The first step to prepare for tomorrow’s student is to create a bold vision of higher ed’s future—and work backwards from there. That’s one of the key themes university presidents discussed during a future-scenario simulation.
This simulation was a first-of-its kind session led by EAB General Manager Melanie Ho, as part of the Higher Education Strategy Forum‘s inaugural Presidential Roundtable, a series of meetings that bring together small groups of presidents for two days of intensive discussion and visioning. During the two-day meeting, Ho explained the barriers to effective strategic planning on campus.
Ho asked the attendees to immerse themselves in three distinct visions for the future of higher education. Each scenario invited presidents to adopt the mindset of a different campus stakeholder from the future: alumni, employer partners, and parents of prospective students.
In one scenario, presidents imagined they were attending a Lifelong Student Hall of Fame ceremony for a membership society, not a university, where students can easily “off-ramp” and “on-ramp” from academic programs across the course of their lifetimes. In the second scenario, attendees were treated as potential industry partners for a university so embedded in economic regional development that it tells businesses what they need out of future grads (rather than the other way around). The final scenario asked presidents to act as prospective students for a university that combines an AI-powered data platform with Zappos-level customer service to create the ultimate personalized and seamless student experience.
After Ho’s scenario introduction, the attendees reviewed a brochure that detailed the core obstacles (retention, stop outs, graduation) each future university had to overcome to stay relevant to students. Then, the presidents discussed the likelihood of each future, what allies they might have on campus to move their school towards each vision, and who might be more difficult to persuade.
Related: What college presidents can learn from Zappos
These future-scenario simulations encapsulate three main tenets of bold thinking that any university president can practice with their team, says Ho. Here are several ways presidents can start thinking boldly about their future strategy.
1: Suspend disbelief. When stakeholders react to every bold idea with skepticism, strategy sessions can quickly get derailed. Instead, teams should focus on what needs to happen for the institution to realize this vision, rather than why it won’t, recommends Ho.
2: Chart different paths. Leaders should consider a range of plausible futures, rather than place a big bet on one prediction that may not come true. Leaders who imagine various futures are better positioned to see what is similar across a range of scenarios and predict what’s most likely to come true.
3: Work backwards from the bold. When leaders create a future strategy, they often rely on incremental thinking, like updating existing programs, rather than bold thinking, like reimagining the program portfolio altogether. To get your team to think strategically, present them with a few bold ideas about the future. Then, ask them to identify what they would need to change about their institution to get there.