Foundations for Excellence

Planning That Is Precise and Fluid

Topic 2 Planning IconPlanning is an essential way that programs move forward in a changing and uncertain environment. Thus, it is critical to understand the fundamentals of planning and how to create effective, meaningful plans that enable you to achieve your goals. In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article entitled, "Strategic Plans Are Less Important than Strategic Planning," Graham Kenney describes how travel plans and blueprints are plans with "a specific beginning and end with precise steps along the way."2 Effective strategic plans are manageable but fluid, precise, and adaptable. Although such plans provide a clear, pre-determined step-by-step guide to follow, they should not be seen as carved in stone. Kenney shares four principles for strategic planning.

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Effective strategic plans are manageable but fluid, precise and adaptable.

  1. Think of the plan as a guidance tool.
  2. Realize that the very process of preparing the plan has you thinking about the future and assembling resources.
  3. Focus on the organization and key stakeholders, not individual actions.
  4. Assume the plan is a work in progress. A strategic plan is not a set-and-forget instrument. It's a living and breathing document that guides decision-making and helps marshal resources.

Head Start programs that operate within a community action agency, school district, municipality, or other umbrella agency are likely to engage in an organization-wide strategic planning process. Through organization-wide strategic planning, the entire organization and all of its programs have a voice in deciding what issues to prioritize over the upcoming years (strategic direction) and how it will get there (strategic goals). In this situation, the Head Start program goals should align with the organization-wide goals.

The organization-wide strategic planning process often follows an analysis of internal and external environmental factors. One common methodology looks at Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats—and is called a SWOT analysis. A program conducts a SWOT analysis in order to look ahead to obtain an objective review of: where it can improve; what are the strengths and threats; and what are promising opportunities. Results from a SWOT analysis inform strategic plan development and typically look ahead over a three- to five-year period. They link long-term strategic directions and strategic goals to the organization's vision, mission, goals, and objectives. While the planning team often writes a strategic plan for the organization as a whole, that plan should encompass and influence Head Start operations.

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In strategic planning, you study the forest not the trees.

Regardless of whether you are part of a planning process that is organization-wide or specific to your Head Start program, it is important for your program to engage in a strategic planning process. It is the road to successful implementation of the five-year plan. It is critical for both single-purpose and umbrella agencies to engage in long-term strategic planning. In strategic planning, you focus on the forest not the trees. This is a key part of moving into the future regardless of your program's size or structure.

Elements of an Effective Planning Process

Strategic planning is not a linear process.

  • Consider the program’s core values.
  • Identify internal and external environmental factors. Annual self-assessments identify internal successes and issues. Community assessments provide an understanding of external strengths and challenges.
  • Know your value proposition—what you are promising to those being served. Value proposition comes through in the five-year plan and the outcomes a program expects to achieve.
  • Formulate program goals and measurable objectives into an action plan.
  • Implement a strategic performance management system that measures and monitors progress. A responsive ongoing monitoring and continuous improvement system is instrumental in the planning process.

Common Features of Head Start Plans

Question Mark IconHow did your analysis of internal and external environmental factors impact your strategic plan?

A Head Start program will likely develop a variety of plans over time. Among these are plans that link to the strategic planning process and plans that guide operations. While each plan has a different focus, all effective Head Start plans share three important features.

  1. They describe how the local program intends to implement the requirements in the Head Start Act and the HSPPS to respond to its community's unique needs and resources.
  2. They are developed with input from and approval by the governing body/Tribal Council and Policy Council.
  3. They are shaped and informed through feedback from community partners, parents, and other groups such as the Health Services Advisory Committee.

2. Kenny, G. (2016, June 21). Strategic Plans Are Less Important Than Strategic Planning. Harvard Business Review.

Topic:Program Planning

Resource Type: Article

National Centers: Program Management and Fiscal Operations

Last Updated: January 17, 2019