Winter 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA2

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Successful Strategic Planning


Robert J. Fetsch
Extension Specialist
Human Development and Family Studies
Colorado State University-Fort Collins

Kenneth R. Bolen
Director, Cooperative Extension
Colorado State University-Fort Collins

Directing Extension in these times of rapid change can be both a challenging experience and a golden opportunity. In this article, we'll describe some of the changes that prompted Colorado to develop a statewide strategic plan. Based on our experience, we'll suggest essential ingredients for successful strategic planning in Extension. Finally, we'll describe the impacts of our strategic planning.


In 1986, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension (CSUCE) had a change of leadership. At the same time, a number of changes emerged at both the national and regional levels with impacts for Extension.

At the regional level, the Colorado General Assembly was coping with a significant economic downturn in all four major sectors of the Colorado economy: tourism, agriculture, manufacturing, and energy. Colorado Cooperative Extension was shocked in early 1986 when it learned that the state legislature was considering an 18% reduction in appropriations for CSUCE. A few months later, clientele and staff were shocked and disappointed when an actual seven percent reduction in state appropriation led to the termination of 37 positions.

Nationally, the president's executive budget proposed a 60% reduction for Extension. The Cooperative Extension System responded to organizational and program challenges by initiating two major national activities. The Extension Service-USDA and the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) began the National Initiatives process in 1986. The Futures Task Force submitted their report to ECOP in November 1987.1

Strategic Planning

The central theme of the director's message at Colorado's annual conference in late September 1986 was: "With these threats at hand, we can no longer afford to conduct business as usual. We must focus our limited resources on critical issues affecting clientele." The framework we used emphasized that strategic planning isn't crisis management - nor magic answers or quick fixes. Strategic planning is: "The art and practice of establishing the direction of an organization based on the realities of both the external and internal environments."2

All 225 Colorado Extension professionals in 44 units were asked to develop strategic plans and were provided a brief outline for environmental scanning, revising the current mission statement, creating a clear vision statement about where we want to be in the near future, and identifying the specific priority issues and educational programs to move us from our mission to our vision. Through the process of strategic planning, we examined our strengths and weaknesses, revised our mission statement, developed a vision statement, and began focusing our energies on high priority issues.

During the following year's annual conference, we unveiled the proposed "Blueprint" for future direction and requested feedback to improve it. We learned that processing is vitally important. Written feedback from staff, clientele, advisory committees, county commissioners, and legislators helped shape subsequent drafts. Representatives of Extension agents and specialists were invited to a working session with administrative staff to review and improve the "Blueprint." Through the facilitation of the needs, values, and beliefs of this working group, consensus was achieved about our direction.

The outcome of this process was the March 1988 Plan for Future Direction for Colorado State University Cooperative Extension.3 It includes mission and vision statements along with 16 steps CSUCE is taking to move from the current mission to the future vision.

Essential Ingredients for Success in Extension

How you develop a strategic plan for your organization will vary depending on its size and the values and goals of its key stakeholders. From our experience, some of the essential ingredients for success with strategic planning in Cooperative Extension include the following:

Be aware that the Cooperative Extension strategic planning process is quite different from corporate strategic planning. Cooperative Extension professionals expect to have input in the development of the strategic plan. Corporate planners may be able to get employees to buy into a plan developed by the central staff and the board of directors, but Cooperative Extension needs to have more processing of the new plan - or it may be doomed.

Get support. Obviously, it's essential that the director and the entire administrative staff appreciate the need for and are committed to supporting the process of developing a strategic plan.

Identify a facilitator. Another essential ingredient is the identification of a person to facilitate the strategic planning process. To be effective and efficient, this person must bring people and process skills to the planning process. In addition, this person needs to be a good listener, conflict negotiator, achiever of group consensus, and have the ability to synthesize a voluminous amount of information. This person's time must be freed up from other responsibilities during the development of the strategic plan. The director will need to provide open-door accessibility to the facilitator to deal with issues as they emerge.

Involve the units. At annual conference and elsewhere, identify appropriate planning units and contact people. Provide practical resources to everyone to facilitate getting involved in the process of strategic planning.4 Encourage them to involve staff, clientele, representative advisory committees, county commissioners, legislators, and other key stakeholders.

Broaden the ownership of the process. The facilitator should hold regular briefings with the administrative staff to discuss emerging problems, update progress, reward accomplishments, and encourage slower units.

Negotiate the wording of the strategic plan. Throughout the process, a careful balance should be maintained between task accomplishment and group process. Through group processing, the values and beliefs of the organization should be discussed.

Write the plan in pencil. "Remember, write it in pencil," says John Reeves, director, Strategic Planning Project at Utah Technical College. Strategic planning is an ongoing process that keeps an organization aware of environmental threats and opportunities and responsive to critical issues of targeted clientele.

Recognize Staff May Resist Change

We found it helpful to allow time for self-assessment. When a system changes, stress and anxiety levels rise from the losses and threats that people perceive. To help people in the process of change, the system does well to take the time to listen to the feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and beliefs of Extension staff and key stakeholders. We found that hiring an external consultant helped staff process their concerns.

Benefits of Strategic Planning

Colorado State University Cooperative Extension has focused resources on high priority initiatives and programs. By writing a concise, shared vision statement that makes sense to us, we have a target we're attracted to, a vision statement we can remember, and a road map for the future that follows the national Cooperative Extension System trend of focusing on critical issues.

What's the bottom line? The identification of our unique niche and the establishment of a statewide strategic plan, we believe, helped increase state legislative support. Our 1988-89 state budget was the best one CSUCE has received in six years - the budget base was increased 10% and professional staff salaries were increased seven percent on average.

The real value of strategic planning is in its results, outcomes, and changes. In less than a year, we've already made a number of changes. Some nonresearch based programs have been dropped, such as leisure or hobby-oriented programs. Volunteer effort with county fair management has been increased to focus agent time on priority educational programs. Funding support has been increased for agents' and specialists' inservice training and professional improvement. Funds have been provided by competitive grant proposals supporting interdisciplinary priority programs and applied research studies involving agents and specialists. A new research-Extension unit has been established in southeast Colorado to increase the coordination of Extension and research programs. A statewide microcomputer network has been established. Finally, we've received a million dollar W. K. Kellogg Foundation grant to support the Colorado Rural Revitalization Program.

There are significant benefits to strategic planning.


1. Extension Committee on Organization and Policy, Extension in Transition: Bridging the Gap Between Vision and Reality (Blacksburg: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1987) and M. D. Johnsrud and R. S. Rauschkolb, Cooperative Extension System National Initiatives: Focus on Issues (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Agriculture Extension Service, 1988).

2. J. Reeves, R. Daly, and R. J. Fetsch, Five Keys to an Effective Strategic Planning Process: What To Do When You're Ankle Deep in Grasshoppers and the Well Is Going Dry (Unpublished manuscript, 1986). [Available from R. J. Fetsch, Human Development and Family Studies, 119C Gifford Bldg., Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523].

3. Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Plan for Future Direction (Fort Collins: Colorado State University, 1988).

4. J. D. Deshler, Working with Our Publics - Module 7: Techniques for Futures Perspectives (Raleigh: North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service, 1988); R. J. Fetsch, Question Pool (Unpublished manuscript, 1988). [Available from R. J. Fetsch, Human Development and Family Studies, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523]; and J. Reeves and R. Daly, Strategic Planning for Extension [Videotape] (Washington, D.C.: Home Economics and Human Nutrition Extension Service, 1986).