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Future-Back Strategy

“Imagine getting in your car with the hope of getting to an exciting new destination. You strap on your seat belt, press the ignition button, and set off. You fix your eyes…to the rearview mirror. It doesn’t take long before you rear end another car or end up in a ditch. You can’t move forwards only looking backwards, but that’s exactly what many organisations do in the face of ambiguity. They take what we call a present-forward view of strategy. That is, they carefully gather and analyse data, look for quantitative proof that an investment opportunity will bear fruit, and act. This approach is based on an implicit view that tomorrow’s world will look similar to today’s. It is a fine approach in static environments, but it constrains strategic choices in dynamic ones — consigning a company to extend today’s model even if that is the wrong strategic choice.” (Scott D. Anthony, Innosight Executive Briefing, Summer 2016. Emphasis mine.)

Schools are brilliant at the present-forward view of strategy, but I’d argue that the cognitive bias that permeates strategy-making in schools is this unquestioned notion that tomorrow’s world will look similar to today’s, even as we acknowledge the myriad dynamics around us. We assume that the model (business model of ‘how we do school’) will remain the same, and, as Anthony proffers, this bias consigns a company “to extend today’s model even if that is the wrong strategic choice.” The present movement away from traditional strategic planning is partly fuelled by the recognition that static strategic plans don’t work terribly well precisely because they allow for no variation, but what I’ve not heard enough about is recognition of this anchor bias inherent the current model of strategy making, even that which might be considered ‘enlightened’ vis-a-vis the notion of static versus dynamic.

As a case in point, consider the number of schools that have been built and opened in recent years in oil revenue-dependent economies in Western Asia (the Middle East). I’d argue that the aforementioned anchor bias was in full play in practically every scenario: tomorrow’s world will look similar to today’s, i.e. oil prices might fluctuate, but within a certain (narrow) range. What do we see now? Oil revenues are down dramatically (Bloomberg reports that OPEC oil revenues were down by $438 billion, to a ten-year low), resulting in fewer employed in the industry, and a concomitant drop in enrolment in these international schools. The decision-making process (in whether to build/open the school) wouldn’t seem to have included an alternative scenario in which the question “what would have to be true?” (Roger Martin, U. Toronto, Rotman School of Management) was explored fully.

“A future-back strategy, on the other hand, begins with the assumption that tomorrow will be different from today” (Anthony, emphasis mine). If we begin with this assumption, then it stands to reason that how we formulate strategy must follow an altered formula. Anthony suggests the following approach:

  • looking at powerful trends that hold transformational potential

  • coming to consensus about the future environment

  • developing shared aspirations about the organisation’s future state

  • creating “stepping stones” to turn those aspirations into an achievable reality

One may point to the first item as a nearly impossible item. How might we become aware of such things? Anthony suggests that “the best way to spot these trends is to live in the periphery.” In my experience, schools struggle with living in the periphery. Whom do we solicit for information when making strategy? Parents, faculty, alumni, board members (those who aren’t parents) — though we might identify a couple of others, the point is that these groups are hardly ‘at the margins.’ An extreme user group for education might be those who can accomplish much on very little — so, perhaps state school parents who have recently immigrated to the country/city in which the school is located. Another group might be those who have been ‘locked out’ of the international school enrolment market because of lack of wealth or sophistication, or yet another might be those students whose skill sets are different to what we typically admit. How would schools look, were they to embrace understanding how marginalised groups might interact with the school, or at least with international education (perhaps via partnerships, for instance)? It would mean that we’d need to handle a certain level of discomfort…and it is in discomfort, I would argue, that we can begin to move toward real change. I submit that schools tend to have good strength in items 2-4, but it’s that first one that is holding us back.

The other challenge for us, and here I enter the realm of provocation, is current leadership development programmes (formal and informal) for those aspiring to lead international schools. These programmes exemplify the present-forward model of thinking, rather than future-back. We continue to prepare tomorrow’s leaders for today’s schools, with today’s thinking. We might even be so bold as to assert that these programmes prepare managers instead of leaders. In a recent survey (May 2016), we solicited insights from aspiring school leaders (current members of senior leadership teams) on the leadership team’s ability to deliver on the school’s strategy: (1) does the senior leadership team have the right capabilities in place to deliver on meeting your school’s strategy?, and (2) does the senior leadership team possess the effective behaviours needed to deliver on your school’s strategy? The responses were surprising…and concerning. Whilst these aspiring leaders believed that the members of the school leadership team, including the head, had the right capabilities to deliver on meeting the school’s strategy, they felt that the leadership team did not possess the right behaviours to deliver. The data were mirror opposites of each other, to the percentage point. As a sector, we appear to be “producing” the right capabilities (management?) to deliver, but we appear to fail when it comes to individuals exhibiting the kinds of leadership behaviours that make use of those capabilities to deliver. Yet we continue to deliver the same kinds of leadership development programming. With an expanding sector that requires more leaders, we must address this disconnect with a sense of urgency.

How will we be able to recognise, embrace, and take advantage of the transformational potential of our schools if we continue to pursue a present-forward view?

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