The Power of Strategic Thinking

By Carol Christ    //    Volume 20,  Number 2   //    March/April 2012
The Power of Strategic Thinking, March/April 2012

A Dartmouth University professor puts the tasks that all organizations must perform into three boxes: (1) a box containing those things an institution does to make its core business as excellent as possible, (2) a box of “selective forgetting” for eliminating activities no longer productive or useful, and (3) a box of innovation for selective experimentation with projects that anticipate the future. Most organizations know how to succeed at the first task, says Vijay Govindarajan, who teaches at the university’s Tuck School of Business and writes on business strategy, but they do not spend sufficient time and intellectual focus on the second and the third. Although Govindarajan makes this argument about businesses, it readily applies to colleges and universities—and the boards that govern them.

Indeed, one could argue that the institutional conservatism of colleges and universities and the different ways in which market incentives work in higher education motivate institutions to devote most of their resources and energy to the first box—doing even better what we already do. Certainly that is the goal of our strategic plan at Smith College, like the plans of many colleges and universities. Furthermore, the alumni support so vital to reputation and fundraising often depends on a certain cultivated nostalgia, the opposite of “selective forgetting.” Projects that represent a radical change in an institution’s business model, even when undertaken as pilot endeavors, are relatively rare at colleges and universities.

Govindarajan’s image of the boxes has provided a useful way to conceptualize a new initiative that Smith has embarked on, what we call the Futures Initiative. Through that initiative, we have been able to focus our thought and discussion on the second and third boxes. Over the next two decades, we asked ourselves, what assumptions might Smith need to “forget,” and what new directions might it pursue?

The lessons we learned about strategic thinking through the process can be helpful to board members at other independent institutions, as well as those at public colleges and universities.

The Genesis of the Futures Project

At Smith, as at many institutions, trustees and faculty members experienced the financial crisis of 2008 in very different ways. On the one hand, the crisis motivated a number of board members to question whether Smith’s business model was sufficiently robust for the college to retain its leadership position in the liberal arts sector over the long term. Primarily a baccalaureate institution, Smith offers residential, face-to-face liberal arts education to about 2,600 women, most of whom spend four continuous years at the college. Although more socioeconomically diverse than most of our peers (22 percent of our students receive Pell grants), and despite a generous endowment, Smith is financially dependent upon recruiting a significant proportion of students whose families are able and willing to pay the full annual comprehensive fee of approximately $55,000. With increasing urgency, board members were asking questions about the future of residential liberal arts colleges in a world in which students are more mobile, earn credits from multiple institutions, and pursue higher education through more-varied pathways and timelines, and in which information technology is dramatically changing access to knowledge.

Faculty members, on the other hand, felt a sense of loss from the significant cuts that the college had had to make in its operating budget in response to the crisis. They had worked responsibly and constructively to identify savings amounting to about 10 percent of the budget, including eliminating 18 faculty positions that would not be replaced when their incumbents retired. They wanted to be appreciated for the hard work they had done and the careful choices they had made, and they wanted the assurance that trustees shared their deep commitment to the core mission of the college. They felt the crisis was a difficult ordeal that they had successfully weathered; trustees, in contrast, felt it was a harbinger of profound changes to come. The relationship between the board and the faculty began to show signs of wear, as each began to caricature the views of the other: Faculty members were ostriches with their heads in the sand, unwilling to contemplate change; trustees were corporate types with no understanding of higher education.

To address the growing dissonance between the views of the board and the campus community, we created the Futures Initiative. The goal of the initiative was to think broadly—beyond the present moment, beyond Smith—about trends in higher education, to determine which might have an impact upon Smith, and to identify steps that Smith might take in response. Our goal was to look as far as 20 years out.

It was important to establish with the Smith community that the Futures Initiative was not a budget-cutting exercise, nor would it displace or replace our strategic plan, the Smith Design for Learning, approved in 2007. The initiative was not a strategic-planning process; it was a strategic-thinking process: an assessment of trends, a judgment about their implications for Smith, and a reflection on the options before us. It was emphatically not about what the college was going to do the next year, or even the year after, but about the future landscape of higher education and Smith’s place within it. It was a process designed to develop a shared view of the future that would inform our longterm thinking about the college.

Key Steps in Moving Forward

As we began to plan and organize the initiative, we determined that it should fit into an academic year, and that we would use the cycle of board meetings, in October, January, March, and May, to structure our discussions. We appointed a campus steering group, approximately the size of the board of trustees, consisting of 16 faculty members, largely drawn from elected committees; two students; and 14 members of the administration, representing major areas of responsibility. I asked a small group of board members to advise me in the planning of the initiative, including in it trustees who strongly felt the urgency of change and those with academic experience who would understand faculty culture.

