they would be performing.

First, about 30 minutes was dedicated to a SWOT’s (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats) analysis. We used the Carousel Meeting design, which is a transparent, participative and efficient planning design. Participants were numbered off from 1 through 4, and were assigned a flipchart labeled Strengths#1, Weaknesses #2, Opportunities #3, and Threats #4.

Participants were each given a marker and asked to individually write their ideas on these important planning themes on the appropriate flipchart, and place a check next to any ideas others wrote, that they agreed with. After a few minutes at their station, the participants are guided to rotate to the next station and theme, once again writing down their responses and checking off the ones they agree with. This rotation process is repeated until every participant has a chance to answer all four planning themes.

Then they go back to their original station and as a group they generally agree on the top 5 -6 ideas for their strategic theme (e.g. rapidly changing student demographics, aging faculty, regional competition, returning vets). Then each group writes down their top 5 ideas on a new flipchart sheet and presents it to the rest of the participants.

The Future Timeline
Next, about 45 minutes was dedicated to a Future Timeline design. Each participant was given 10 Post Its, and were directed to write the events, trends, or issues that could potentially impact the future of the Community Colleges over the next 5 to 10 years.. Then they place their post-its on the Timeline on the wall, which was covered with large flipcharts, one flipchart sheet for each year (e.g. 2016, 2017, 2018) in the year they thought the events, trends and issues would become important.

We then put the participants into small groups of 4, to encourage participation, and as a group, they reviewed the information on the Timeline and generally agreed on the top three events, trends or issues that they believed the colleges needed to manage well and strategically, if they were going to thrive in the future. After they had agreed on the top 3 events, trends or issues, the PTF facilitators took their information and captured their ideas on a flipchart in full view of everyone.

NOTE: Both these planning designs are completely transparent and engage everyone’s thinking. No individual or small group can dominate or overly influence the outcomes of these meeting designs.

Sense Making
Lunch was served to faculty participants in their breakout rooms while PTF members retreated to the central cafeteria with their combined data (opportunities, and threats, and one sheet of Future Timeline issues). PTF members placed their sheets in each of five stations positioned around the cafeteria for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats, and future timeline, and were then assigned to go to one of the five stations to eat their lunch and consolidate their data.

Working together in one of the five groups, the PTF members identified the top ten themes for each area (The 4 SWOTs themes and the Future Timeline information). These top 10 themes were then typed into documents on laptops supplied to the groups, and were combined into one summary document, that was printed and sent back to the breakout rooms for further analysis and sense making. An electronic copy was also placed online to be projected in each of the rooms.

NOTE: The power of this section of the day was the fact that each breakout group, got to see what all the other break out groups thought were the SWOT’s analysis for the colleges and the priority events, trends and issues. It was a combination of high touch and high tech that integrated and prioritized all the information from 200+ participants and managed the “information overload” that often happens in large group meetings. Many faculty reported that they found this integration process especially interesting and were impressed with the transparency of the process, because no editing of “difficult” information (e.g. Weaknesses) took place.

Back in the rooms, the PTF member facilitators distributed the combined documents that contained the data integrated from the morning’s activities in all of the breakout rooms. The participants were asked to self-assemble into four groups (of no more than 5-7 people per group) and within the groups, address each of the following focus questions for about 30 minutes:

  1. What are the 5 most important strategic themes we need to pay attention to as we plan for the future of the campuses?
  2. What are 3 strong recommendations you can make to the planning task force about the future of the campuses?
  3. In the data, what excites you? What makes you nervous? Are there any surprises or discoveries?

Each of the then groups summarized their answers on flipchart pages, and presented their findings to the other participants in the room. Once again, complete transparency with the information shared and we found a great deal of common ground ideas throughout.

The information was then prioritized by using sticky dots (each participant was given three dots to place by whatever pieces of information and or recommendations they felt were the most important for the future of the Colleges.). The PTF facilitators then identified the top 5-6 ideas from the room by using number of sticky dots to identify the priority ideas and rewrote those ideas on a new flipchart page. This page from each breakout room was brought back to the gym to present to the large group.

Index cards were handed out to participants as they entered the gym for the summary activity to provide feedback on the event to the planners. Once the entire group of 200+ faculty participants was settled in the gym, they were again thanked for their hard work, and a PTF representative from each room brought their summary page to the front, where the external consultant facilitated a round robin presentation of the ideas from each of the ten breakout rooms. The overlap of ideas was striking, and it didn’t take more than two rounds for the presenters to get all of the most important ideas across.

NOTE: There is a prevalent myth that using large groups (100+ participants) will create information overload and waste people’s time. Over the past 20 years we have learned how to create organized, efficient, engaging and productive meeting protocols that enhance collaborative work on our campuses. Do not be afraid of large groups.

Several key themes such as high quality teaching as an institutional value, student success, reputation and identity, and fiscal matters emerged across many of the groups. These themes later informed the writing of the colleges’ strategic plan.

Here are some examples of specific issues raised by the participants:

  • Create a paradigm shift in our marketing/external communication from “affordability” (i.e. Cheap) to high quality programs, and proactively communicate the great things our faculty and students are doing.
  • More effectively gather, and share data from across the 3 campuses so that we can make the best decisions possible for the future of the Colleges. No silo thinking
  • Develop a comprehensive and innovative program for “underprepared” students to ensure their success and improve our retention rates
  • Look into investing in new, creative and market driven programs rather than focusing solely on cost cutting.
  • Build upon our current partnerships with the larger community and create even more strategic partners to provide resources and opportunities for our students

Assessing the Day
Index cards were handed out to every faculty member to provide anonymous feedback about the planning meeting they just experienced. We communicated this evaluation process at the beginning of the day to build in a sense of accountability for the planning process.

