All aboard for effective strategic planning

All aboard for effective strategic planning


Robert Burns had the right idea with his famous poem, To a mouse back in 1785: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley”. Inspired by his experience of upturning a mouse’s nest as he ploughed one of his fields, Burns’ words tell us that even the most carefully prepared projects may not always turn out the way we had imagined. Equally true of strategic planning in internationalisation: sometimes the best laid plans, for whatever reason, do not turn out exactly as planned.


While we may not be able to predict the future with precision, we can take action to equip ourselves in the best possible way to be ready for whatever unexpected event might happen to us. One way of doing that in strategic planning is to build broad ownership through active involvement of as many people as possible right from the start of the process.

8 step strategic planning process

In Jane Knight’s internationalisation circle, the process goes through eight stages before starting over again in a continuous loop:

1) Analysis
2) Awareness
3) Commitment
4) Planning
5) Operationalisation
6) Implementation
7) Review
8) Reinforcement

In my experience, there is often a tendency to rush towards the production of a document, which is in stage 4 of the circle in order to obtain a concrete and visible outcome. And to ensure this happens rapidly, the decision is often taken at senior management level to set up a small task force (sometimes of only one person!) to draft the plan.

While this may indeed save time at the beginning, overlooking the first three stages, or granting them only cursory attention, will inevitably mean that the plan will come up against difficulties in the key stage of implementation, so critically dependent on active engagement of many staff. Plans that are developed in isolation, even by the most powerful institutional heads, are often undermined by those who are assigned the task of implementation. If there is lack of ownership among the academic community, people are unlikely to commit wholeheartedly to the delivery of actions with which they disagree. There is the risk that they may not even commit at all if they have not been consulted in the creation of the plan. The problem might not even be one of commitment but rather of lack of awareness. I have come across institutions where plans developed in isolation have passed completely unnoticed by academics and administrators working at the ‘coalface of delivery’ in the classroom or support services.

Ensuring institution-wide commitment

So while it may at first appear to be time consuming, it is essential to develop an approach that seeks to ensure that all views – no matter how divergent, unaligned or contradictory they may indeed be – are taken into consideration during the first three stages of the circle. Due attention should be given first to a careful analysis of both the internal and external context, gathering input from a broad range of stakeholders. Then awareness should be raised across the community of why the new ideas are important and what the institutional benefits will be in order to ensure commitment from as many people as possible. Only then, with the knowledge gathered from these stages, should the institution proceed to stage 4 when the plan will be drawn up, identifying objectives, actions and resources for internationalisation, again drawing on input from a broad range of sources.

Strategic planning is about providing a clear basis for consideration, decision and action and that process starts with building active commitment. Creating dynamic discussion spaces with diverse stakeholders can help people to develop shared understandings but also to start thinking differently about what are often familiar questions. It can help them to become more inspired and innovative, ready to explore new territory or perhaps become re-motivated around an issue that has become fraught with difficulties.

It is also a way to build a sense of belonging to a group that has a special purpose. Its members will be more likely to ‘pull together’, look for solutions, provide constructive suggestions and moral support when the plan moves into the implementation phase and inevitably runs up against unexpected events and developments. Willingness to work through such challenges together will provide a stronger basis for successful implementation in the longer term and ensure that the outcomes lead to more of the ‘promised joy’ rather than to the grief and pain experienced by the mouse in Robert Burns’ poem.