Practical Tips for Writing a Strategy

Introduction

When you are tasked with writing a strategy for your organisation it can be quite daunting. What follows is intended as a practical approach to getting you started. At RSC London we provide advice on writing IT strategies, ILT/e-learning strategies, information systems strategies and teaching and learning strategies but I have tried to write this in such a way that it would be useful to a person writing any strategy paper.

There are different approaches to strategy writing and no ‘right’ way to do it. What follows is a series of tips, advice and suggestions, which we have found helpful over the years. I hope you find it useful.

The purpose of a strategy

A strategy is an expression of an organisation wide agreement about the way forward. The process of consulting over it, discussing it, drafting it and agreeing it helps to develop a shared vision of where you
are going. A strategy, once ratified,  becomes an official document of your institution and therefore places an obligation upon your colleagues to support its objectives. Once you know where you are going and have ‘buy in’ from across the organisation you have every chance of success. If you want to get things done then writing a strategy might be a good way to get started.

Continuous improvement

Ideally, strategy writing should be a collective effort across your college/organisation rather than a specific task assigned to one individual. Inevitably, pressure of time and external requirements often result in a strategy being written up quickly to satisfy a deadline. A better way is to follow a cyclical process of development where you start with reviewing your current position, move on to shaping a vision for the future, draft a strategy to achieve the vision, implement the strategy and finally return to review your position again. This process may take many years but typically will be completed over a three-year timescale.

Identify where you are in the cycle and concentrate on the part of the process you are currently engaged in. One of the most difficult areas is the visioning phase as this involves thinking outside your current organisational culture and contemplating what can become fundamental change. The visioning stage should be informed by best practice in other comparable organisations, recent research and new developments, networking and brainstorming and attendance at conferences and events.

Reviewing where you are can also be a challenge. We work with education providers on this activity by offering self-evaluation tools and activities which help organisations come to an agreed understanding of where they are. This activity also adds an external perspective on your current position. Once you know where you are it is easier to identify the path ahead.

Practical Tips

Meet with as many natural stakeholders as possible. These might be students, employers, staff, managers, parents, customers or volunteers, as well as people from partner agencies. A coherent
strategy will support the organisational business plan and mutually support the other organisational strategies e.g. Teaching and Learning, Staff Development, Premises-Estates and Human Resources Strategies etc. The strategies should reference each other, as they will need to form a cohesive approach to achieving the business plan. For example, a new IT system will need to be supported by staff development and the Teaching and Learning Strategy might require support from Premises and Facilities in order to deliver a new course within the curriculum offer, such as room modifications or new builds.

An Action Plan that identifies what will be done, by whom, by when and from which budget, should accompany the strategy. A good way to create an action plan  is to have SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound) targets or descriptions of what you are going to do. This is so that you and everyone else is clear about what you are aiming to achieve and will know when you have achieved each element. You might need to estimate completion dates and costs as it is not always possible to be sure how long something will take or cost, however, it is better to make an informed estimate than leave the field blank.

It is good if your strategy is reviewed by a body separate from those tasked with delivering it. The group reviewing the strategy can be identified and specified in the strategy. A timescale describing the review dates can also be included. Over time your strategy will be modified as circumstances change. This might be initiated by the reviewing body or the team delivering the strategy or by your students/customers/users. It is good practice for changes to the strategy to be agreed by the senior management team. (SMT).

A good strategy is one that is understood across the organisation – so a Communication Plan should be part of the strategy initiative.  All staff should know about the main elements of the strategy and why you are doing what you are doing. Ideally students (customers) should be able to inform the strategy. In order to do this they need to know about it and how they can influence it. A culture of openness and dialogue is a characteristic of successful organisations and a good strategy will emerge from listening and responding to many needs and points of view.

Lastly, I would suggest you view as many example strategies as possible, although I would not recommend using another organisation’s strategy.  It is often very useful to see different approaches to the task of strategy formulation. This can give you good ideas and help you to see your own strategy from a different perspective.

Mission and Values

These are the principles you are working to which will define your scope. They describe the way you do things as opposed to the way other organisations do things. It is worth thinking about such constraints so that you are clear about your room for manoeuvre. You also want your strategy to be one that is clearly from your institutional culture. This does not mean it will not change the way you do things but that it will support, rather than hinder, the business plan.

The final strategy should be endorsed by SMT and the Governing Body. The strategy should be dated and specify the period of time it covers and when it is to be reviewed.

Think big

I would suggest you think big and aim high in your strategy-writing efforts. Strategy writing is about steering your organisation so that it can thrive in the rapidly changing world of the 21st century and face the future with confidence. Organisations that are not able to change are not likely to survive very long. Having a view of where you are as an organisation, where you want to be and how you are going to get there is the essence of strategy writing. It is all about how to successfully implement change in an organisation. If this seems ‘pie in the sky’ don’t worry. In my experience you actually achieve more than you expect to, so it is worth being ambitious. It is better to achieve 50% of an ambitious strategy that 90% of a very modest one.

Further help and advice

Good luck with your strategy formulation. If you are an SFA or HEFCE funded post 16 learning provider you are entitled to advice from your JISC Regional Support Centre – see here to find your local RSC Office.

For further information and resources on a range of management tasks visit JISC Infonet http://www.jiscinfonet.ac.uk/infokits

The specific resources for strategy formation can be found at http://www.jiscinfonet.ac.uk/infokits/strategy

Forthcoming RSC London Events can be accessed via http://www.rsc-london.ac.uk/events/

A good way to share ideas and good practice among your peers in the post 16 education sector can be via various Jiscmail forums. Contact your local RSC for details of how to join in the debate.
For an overview of Jiscmail visit http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/about/whatisjiscmail.html

Martin Sepion is a Senior Adviser at the JISC Regional Support Centre London which is based at ULCC, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU e-mail m.sepion@rsc-london.ac.uk

Twitter @Martin_Sepion

3 thoughts on “Practical Tips for Writing a Strategy

  1. Hi Martin,
    I think this is a really helpful article. I wish I had read something like this the first time I sat down to write a strategy! I particularly like the advice on writing collectively (avoid being isolated), and revisiting the document (continuous improvement).
    The advice to reference existing related strategies in the organisation is also key. I wonder if this could be extended to the idea that it is sometimes necessary to merge strategies in order to achieve cohesion?
    regards
    Paul

  2. Paul
    I like your point about merging strategies. Many colleges now are incorporating their e-Learning strategy with their teaching and learning strategy. This seems like a very sensible approach to me.
    Martin

  3. One of the things I say to Principals is ‘what would happen if I were to stop a couple of your staff at random in the corridor and ask them to say two/three things about a recent strategy of yours?’
    They always look sheepish because they know their management colleagues might be up to speed on their strategy initiatives but there is almost always a lack of attention placed upon communication of strategy to the whole organisation. However, the whole organisation is needed to deliver a successful strategy.

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