Six Elements of a Strategy that is Less Future, More Action

In “Bring Strategy Back from the Dead,” Walter Kiechel makes the case that in a time of continuous and accelerating change, strategy is vitally important to success and survival of an organization. Although his perspective is a corporate one, within education the need for a revitalized approach toward strategy rings equally true.

The political and social debate around the value, quality, and cost of education coupled with the pressure brought about by technological and consumer forces are creating obstructions and disrupting traditional notions of eduction. Instead of charting a path forward through the roadblocks, some institutions are finding themselves stuck behind them, unable to chart a way through the upheaval and disruption. Most likely, the organizations are locked into a disconnected multi-year “predict-plan-and-try-to-control” approach toward strategy or worse, have fallen into a reactionary state defined by external forces pressing on the organization to the point of it being always on its heels with little ability to advance, let alone contribute toward a holistic sense of progress.

An institution that moves forward without a sense of where it is going will be usurped by competitors or worse, marginalized by consumer and employer-driven disruptive forces well beyond its control. In education, there are simply too many choices and too many options available to learners today and as such, the once narrow path that led them through an investment route though established institutions toward professional success is now a complex network of routes marking myriad learning opportunities and bypasses around conventional education models in favor of those that bring measurable and immediate value and gain.

Kiechel wrote that “exercises in futurology aren’t the same as having a strategy” and yet as I’ve seen on both sides as a technology leader and consultant/strategist in education, the conflation of the two still seems to be the norm among organizations where over-thinking results in strategies so abstract that they are unworkable from the start. In my experience, educational institutions and the technology organizations within them get stuck looking too far ahead and lose focus on what a quality strategy for today should provide — a clear vision that serves to

  • define and differentiate the institution’s academic and educational experience, and
  • outline a path that focuses effort toward progressive and measurable progress.

Kiechel’s view of strategy doesn’t come from the conflation of futurism and planning toward utopian transformation, but rather focuses on realistic, progressive and adaptive change. To quote and paraphrase Kiechel, a strategy should:

  1. Begin with “a sense of where you are.”
  2. Reflect an in-depth understanding of your costs, and how they compare to competitors.
  3. Target the right customers.
  4. Build in an almost paranoid wariness about your competitors.
  5. Sync up across costs, customers, and competitors.
  6. Be made clear to everyone in the organization.

Arguably, the “business of learning” — most certainly within the non-profit education arena — is unlike a commercial entity. The mission is different for a non-profit school, district, college, or university, there are many more semi-autonomous players involved in the process beyond the learner-consumer, collaboration tends to be more prevalent than direct competition, and the product has a long-tail quality that can be difficult to assess. So to adapt Kiechel’s model to education, let me suggest that an effective strategy should similarly:

  1. Begin with an understanding of the present environment and mission.
  2. Reflect a realistic assessment of current capabilities and resources.
  3. Target appropriate groups including and beyond learners and educators.
  4. Incorporate a balanced perspective regarding peers and the community.
  5. Harmonize capabilities and resources with vision and need.
  6. Be clear, inclusive and transparent.

The six elements I outline above represent the core of what an actionable strategy for the delivery and support of education should be

  • holistic and responsive to the needs of today, and
  • will inform and shape the path for tomorrow.

Futurism has its place in establishing vision, but a quality strategy provides pathways to achieve the vision without getting mired in long-term, over-thought abstract goals and unachievable objectives. The hallmark of an effective strategy should be its relevancy over time by providing a clear and inclusive scaffold that supports leadership and guides decision making. In turn, the strategy should enable  leaders to formulate tactical plans that are aligned across stakeholders, and realize project that impact the goals, and reinforce the mission and values of the institution.