TRANSFORMING THE ACADEMY: STRATEGIC THINKING AND/OR
Florida Atlantic University
777 Glades Road
Boca Raton, Florida 33431
Corresponding Author 561/297-3556
DEBORAH J. ROBINSON
Florida Atlantic University
777 Glades Road
Boca Raton, Florida 33431
Presented at the American Institute of Higher Education - 4th International
Conference March 17-19, 2010, Williamsburg Virginia, USA
I sometimes feel like I’m behind the wheel of a race car ... One of the biggest challenges
is that there are no road signs to help navigate. And, in fact, no one has yet determined
which side of the road we’re supposed to be on.
— St e p h e n M . Ca s e , Ch a ir m a n , A O L T i m e W a r n e r
Transforming the Academy: Strategic Thinking and/or Strategic Planning?
Higher education is experiencing environmental disruptions that challenge
today’s leaders and the academy itself to become more agile. This paper shares
the application of the strategic thinking protocol (STP) which illustrates a new
way of planning called strategic thinking to deal with external pressures for
change. To organize our argument we borrow the strategic thinking protocol
developed by the lead author. The STP is grounded in a social cognition model
of change but recognizes components of the political and cultural models. The
STP framework uses core capabilities of strategic thinking skills, strategic
sensitivity, value specification, strategic conversations, minimum specifications,
chunking change and strategic fitness to develop the actionable plan referred to
as a statement of strategic intent in a department of educational leadership and
a college of education and compares the results to a traditional strategic
planning effort used at the university level.
Key words: change, strategic planning, strategic thinking, agility, anticipating,
articulating, statement of intent. 2 tables, 1 figure, 25 references
The object of planning is change. Planning is a process in which long term goals are
transformed into short term tasks and objectives. The planning process seeks to answer
four familiar questions: What do we do? Where do we stand? Where do we want to go?
How do we get there?
In traditional strategic planning, answering these questions is heavily dependent on data,
data analysis and operations research techniques such as SWOT analysis and scenario
planning. It’s a process that inventories, sorts, analyzes and assesses substantial
amounts of data. It relies on long-term planning, linearity and rationality. The process
results in a strategic plan which many times displays hierarchies of goals that cascade
throughout the organization all tied to the central plan.
There is clear agreement that the idea of strategic planning is good. After all who
doesn’t want to see the future, find new possibilities and recognize threats that
facilitate or hinder our search for success, and then establish and seek to position the
organization in terms of its environment through a series of cascading goals and
objectives? Unfortunately, it has been estimated that between 70-90% of all change
efforts fail (Axelrod, Axelrod, Jacobs, Beedon, 2006; Covey, 2004; Kaplan & Norton,
2004; Sirkin, Keenan, Jackson, Kotter, Beer, Nohria, & Duck, 2005). Although change is
unavoidable, planned change does not appear to be so.
Strategic planning worked well in the pre-digital world where formal structures held
organizations together. There is also agreement that it works less well in today’s more
dynamic environments where values, culture, commitment to the common good of the
organization are the glue that holds organizations together (Baldridge, 1983; Birnbaum,
2000; Boon, 2001; Chussil, 2005; Mintzberg, 1994; Robbins & Coulter, 2002; Stacey 2007;
When strategic planning techniques are implemented in a mechanistic organization with
high levels of certainty and agreement they work well. So why doesn’t it work in times
of uncertainty and ambiguity? More specifically why doesn’t work well in higher
Birnbaum (1991) and Kezar (2001) point to distinctive organizational features found in
universities - goals which are difficult to quantify - relative independence from
environmental influences - anarchical decision-making - voluntary collaboration -
multiple power and authority structures - image as opposed to bottom line performance
measures - which make them difficult to change. In addition to organizational features,
Pisapia (2006) suggests that failure in part is due to leader inadequacies such as: (a) they
are trained in and rely upon a linear thinking mindset, which does not work in situations
characterized by ambiguity and complexity; (b) they are unable to identify critical
societal and institutional forces impacting their environment and thus do not connect
their organizations to the major themes associated with success; (c) their concept of
change is also linear and therefore they overuse quantifiable parameters in the change
process and seek to rationally plan their way to success; and (d) they do not see their
organizations as dependent upon the actions and views of other organizations and
individuals, therefore, they do not connect with significant forces on their critical paths
of success (p. 2). Kezar (n.d., p.6) adds that failure as seen from the research of Eckel
and Kezar (2003), Gioia and Thomas (1996), Schön (1983), and Weick (1995) is also in
part due to the fact that “people fundamentally do not understand the proposed
change and need to undergo a learning process in order to successfully enact the
While organizational, leader, and learning features are important facilitators or barriers,
essentially, the reason strategic planning works less well today is due to its most
important feature of a heavy reliance on rational and linear assumptions of cause and
effect about events. This leads to difficulty of predicting in complex environments,
results in narrowing vision, creating a rigidity of the process, destruction of
commitment, increase of politics, shortened tenure of lead administrators, and the