Anonymously evaluating the meeting took some courage, but we wanted to understand what the faculty reactions and responses were to the meeting. We were committed to share this information with all the attendees, whatever the results were.

In all, the anonymous feedback collected from the index cards was excellent. Over 85% of the participants rated the large meeting positively and many said it was the most meaningful faculty development day they had been part of. Others commended the honest and transparent nature of the activities and the inclusive way we collected the information from everyone. Many faculty wisely noted that following though with the specific recommendations would be more challenging than synthesizing grand ideas. The evaluations were posted online for everyone to read them.

4. The Practical Takeaways and Lessons Learned

With planning and executing this novel activity under challenging conditions, we were pleasantly surprised at how well it went. However, as expected with a task of this complexity, there were some things, in hindsight, that we would do differently. We also learned a few things about collaboration. For example:

  • The “design” of the day was collaboratively created with the 4 co-chairs and the external consultant. This was not a consultant driven process or some meeting design taken off a shelf and plopped in to see if it fit. It took several long conversations to come up with the right design for the large faculty meeting. We were confident that we created a collaborative design that was going to fit our campus culture and be well organized and received by our colleagues.
  • Breaking the large group of 200+ faculty into smaller groups of 20-25, made the breakout meetings quite manageable.. It encouraged discussion and participation in the breakout rooms. Each group produced a real product in service of the planning process and that was then shared with everyone else.
  • Using internal stakeholders to organize and facilitate campus meetings is almost always the way to go. People see their colleagues working together in service of the planning process. These are people they know and trust and not some “strangers” from far away. It helps build the credibility of the planning process and creates a sense of real ownership for the outcomes of the meeting.
  • Some faculty felt an agenda ahead of time would have allowed more thoughtful responses to complex issues. While the spontaneous nature of the activities does prompt honest and diverse input, we realize that the more deliberative participants would have benefited from a group of questions to consider several days ahead of time.
  • The logistics of delivering lunches to the ten breakout rooms proved more than the school’s on-campus catering outfit could handle in a timely and efficient manner. We would recommend confirming the exact details and scope of the event well ahead of time with the caterer to ensure the meals are served on time. There could also be benefits to having a centralized lunch for all participants if space allows, to allow for participants to have a break from their room in the middle of the day.
  • Some participants noted that the afternoon activities felt rushed and didn’t allow sufficient time for deliberation on complex, weighty issues. We would recommend adding 30 minutes to the afternoon data integration activities in the breakout rooms, to allow for more discussion and debate.
  • Having the PTF trained in collaborative planning designs that worked, before such a high stakes meeting, gave them the confidence to facilitate the groups in the breakout sessions. The “rehearsal” the day before the large group meeting and the preparation of the break out rooms was important. Logistics are an integral part of a meeting like this.
  • We believed that “You never walk alone”. Each PTF member worked with other partners from the PTF. We wanted to make sure that everyone felt supported when facilitating the break out sessions. It’s important to have a “thought’ partner close at hand when facilitating a large group meeting. If things get a little shaky or confusing, another pair of hands comes in handy.
  • The president’s leadership stance was essential to the success of the day. He had faith that the members of the PTF would do their jobs well, but most importantly, he wanted the authentic input of his faculty, whatever the results were. There was risk attached to involving these many people, but he was willing to take it.
  • Humor was evident, and encouraged, throughout the day. Promoting an atmosphere of light-heartedness, and not being afraid to laugh at ourselves promoted a new sense of trust and collegiality across groups that did not know one another.
  • Although the break-out session facilitators were well equipped to lead the task, clarification questions (distractions, the four co-chairs as well as several technology help-desk personnel, circulated throughout the break- out rooms, being available to assist in an non-obtrusive manner.


Anoka Ramsey Community College and Anoka Technical College participated in an inclusive and collaborative strategic planning process during the 2014 academic year. They met with and listened to over 1,000 internal and external stakeholders, which helped create a well informed and shared vision for their future. They are currently in the implementation phase of the planning process, and although there are some challenges, they are making good progress toward their stated goals. Each strategic goal has a diverse committee that meets regularly to move things forward. These implementation committees are co-chaired by one faculty member and one cabinet member to ensure that the collaborative spirit that was created with the planning process lives on in a meaningful way.

NOTE: Before we started our implementation efforts, we used the S.P.I.E.S assessment tool (Strategic Planning Implementation and Execution Survey) which is a validated instrument that assesses your current capacity to actually implement your strategic plan. We surveyed several large groups (i.e. the President’s Cabinet, the PTF members and a group of selected faculty& staff leaders who were responsible for the execution of the strategic plan. We found that, for the most part, we all saw our implementation capacity quite similar. It was helpful to understand our implementation strengths and weaknesses before we started to implement our plan.

The Authors
Andrew Aspaas is a Science faculty member at the Anoka Ramsey Cambridge campus.
Pat Sanaghan was the planning consultant for the collaborative strategic planning process.
Donald Lewis is the Vice President of Finance and Administration and Chief Financial Officer for both colleges.
Kent Hanson is the president of the colleges.