We decided to invite outside speakers, whose talks would be open to the entire Smith community, to establish a broad context for our discussions. Eugene M. Tobin, from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, spoke about liberal arts colleges in the context of higher education, and a panel of speakers on information technology discussed its transformative impact on higher education. We also assigned outside readings on current and projected trends in higher education.

For the first step of the initiative, in the fall, the board and the campus steering group met separately, engaging in the same exercise. We asked all participants to write a paragraph describing their vision of Smith in 2030 and to bring their paragraphs to the first meeting of each group. We began the meeting in plenary session, during which we identified trends both within and outside of higher education that we believed would have an impact on Smith. We then broke into small groups. Participants read their paragraphs to each other and then reached consensus on the elements of the paragraphs that they felt would characterize Smith in the future. (We subsequently posted all paragraphs online, without identifying their authors.) We then reassembled, and all the groups reported their composite visions.

To our surprise, the visions of Smith in 2030 from the board of trustees and those from the campus steering group covered much common ground. This discovery encouraged both groups in their sense of shared enterprise.

We used the results of the two sessions—the identification of trends, the individual paragraphs, and the subsequent small group discussions—to construct four provocative scenarios, not specifically about Smith, but about higher education in 2030. Each scenario addressed a set of related features in order to focus discussion on a particular set of trends. For example:

  • “College Unbundled” envisioned postsecondary education as essentially discontinuous, in which students take courses from multiple providers and extend their educations over a much longer period of years as they continue to seek new professional competencies and accreditation.
  • “A New Financial Landscape” envisioned an economy in which all traditional sources of funding in higher education are dramatically curtailed (including funding for financial aid), and students and their families are less able to meet tuition costs.
  • “World College” envisioned significantly different demographics in the U.S. college-age population and a dramatically reshaped international landscape in which American colleges and universities experience far more competition from institutions abroad.
  • “Virtual College” envisioned higher education moving online, with Internet delivery of courses and materials coming to dominate face- and place-based instruction.

The January meeting of the board of trustees is traditionally a retreat. We held the retreat on campus, bringing the board together with the campus steering group. We devoted the first day to the four scenarios. We divided into eight groups, each of which included trustees, faculty, and administrators. Each of the groups was asked to discuss one scenario, with the task of determining which elements of it seemed most and least likely, and which would have the greatest impact upon Smith.

We used the responses of the groups to the four scenarios to create a single integrated scenario, to which we devoted the next day’s discussion. We again broke into groups (mixing the membership, so that the composition of the groups on the two days was completely different). We asked each group to consider the following questions about the integrated scenario:

  • What are its implications for Smith as an educational provider, and specifically for our commitments to excellence, access, and diversity?
  • What indicators does Smith need to monitor to position itself for leadership in this imagined future?
  • What decisions (e.g., about programs, facilities, investments, disinvestments) would this scenario lead us to make?
  • Where do we see Smith on the innovation curve (e.g., early adopter, fast follower, etc.)?

The groups then reported out, and we compiled the responses.

From the work we did at the retreat, four areas emerged as particularly crucial to the strength of the college’s position in the next two decades:

  • our financial and enrollment model;
  • global engagement;
  • new pathways and timelines for earning an undergraduate degree; and
  • expanding our educational mission and footprint beyond residential undergraduate education. (See box below.)

For our spring meeting, we constructed a scenario in each of these areas from our integrated scenario, once more divided into groups devoted to each of these areas, and asked the groups to develop a draft guiding principle and possible planning directions and considerations in the area that they were assigned.

We used the work we did at the spring meeting to draft a final document, four pages in length (and available on our Web site at In each of the areas that we identified as crucial to the college, we described anticipated trends, a guiding principle for our actions, planning directions, and next steps. Next steps have included focusing the board’s attention in 2011–12 on strategic directions in enrollment planning and policy, a study of the optimum size of the college, and working groups on a numberof topics: international partnerships, new educational timelines and pathways, and expanding our educational footprint. Those groups reported to the board in March.

The Board and the Future

The Futures Initiative was even more successful than we had hoped. Notwithstanding the value of the scenario planning, which is already shaping our thinking about institutional positioning in a rapidly changing higher education landscape, its most important benefit was the change in the relationship between the board and the faculty.

The board came away from the process more respectful of the perspectives, values, and thoughtfulness of the faculty. The faculty came away from the process with a sense of the urgency of larger contextual issues in higher education that will have an impact upon Smith, and, even more important, a willingness to experiment—in my favorite image, to throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.

A number of features of the process helped produce such results. The span of time was important; it allowed an iterative rhythm that let participants’ perspectives develop. We wanted to create a shared view of the future, a project that takes time, thought, and dialogue. At the same time, it was also important to have a set end point and a product: not a tome, but a short summary of our work in the form of a focused brief. It was crucial for both groups that we set the horizon far enough in the future to release participants’ sense of intellectual adventure and play.