process itself becoming more important than the results. Most scholars suggest that the
process by which strategy is created must be reconceived to meet the needs of a rapidly
Problem and Purpose
Higher education institutions are not mechanistic organizations. Today, higher
education institutions are challenged by changes in fiscal pressures, technology
explosions, internationalism, student and community demographics, faculty roles to
meet the needs of communities and the people who live in them and serve public
purposes. When the gap between the interests of the Academy and the interest of
society widens their legitimacy is questioned (Boyer, 1994; Ghosal, Bartlett, & Morgan,
1999; Magrath, 1996). As this gap has expanded, state appropriations have declined
and are projected to continue to decline in the long term. In response the Academy has
tightened enrollments, raised tuition, and negotiated new relationships with their states
to become quasi-private institutions (Mortenson, 2004; Selingo, 2003). The argument
advanced for funding declines is that colleges and universities are not meeting the
public’s needs. Scholars suggest that serving society is a compelling obligation, yet the
gap is growing between what society needs and what higher education currently
provides (Cherwitz, 2005; Newman, Couturier, & Scurry, 2004).
Universities that are more dependent on state funding must change to reconcile this
perceived gap. Even those who wish to remain independent must change to garner
more resources. So change is inevitable, but success is not. The problem confronting the
Academy is how to transition from an organization of inward-looking silos to an
organization of collaborative outward-looking departments and colleges that shrink the
gap. Clearly the challenge concerns organizational change that alters the attitudes,
values, beliefs, and behaviors of the institution, its employees, and the public. In
response to these important issues, scholars and institutional leaders are calling for new
models and “new thinking” to expand institutional boundaries and restore the social
compact between higher education and colleges and universities (Walshok, 1995).
This paper provides a model of change that meets the unique organizational features of
higher education institutions. The paper first describes the difference between strategic
planning and strategic thinking, and then describes an intervention - the strategic
thinking protocol - to guide higher education change. Finally it presents the expected
findings from two case studies [Department of Educational Leadership, College of
Education], of applications of the protocol at Florida Atlantic University. The results of
these cases will then be compared to the results of a traditional strategic planning
process utilized at the University level.
Just as there is clarity on the challenges facing higher education institutions there is also
clarity on the critical nature of strategic thinking rather than strategic planning to an
organization’s success (Bonn, 2001). Strategic thinking, which is often intertwined with
strategic management and strategic planning in the literature, has been offered as the
new planning organizer for dynamic organizations including universities.
Bonn, (2001), Graetz (2002), Liedtka (1998), and Mintzberg (1994), are among many
who draw a clear distinction between the systematic nature of pre-identified strategies
called strategic planning and the more integrated perspective of strategic thinking.
Mintzberg (1994) for example, noted that thinking strategically is distinct from
conventional conceptions of planning. Analysis which is the hallmark of planning
involves a need for logic, reasoning, linear and rational thinking. It involves being able to
manipulate words and numbers. Strategic thinking, on the other hand, places a
premium on synthesis and integration and requires the ability to examine new
possibilities dealing with large chunks of information, and the ability to pull pieces
together into a big picture. It involves being able to recognize patterns and visual images.
In strategic thinking not only are the data sources different but the analysis of the data
is different than strategic planning.
What exactly is strategic thinking? How does it differ from strategic planning and/or
strategic management? Strategic thinking is the ability to analyze influencing factors
inside and outside the organization, to discover strategic direction that should guide the
organization’s decision-making and resource allocation for a period of 3-5 years.
Leidtka’s (1998) taxonomy offers an overview on the differing dimensions of strategic
thinking versus strategic planning. These dimensions include: vision of the future,
strategic formulation and implementation, managerial role in strategy making, control
managerial role in implementation, strategy making and process and outcomes. Table 1
provides an overview of these differentiations.
There is growing agreement that strategic thinking and strategic planning are
interrelated and both are necessary for effective change to occur (Heracleos, 1998;
Hussey, 2001; Liedtka, 1998). The fault line is drawn by seeing the purpose of strategic
thinking as envisioning potential futures, discovering innovative strategies to move to
the future state, and internally creating horizontal alignment. The purpose of strategic
planning in this union is to operationalize the strategies and initiatives developed
through strategic thinking. Thus organizations first engage strategic thinking which
creates a common direction and a broad set of initiatives to move to a future state, and
then strategic planning is put into place to develop the details. “Thus what is being
proposed in large measure . . . is a dialectical framework within which strategic planning
and strategic thinking work in tandem, rather than one in which strategic planning
impedes the flourishing of strategic thinking.” (Lawrence, 1999, p.13)
There is little clear agreement on the core elements related to strategic thinking.
