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How to exercise your strategic thinking muscles

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ways to improve your strategic thinking
ways to improve your strategic thinking

At the beginning of every year, millions of Americans make a pledge to get in shape, whether that means signing up for a gym membership, downloading a fitness app, or starting a new diet. And while the new year presents a convenient and socially-reinforced opportunity to make a major commitment to one’s fitness, it’s rare that these dramatic efforts are sustainable. That’s why experts say that “slow and steady” is a much more effective approach to long-term physical health.

The same can be said of strategic leadership. Crafting a transformational vision and leading change on campus is not something that happens overnight. These strategic thinking skills take time and consistency to develop, and just like with improving one’s physical fitness, are best achieved with continuous effort. Based on our research on transformational strategy, we’ve developed three ways that cabinet leaders can flex and build their strategic thinking muscles in the coming year.

1. Become a student of the market

Whether it’s demographic shifts, labor market demands, or policy developments, external forces have a tremendous impact on community colleges. As such, any successful institutional strategy should incorporate relevant market intel to ensure that the college’s vision is one that aligns with external realities. Use our Future-Focused Scenario Planning Workshop to break out of the here and now, and craft an enrollment strategy that prepares your institution to be successful amidst significant market volatility.

2. Move forward by thinking backwards

Often, even the best ideas fail because leaders aren’t able to anticipate and overcome pitfalls to their strategy. The best way to avoid these roadblocks is through reverse engineering. Rather than crafting a strategy that focuses on how to get from point A (the status quo) to point B (the desired outcome), begin with your desired end state, and then work backwards from there. Systematically identify all of the conditions—including staffing, resources, infrastructure, and policies—necessary to reach your end goal. Once you understand exactly what is required to achieve a desired goal, it’s easier to identify where you might encounter pitfalls and how you can proactively respond.

Don’t: Focus on how to get from point A (the status quo) to point B (the desired outcome)

Do: Begin with your desired end state, and then work backwards from there

3. Approach a problem from multiple angles

Research has shown that people tend to generate the most creative ideas when working alone. However, community college strategy is not a solo operation, and cultivating engagement for a particular vision is just as important as developing the vision itself. We developed the Six Thinking Hats Persona Exercise in order to help college leaders practice identifying and engaging the myriad different thinking styles on campus. Use the exercise to vet and refine your strategy proposals, while also developing a strategic narrative that speaks directly to the priorities of your campus stakeholders.

In an environment in which strategic leadership is more valuable than ever, investing in strategic thinking skills offers long-term returns for community college leaders and their institutions. Visit our Strategic Community College Cabinet Resource Center to learn more and to continue building your strategic thinking muscles all year long.

Crafting a transformational vision and leading change on campus is not something that happens overnight—these skills take time and consistency to develop. Read our insight for three ways that community college cabinet leaders can flex and build their strategic thinking skills.

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