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3 assumptions that derail higher ed strategic planning—and how to fix them

January 6, 2020

By Kathleen Escarcha

University presidents need a bold vision for the future to differentiate their institutions in an increasingly competitive market. But crafting and implementing a bold strategy on campus can feel next to impossible.

Presidents said setting strategy is one of their biggest challenges during EAB‘s inaugural Presidential Roundtable, a series of Higher Education Strategy Forum meetings that bring together small groups of presidents for two days of intensive discussion and visioning. Presidents from public and private universities across North America came together to discuss the need for bold thinking in higher ed—and the obstacles that come with it.

EAB Managing Director David Attis kicked off the meeting by sharing some common frustrations with higher ed strategic planning that he often hears from presidents while on the road.

Some presidents say it’s difficult to use an inherited strategic plan, especially if it’s outdated. Others point out that their institution’s strategy document sounds more like a mission statement or a wish list than an action plan. Many feel that the typical strategy setting process takes too long, is disconnected from market realities, or easily gets derailed by innovation skeptics.

Cognitive bias underlies many of these strategic planning problems, explained Attis. Cognitive bias, which is rooted in human nature, is a universal psychological phenomenon driven by unconscious reactions.

Pulling from cognitive psychology and EAB research, Attis outlined several cognitive biases that hamper higher ed strategic planning and how to overcome them.

Cognitive bias #1: The “here and now” fallacy

Leaders with this bias rely heavily on current and internal information to plan for the future and struggle to look beyond current constraints. As a result, they tend to imagine that the future will look like the present day.

20 sec

People who spend an extra 20 seconds crafting an explanation are more likely to incorporate external, historical, and market information.
People who spend an extra 20 seconds crafting an explanation are more likely to incorporate external, historical, and market information.

In higher ed, this fallacy commonly pops up when leaders assume their past results will guarantee future returns, explains Attis. For instance, leaders might assume their online program launch will be successful because the previous one was or that the next decade’s first-year students will have the same needs as this decade’s.

How to overcome it: Incorporate national, local, and global data into your predictions about the future, recommended Attis. You can train your team to incorporate multiple sources of information into their thinking.

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: “Stay the course” syndrome

Administrators and faculty operating under this fallacy adhere to a widely-shared vision even in the face of evidence that it might not work. Leaders with this bias may struggle to acknowledge weaknesses in their current course of action or feel that a struggling initiative can’t be abandoned because it’s too late to turn back, explained Attis.

“Leaders who want to stay the course can struggle to acknowledge weaknesses in their current course of action.”

David Attis, EAB Managing Director

How to overcome it: People often want to stay the course because they’re afraid abandoning all of the resources and effort it took to get this far. Presidents can frame innovations in terms of opportunities for new growth, rather than a departure from a previous investment, recommended Attis.

Presidents 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 the assumptions are wrong or the strategy doesn’t pay off.

Cognitive bias #3: The paradox of participation

Leaders often try to build consensus by seeking input on decisions from every department on campus. But this approach can lead to groupthink, warned Attis.

When group size increases, people start to avoid disagreements in favor of group consensus. For example, a new dean might withdraw an idea to address unequal teaching loads after being told it will “damage college culture.” Or people might not pressure-test proposals out of fear of coming across as critical or not inclusive, explained Attis.

How to overcome it: In your next strategy meeting, assign each attendee a role, like data guru or skeptic, to avoid groupthink and ensure a variety of interests are represented, recommended Attis. For instance, ask one team member to pay attention to data and analyze trends, and ask another to provide a skeptic’s gut reaction.

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