Thriving Amid Change: A Leader’s Guide to Developing Strategy and Staying the Course

A new decade typically spurs a flurry of predictions about the future. 2020 is ushering in forecasts ranging from the demise of higher education to a global recession. Technology also takes center stage with many predictions focused on the impact of artificial intelligence on our lives and work. Although it is important to keep abreast of these forecasts, it can be distracting, as reacting to the “new, new thing” can result in lost focus. It also can propel leaders in too many directions at once, making it difficult to make progress on any one front.

School leaders today need to lead for the present while simultaneously preparing for the future. How can they do that effectively without losing focus? I suggest that it is by taking a disciplined approach to strategic thinking and innovation. I want to explore with you three resources that can be helpful in that process.

The Process: NAIS Strategy Lab and Strategy Frameworks 

The first resource in this strategy toolkit is NAIS’s own Strategy Lab initiative. We launched the program in 2018 to help schools enhance innovation cultures, develop skills for project-level innovation designs, build capacity for innovation implementation, and expand opportunities for cross-school collaboration. To date, 80 schools have participated in Strategy Lab activities, which bring school teams together in an intensive program of learning, sharing, and discovery. Participating schools are currently in various stages of executing innovation plans designed to help them chart a sustainable future path. To learn more about their journeys and the process, visit the Strategy Lab site.
Another helpful and complimentary resource to Strategy Lab is a framework created by Jeanne M. Liedtka, professor of business administration at the Darden School of the University of Virginia. Her step-by-step approach to strategy combined with Strategy Lab tools provide schools a blueprint for clarifying focus and executing project-level innovation.
Liedtka describes strategic thinking as encompassing five elements: intent focused, a systems perspective, thinking in time, intelligent opportunism, and hypothesis driven.

1. Intent focused: Liedtka’s first step centers on creating a focused vision for a school. Vision statements are typically three to five years in horizon and outline the difference a school seeks to make in the world. By focusing intent, school leaders can examine everything they do—program investments, subsidiaries, new initiatives, etc.—through the lens of how it contributes to reaching intended outcomes. By setting this intent, Lietdka says, a school can resist distraction and build alignment.

If your school does not currently have a vision statement, a great way to get started is to look at both needs and threats, and how your school could and should react to both. For example, a threat could be the widening equity gap in the United States or the disruption of jobs by artificial intelligence. 

2. A systems perspective: A school is a complex system. By understanding how parts of that system work and interact with each other, school leaders can more effectively see how both internal and external forces will affect school operations and how pursuing opportunities in one part of the system will impact others.

At a tactical level, systems thinking within the Strategy Lab program helps schools identify innovative ideas and then strategically design those ideas by understanding the interrelatedness of their resources, outcomes, metrics, and what is and is not in their control. Strategy Lab team members Tim Fish and Jackie Wolking describe it this way:
In the NAIS Strategy Lab, we have found that employing systems thinking fosters strategic problem solving by mapping the various parts of a school backward from:
  1. Why families hired the school and how they will determine success, to
  2. How the school plans to measure success, to
  3. The school’s intended outcomes to meet those metrics, to
  4. The work the school performs to achieve the outcomes, to
  5. The resources the school will use to make the work happen,
all the while acknowledging that this is being done within the greater context of the external forces acting on the school that may be difficult or costly to control.
The Strategy Lab template below demonstrates the process for mapping out a system.

3. Thinking in time: The third element of strategic thinking centers on asking the question: “Having seen the future that we want to create, what must we keep from our past, lose from that past, and create in the present to get there?” Liedtka points out that there are important linkages between the past and the future, noting, “You learn from the past and use that learning to make predictions. You look at the present to assess the gap between where you are now and where you want to end up.” At this stage, I suggest that school leaders use the framework of polarity thinking to ensure they remain on the upside of both stability and change. 

4. Intelligent opportunism: The challenge for any school head today is that leadership goals and strategies tend to be static, while the external world is constantly changing, exerting pressure, and presenting opportunities. The concept of intelligent opportunism is that you must maintain direction in service of your adopted vision, but course-correct as external challenges disrupt your current path or present unexpected opportunities. This concept also underscores that, as a leader, you need to remain open to multiple perspectives from both within and outside your school.

5. Hypothesis driven: Liedtka points out that strategic thinking is very much like the scientific method, that is “it is both creative and critical in nature.” In this final stage leaders develop “what if” questions, imagining multiple scenarios based on accumulated insights and testing the most promising.

Schools that participate in Strategy Lab develop hypotheses to test ways they can make progress in their current markets. The Strategy Lab methodology takes participants from systems thinking to understanding the concept of demand-side innovation, that is, examining how they can continually innovate in service to both mission and market. In doing this, they learn the Kano Model, a theory for product development and customer satisfaction, which helps them to understand the relationship between basic, performance, and delighter components of customer satisfaction. Wolking provides the example that looking at the basic elements of satisfaction may lead a school to differentiate around price; examining performance elements helps them to optimize their current strategy; and exploring delighters could lead a school to new markets.

Tactical Tools to Create Alignment

A final resource can help school leaders in the implementation of strategy—one of the most difficult steps in the strategy process. Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability by Jeanne Bell, Jan Masaoka, and Steve Zimmerman offers a useful framework for integrating financial performance and social impact into the strategic thinking process. The book’s premise is that “financial and impact information can and must be brought together in an integrated, fused discussion of strategy.” The authors have designed a matrix map that is an easy-to-use tool to assess the profitability and impact of all programs in a disciplined manner, thus ensuring program alignment with a school’s intended vision. The matrix approach takes subjectivity out of the process and offers a way to look at all initiatives through the same strategic lens. Their follow-up book, The Sustainability Mindset: Using the Matrix Map to Make Strategic Decisions, provides more detail on the process and helpful case studies.

In closing, being a leader today can feel like you are in choppy seas trying to navigate without the necessary tools to guide you. Using a disciplined approach to chart a school’s sustainable future can help in focusing outcomes and keeping everyone aligned for the journey. Without such tools, we will be rudderless as the winds of change blow harder.

Additional Resources: NAIS Strategy Lab Case Studies

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Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.