Several proposals have been put forth. All agree that the activity results in a plan
commonly referred to by strategic thinkers as a statement of intent (see Hamel &
Prahalad (1994). Liedtka’s elements include system perspective, focused intent, thinking
in time, hypothesis-driven, and intelligent opportunism. She says, "A strategic thinker
has a mental model of the complete end-to-end system of value creation, his or her role
within it, and an understanding of the competencies it contains." O'Shannassy (2003)
proposed a model for what he called the 'Modern Strategic Management Process' in
which strategic thinking is the starting point. He said: "...strategic thinking combines
creativity and analysis which facilitates a problem solving or hypothesis oriented
Bonn (2005) suggests the key elements of strategic thinking are systems thinking,
creativity and vision. She said "research on strategic thinking should address the
following levels: (a) the characteristics of an individual strategic thinker; (b) the
dynamics that take place within a group of individuals; and (c) the organization
context." (p. 340) Pisapia, Reyes-Guerra and Coukos-Semmel, (2005) break the term
down into teachable concepts. They suggest that strategic thinking involves being able
to utilize systems thinking, reflection, and reframing skills. They conceived these skills as
interrelated and complementary thought processes that sustain and support one
another. They theorized that when they are used in tandem, leaders are better able to
maneuver through complex environments. In later work, Pisapia (2009) identified
individual strategic thinking skills, strategic sensitivity, strategic conversations, minimum
specifications, chunking change, and strategic fitness as the core elements of the
strategic thinking protocol which he teased out of the six habits he associates with
In dynamic environments, leaders and managers at every key intersection of the
organization must be able to work in a strategic way! Pisapia’s point of view is that
working in a strategic way means developing and executing an actionable strategy
(Pisapia & Pang, 2009). He suggests that what works in dynamic times is the leader’s
ability to accomplish four tasks: (a) anticipating changes, challenges and opportunities
in internal and external environments, (b) creating and articulating common values and
direction in a generative/minimum specifications manner, (c) establishing the social
capital necessary to mobilize actions, and (d) building the capacity of their organizations
by anchoring the learning in engaged, self managed followers/teams. He offers the
strategic thinking protocol to develop an actionable strategy and the strategic execution
protocol to create the social capital and build organizational capacity. This paper utilizes
the portion of his model that deals with strategic thinking.
The protocol, as constructed, results from the interplay of three strategic habits: agility
of the mind, anticipating the future, and articulating a direction. It joins agility with
anticipating and articulating to pursue two tasks: (a) anticipating changes, challenges
and opportunities in internal and external environments, and (b) creating and
articulating common values and direction in a generative/minimum specifications
manner to foster perspective transformation and organizational fitness. The successful
strategy is one that meets the characteristics of the organization’s environment and its
As seen in Figure 1 agility is the core competency that drives the protocol features of
anticipating and articulating. Agility refers to the ability of participants to use three
strategic thinking skills: systems thinking, reframing and reflection in ways that
combines rational knowledge with intuition, and promotes individual and organizational
self-discovery, and open mindedness. The result of using these skills is a mindset that
guides thinking and is successful in interpreting environmental forces and identifying
Anticipating involves the development of strategic sensitivity to signals from the
organizations internal and external environment by continually reading both objective
and subjective data provided by the environments. The key tools of anticipating are
looking, listening, and learning - analysis and intuition - asking the right questions.
Articulating involves dialoguing, integrating, distancing to gain perspective, seeing things
from different perspectives which allow time and information for reframing - gaining
new perspectives and identifying new alternatives - unifying as leadership and members
understand and trust each other. The key tools are surfacing and sharing assumptions,
understandings and passions through strategic conversations which break the pattern of
debate, strength of one input perspective.
The strategic thinking protocol is grounded in a social cognition model of change that
seeks to alter mental models by using a generative strategy - multiple interpretations -
strategic conversations - consensus shaping - navigating. This model reflects the most
recent paradigm shift in leadership thinking which considers how ideas, thoughts and
mental representations develop and are used by leaders to make a mental connection
between the leader and follower (Gardner, 1995; Senge, 1990). This cognitive approach
focuses on affecting change in an organization’s beliefs, values and direction by
engaging members in sensemaking processes. The mental connections it seeks form the
foundation for enhanced performance and continuous organizational learning.