We needed to work constantly to broaden the context (readings and speakers were important in that regard) and to cultivate curiosity and speculation, so that participants could loosen their grip on the immediate. It was also vital to maximize the number of contacts each participant had with others. We balanced the breakout groups carefully, continually shifting the membership. We used meals in the same way, assigning seating to maximize the number of individuals from the other group that the board and the Campus Steering Group would get to know. We used social time to extend and deepen relationships.

Flexibility was also vital. We didn’t have a fixed blueprint when we began, and we found it was important to shift plans as the initiative started developing its own momentum. About midway through the process, for example, we determined that we preferred to proceed without the external facilitator whom we had been using in order to foster greater ownership through direct dialogue. As people made suggestions—two trustees at one point made a spontaneous presentation of an innovation matrix that they had developed—we adopted them.

The board chair’s support for the initiative, her grasp of its strategic and community- building goals, her understanding of the perspectives of both the trustees and the people on the campus, and her wise advice, both strategic and tactical, at every step of the process, were essential to its success. She was a sounding board for me, and her repeated expression of support for the initiative built its credibility with the trustees and faculty members.

The initiative also created subtle changes within the board itself. The Smith board of trustees is fairly large—35 members—and it operates, like most boards, through committees and plenary sessions. As in any group that size, some voices tend to dominate, whereas other board members speak less often. By doing so much work in small groups, in which combinations of trustees kept changing and were enriched by campus participants, the board got to know itself better, and a fuller range of voices participated in discussion. The board had a far more open conversation with the campus about how much change the future would and should bring to the college.

Lessons Learned

The final test of the success of the initiative, however, lies in the future—in whether the project has begun to build a culture of strategic thinking and a willingness to experiment with pilot projects that are, in some sense, bets about the future. There is already some evidence that this is the case; several experiments with summer programs for high-school girls and an online course for alumnae on financial independence, adapted from our successful undergraduate program, are already in development. We will know more when the working groups involved in followup projects report at the spring board meeting.

Whatever its concrete results, the project has taught us a number of important lessons. Smith, like many colleges and universities, can tend to live in a bubble. We all cultivate a kind of exceptionalism; we believe that our own institution, whatever it is, offers a uniquely enriching experience to its students. Many faculty and staff members, who, for the most part, spend their careers at Smith, know surprisingly little about other colleges and universities, particularly those outside their academic sector, and the primary expertise of most board members is not higher education.

It is therefore salutary for both boards and campuses to take time to think systematically about trends affecting higher education institutions. We currently live in a period of greater change in higher education than any since the immediate post-World War II years. In such a context, colleges and universities will be well served by developing a culture of strategic thinking—asking, with a sense of curiosity and adventure, how we can best avoid the risks and take advantage of the opportunities in our rapidly changing world.

Smith College’s Futures Initiative

Expanding Our Educational Footprint

Anticipated Trends

At the same time that traditional fouryear undergraduate education may become increasingly discontinuous, pre- and post-baccalaureate education will gain in market share. Many students and their families will seek “early college” experiences, and the demands of a highly competitive workplace will put a premium on graduate and professional degrees and certification. As we live longer and change careers more frequently, professional reinvention will become progressively more important. Moreover, in an environment in which growth in traditional sources of revenue is more constrained, many institutions will seek to further diversify their financial resources. College campuses will be active year-round with an increasingly varied range of programs.

Guiding Principle

As higher education expands over the course of a student’s life and career, beginning earlier and extending later, Smith will seek to leverage its academic assets to offer programs that enhance its reputation and revenue structure. In this balance, Smith will make sure that mission, excellence, and reputation guide the selection of revenue opportunities.

Planning Directions

  • Explore the changes necessary for year-round campus operation, assessing needs, priorities, and policies for facilities, space, and staffing
  • Explore opportunities for five-year B.A./M.A. degrees
  • Develop a set of principles governing the selection of partners for B.A./M.A. programs and other academic collaborations
  • Explore opportunities for professional master’s degree programs, taking full advantage of the School for Social Work and its distinctive calendar, and assessing uses of distance learning that are in keeping with Smith’s mission and values
  • Build a reputation for prebaccalaureate summer programs and an array of offerings, targeting both domestic and international students

Next Steps

  • Appoint a staff group, including representatives from the School for Social Work, to identify facilities, staffing needs, space allocation priorities, and policies for year-round operation
  • Appoint a task force, composed of faculty, staff, and trustees, to recommend principles for partnerships, alliances, and exchanges. Consider the place of the Five College Consortium in Smith’s array of partnerships.
  • Appoint a task force, composed of faculty and staff, to identify areas for new programs and degrees at the post-baccalaureate level. Participants in the Futures Initiative have suggested exploring such areas as American studies (converting our current diploma program to a master’s degree), museum studies, a relaunch program for science alumnae (and others) who are not currently working in the science or technology fields, gerontology, a management degree in social justice, and a degree in environmental studies and policy.

—Excerpt from The Futures Initiative Summary Document

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