Independent school leaders need a bold vision for the future to differentiate their institution in an increasingly competitive market. But crafting and implementing that bold, innovative strategy on campus can feel next to impossible.
Heads of school have shared with EAB that setting strategy is one of their biggest challenges, made especially difficult by competing priorities brought on by the pandemic. Research shows, and EAB partners underscore, that the traditional approach to setting strategy delivers underwhelming results that fail to position schools for a dynamic future. Many heads of school lament that the typical strategy-setting process takes too long, is disconnected from market realities, or easily gets derailed by innovation skeptics.
Research has also highlighted that the problem lies deeper than the process. While many assign blame for failed strategic initiatives to changing market conditions and lackluster implementation, in reality, it’s the quality of strategic thinking that differentiates a successful strategy from one that sits on the shelf. Unfortunately, strategic thinking is frequently compromised by cognitive biases—unconscious short-cuts in human thought processes that deviate from formal logic.
These biases are rooted in human nature and can short-circuit even the best laid plans for strategy work. Pulling from cognitive psychology, EAB researchers point to five specific cognitive biases that hamper strategic planning and how to overcome them. We outline three of those below.
Cognitive bias #1: The "here and now" fallacy
The "here and now" fallacy causes leaders to overestimate the likelihood that the future will look like the present. This leads to making decisions that are rooted in false assumptions, and a tendency to ignore early warning signs that things are changing.
For example, over the past couple of years, many colleges and universities have shifted to a test-optional (and some test-blind) admissions policy. While it hasn’t become entirely clear yet, the full impact this could have on students’ higher education pathways, the data show a marked increase in applications to selective and highly selective schools. If these policies are not just temporary and persist into the future, the implications could be dramatic, so schools need to prepare now for different futures to ensure they are ready.
How to overcome it: EAB recommends adopting a formal process for regularly looking at emerging trends in the external landscape. Analyzing emerging economic, societal, and technological trends alongside changes in your local market will ensure that your team is aware of potential disruptions, and can then discuss critical scenarios that will enable the school to identify market opportunities before other schools in your area.
When you introduce a new idea, ask your team to take an extra 20 seconds before they share their responses. Research has found that when people spend an extra 20 seconds crafting an explanation, they’re more likely to incorporate external, historical, and market information.
Cognitive bias #2: The paradox of participation
Independent school leaders often rightly pursue an inclusive approach to making strategic decisions, but the reality is that the loudest voices in the room tend to win. This is because cognitive biases cause individuals to contribute less in larger groups, default to contributing (or agreeing with) safe ideas, and overestimate the likelihood that those safe will succeed. What often starts as well-intentioned efforts to be inclusive, results in lots of opinions and not a lot of bold decision-making.
Consider the frequency with which independent schools across the country re-evaluate their upper-school schedules. This is often a highly collaborative process with myriad potential outcomes, but in the end, most of the time, teams default to single periods, blocks, or some hybrid of the two.
How to overcome it: In your next strategy meeting, have everyone take on one type of thinking at a time. EAB suggests using De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. This approach not only helps avoid direct argument, but also frees participants up to focus on one perspective at a time without having to think of everything at once. This results in much richer conversations full of rigorous debate and stronger solutions to critical challenges.
Cognitive bias #3: "Stay the course" syndrome
Teams operating under this fallacy continue to pursue strategies and run programs in the face of evidence that they are no longer optimal or relevant. The investment a team has put into building programs they are proud of makes it difficult to acknowledge when they lose value in a rapidly changing world.
In independent schools, this bias often appears when teams are faced with decisions that may go against long-standing traditions. For example, many schools are struggling to rethink advancement practices that may be at odds with becoming more inclusive institutions. By not being willing to let go of outdated traditions, schools are missing the opportunity to chart a new path forward that will ultimately serve them and their community better.
How to overcome it: EAB recommends heads of school frame innovations and changes in terms of opportunities for new growth, rather than a departure from a previous investment. Heads also need to lead the difficult conversations about the viability of the school’s current strategies. During these conversations, ask yourself and your team what assumptions underlie the strategy and what the institution will do if those assumptions prove to be untrue—either when launching a new initiative or re-evaluating those that have been in place for decades.
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