The protocol also recognizes components of the political model of change - persuasion,
informal negotiation, mediation, and coalition-building. Remnants of the cultural model
of change - symbolism - tradition - rituals - are also evident as the process moves along
(see Eckel & Kezar, 2003 & Kezar, 2001 for full descriptions of these change models). As
the protocol proceeds through its paces a collective understanding of the issues and
future possibilities emerge and are codified in a statement of strategic intent. As Doz &
Kosonen (2009) suggest, what matters is that a collective commitment and bonding to
the outcome of the decision process emerges from the protocol.
The strategic thinking protocol outlines a process to follow to develop a statement of
strategic intent. The Statement of Strategic Intent establishes the mission and aspiration
for the organization to work toward. When properly crafted, the one page statement of
strategic intent [front and back] serves as an orienting device that articulates the Intent
and provides a sustaining direction around which organizational members [hereafter,
members] can cohere. It does not focus on today’s problems but on tomorrow’s
opportunities. The statement of intent contains an aspiration, or hope, for what the
organization wants to become. It also contains the blueprint for organizational behavior,
and the initiatives that will move the organization toward their aspiration.
The strategic thinking protocol is guided by a committee [each committee adopts its
unique name: the New Directions Task Force, the steering committee - the navigating
team - the guiding coalition]. This nucleus of senior faculty and administrators with
credibility guide the process, sort the input, search for clues that it’s time to adapt and
what that adaptation should look like. It’s important to place key opinion leaders on the
committee. As Burton Clark (1972) suggested, in higher education these opinion leaders
are senior faculty whose support and participation is necessary if change is to occur. He
says, “A single leader . . . can initiate the change, but the organizational idea will not be
expanded over the years and expressed in performance unless ranking and powerful
members of the faculty become committed to it and remain committed even after the
initiator is gone” (p. 177). The charge to this committee is to reviews data, participate
and observe conversations and interviews, develop interview summaries, and draft
statements for the full community to review and provide input on. The committee
receives the input and notes items that need adjustment (if any), discusses the changes
and redrafts reports to the full membership. The product of the committee’s work is the
statement of strategic intent. Essentially, they dialogue, listen, learn, and craft in an
iterative process until agreement is reached.
A key understanding is that all members receive the same information as the committee.
The purpose here is to be transparent so all members understand the problems faced
and can participate in crafting the direction that will be taken. The information is
processed in the following way.
Step 1 – Quantitative and qualitative data are gathered from the internal and external
environment. The quantitative data comes from the official University Database upon
which decisions are being made. The qualitative data is gathered through interviews of
individuals outside the College; summaries are prepared and shared with all members.
[The following skill is needed - ability to use analytical techniques to evaluate and
synthesize data from multiple sources].
Step 2 – A series of 5 strategic conversations – following a listen – dialogue – learn -
sequence are held with all members participating.
Strategic Conversation #1 - What do others expect us to do?
Strategic Conversation #2 – What do we expect of ourselves?
Strategic Conversation #3 – What are we in business to accomplish?
Strategic Conversation #4 - What do we aspire to become?
Strategic Conversation #5 - What do we need to do to move toward our
Step 3 – At the end of each conversation, the committee makes strategic choices as to
where the investment of time and money will return the best payoff on a college wide
basis then presents draft statements for full member review – until consensus on each
item – mission – aspiration – core values – initiatives has been achieved. [Aspiration
should be compelling – and measurable.]
Step 4 – When the Statement of Strategic Intent is adopted by the organization as
policy, it must then be implemented so that it is a living document that guides the
organization toward its aspiration. At this time, the committee is disbanded and the
protocol enters into the strategic planning phase – implementing teams are structured
around each priority – it is this team’s responsibility to flesh out the priority and create a
concrete response, and then execute it.
Step 5 - The planning phase is guided by a quality committee [composed of different
members than the strategic thinking committee]. The quality committee is charged with
developing a report card to continuously review the implementation of the approved
Statement of Intent. The quality committee uses this report card as a management tool
to ensure that the Intent is implemented in a timely fashion.
The protocol results in a shared statement of strategic intent [an actionable plan] which
is central to developing a high performing organization. It sets the direction. It describes
the clear concrete target. It describes the values that the organization will gauge itself
up against. It identifies the initiatives that will move the organization along its path to
high performance. And, it does all this on one page front and back. It is not meant to
rest on top of a book self. It forms a psychological contract with followers and guides
the organization's actions. It is meant to be a living guiding statement for the
organization/team that creates a new reality for a while. In time all strategy decays and
must be recreated. It is suggested that the initiatives found in a statement of intent
should be viable for a 3-5 year period.
The study employed a qualitative multiple case study design to conduct this exploratory
research. Creswell (2003) said about the qualitative approach "is one in which the
inquirer often makes knowledge claims based primarily on constructivist perspectives,
or advocacy/participatory perspectives, or both. . . The researcher collects open-
ended, emerging data with the primary intent of developing themes from the data" (p.
The rationale for the qualitative approach to this research is that the elements of
strategic thinking (from an empirical perspective) have not been studied before. We
have chosen a Type 3 design, that Yin (2003) calls "holistic multiple-case." A holistic
multiple-case study refers to a research with more than one case study but, with only
one unit of analysis. Multiple cases were examined because they provide more
evidence than a single case and add confidence to the findings (Hakim, 1987; Miles &
Huberman, 1994; Yin, 2003). These data provided for the convergence of multiple
sources of evidence in a process of triangulation (Eisenhardt, 1989; Yin, 2003).
The unit of analysis was the department, college and university’s use of strategic
thinking and/or strategic planning. Three cases studies were drawn from one higher
education institution. The strategic thinking protocol was applied to a university
department and college. The third case is the use of the strategic planning process
employed at the University level. Interviews, observations, open-ended questions,
and document review were used to collect the data. However, in depth interviews
were the main method used. The interviews were transcribed. Observations were
written in the form of summaries. Documents used in the thinking and planning
processes were examined. The three in-depth cases were used to deduce theory from
practice by exploring the use of strategic thinking elements: strategic sensitivity, value
specification, strategic conversations, strategic fitness, minimum specifications,
chunking change were used during the application of the protocol and how those
elements would facilitate the development of a strategically fit statement of intent.
The University case which used the traditional strategic planning method was
completed in 2008. The strategic planning process resulted in a plan that was detailed,
with goals, objectives and sub objectives. Measures for each were established and the
expectation was that each college, department and unit would use the plan to create
unit plans. The process was led by external consultants and followed the traditional,
political model and cultural models of change. Little attempt was made to change
mental models or utilize multiple perspectives of those affected by the plan. Values
specification was not a core activity. The resulting plan relied on maximum specification
with large initiatives. A total of 12 goal areas and 35 objectives were created.
Transparency was afforded through sharing final drafts and requesting comment. A
dashboard of indicators was established to measure the implementation of the plan.
The administrative staff and board of trustees were satisfied with the outcome of
The Department case which used the strategic thinking protocol was completed in
December 2009. The College case which also used the strategic thinking protocol was
begun in January 2010 so data from that analysis are not available. Analysis is ongoing,
therefore only preliminary expected findings from the two cases available at this time.
These findings are recorded on Table 2.
The strategic thinking protocol resulted in a two page plan that was strong on
identifying core values to portray the expectations of the unit which was used to set
internal behavioral standards and evaluate the expectations external stakeholders had
of the unit. Transparency and participation was achieved by all members getting the
same information through focus group type interviews and data days, and conversations
focused on feedback and adjustment of ideas by the coordinating committee. The
resulting plan produced 5 initiatives to focus unit work to achieve its aspiration.
Planning teams convened around each of the 5 initiatives to pursue them. A project
management score card was employed to review implementation and record results.
The faculty and administrators were satisfied with the outcome of planning and the
process that was used to incorporate their views into the document.
The study is important for several reasons. Foremost, any attempt to embed strategic
thinking within an organization processes is stymied by the lack of a working model of
strategic thinking (Amitabh & Sahay, 2008, p.7; Masifern, & Vila, 2002 p. 4). This paper
outlines a potentially strong model that addresses the unique organizational and
participant features of higher education institutions as opposed to downloading a model
created to operate in a for profit corporation.
From a research point of view, the strategic thinking elements involved in creating a
strategic direction has not been addressed thoroughly in the literature. Though there
is a multitude of literature on the necessity of strategic thinking within the business
world and in large multi-national corporations, little if any literature focuses on whether
or not these all-important skills are being incorporated into our higher education
From an organizational point of view, this protocol, when properly applied, should help
higher education leaders create a collective mindset that makes sense of complexities
facing the organization. It also enables the organizational unit to identify, predict,
respond and adapt to non-linear change opportunities and challenges stemming from its
Finally, this study is considered foundational because it specifies the elements of a new
planning technology and describes its use in a higher education setting. Additional
studies need to be carried out in other nonprofit and for profit settings to determine if
strategic thinking or strategic planning has the greatest impact on individual and
organizational performance. From these studies, it is hoped that professional
development modules can be developed and databases created in order to further the
effective use of the elements of the strategic thinking protocol.
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