How Good is Your Crystal Ball?

How Leaaders Can Plan for the Future in Higher Ed - Image of a Crystal Ball

with contributions from Amit Mrig (President, Academic Impressions)
and Pat Sanaghan (President, The Sanaghan Group)

How Academic Leaders Can Reinvigorate Forecasting and Planning Processes on their Campuses

The recent surprise in the US presidential election results suggests that those who do not pay close attention to current trends and possible future events may be unprepared for sudden and impactful changes. This is especially a wake up call for those who are in leadership positions on college and university campuses. In today’s volatile environment, predictions that were once thought unlikely may actually have huge consequences. For example, many thought the call for free public higher education that surfaced several years ago was so unrealistic that it could be discounted. Now several states have enacted laws in that area.

How many people predicted MOOCs, or even now have a good sense of their long-term implications? The FLSA executive ruling on overtime, originally due to take effect December 1, was stayed by a federal court. Competition from for-profit educational programs looked like it might be on the wane after the recent federal crackdown, but now the founder of Trump University is the POTUS, so what does that mean for the for-profit sector?

How do college and university leaders keep on top of these rapid changes? The short answer is that they can’t; no one can anticipate all contingencies. The longer and better answer is that leaders need to institute regular processes to monitor and discover trends, events, and issues that could have an impact on their campuses. In addition–and this is the hard part–they need to have a process by which they consider the implications of these trends, issues and events, and then identify potential actions so they are ready to move when possibility becomes reality.

There are four things to keep in mind when trying to insulate your campus against “future shock”:

  1. First, you must gather information from a variety of perspectives.
  2. You have to weigh that information in a systematic way.
  3. You have to plan and act on the basis of that assessment.
  4. Finally, you should create a leadership culture in which future prediction, planning, and action is understood, supported and expected.

In offering these four suggestions, we are joining in a line of thinking that is becoming more accepted in the private sector in recent years, especially after so many were blindsided by the catastrophic economic events that led to the recent global recession. (See “Are You a Vigilant Leader?“; “How to Make Sense of Weak Signals“; and most recently, Rob-Jan de Jong’s Anticipate: The Art of Leading by Looking Ahead).

4 Suggestions for Polishing Your Crystal Ball

1. Tap a variety of perspectives.

Your college or university has a variety of perspectives, including those of the trustees, the administration, staff, the faculty of different ranks and disciplines, and students (traditional and non-traditional, residential and online), alumni, donors, employers, sponsors of research, and regulators of various types. In addition, there are all the dimensions of diversity: race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, partisan and political orientation, national origin, etc. Without having some ability to tap into these and other voices, your handle on the future will be missing some potentially crucial elements.

How to get this handle? There are two ways to do this and they are complementary, not entirely separate, methods:

  1. The first is to use targeted sensing processes: regular meetings, surveys, focus groups, and interviews to stay in touch with the concerns and evolving trends affecting each campus group.
  2. The second way is to bring together a diverse group of voices to share perspectives or to assess the perspectives developed by the more targeted means.

The more your campus brings together information from all parts of the institution, the less likely it is you will be blindsided by the reaction of a constituency you did not include.

However, do not limit your future scan to what is known on campus. It is also important to keep abreast of journals, websites, and news events that may provide clues to trends, events, and issues that are becoming more important and impactful. Also, be aware of what is happening at peer institutions in other areas.

2. Assess and prioritize the information.

We are all awash in the ocean of information, surrounded by flotsam and jetsam factoids about many different trends, events and issues. Which of these are accurate, relevant and actionable? It does us no good to hear from many voices on campus, study the literature, only to be paralyzed by the cacophony of voices and the flood of information.

Some group made up of knowledgeable and competent individuals needs to quickly process the information and identify its implications. Are those implications long or short term, likely or unlikely, extensive or contained, big or small impact, good or bad? Are there actions that can be taken to prevent or promote the trends, issues, or events that have been observed or foreseen?

For this kind of analysis, there also needs to be a diverse set of perspectives. In some cases the generation of trends and events and the assessment of the events can occur, at least as a first instance, all in the same session. Sometimes there will need to be a handoff of the information generated by one group to a team that will sort, analyze, and prioritize the information gained to make it more actionable.

3. Plan and take anticipatory action.

Once the future trends and events have been sorted into those that are relevant for the near-term, mid-term, and long-term, those that are likely and unlikely, and those that are relatively more extensive versus those that have more circumscribed relevance, we are ready to take action. Those short-term, actionable, important, likely and relatively circumscribed events (e.g., the likelihood of a particular kind of tree blight invading the campus grounds) should be assigned for action to the relevant unit. Those longer-term, actionable issues that are important and of broad impact (e.g., decline in perception of the value of the liberal arts), should be referred to a responsible team or task force with the expectation that a plan of action will be forthcoming.

4. Create a culture of leadership that is future oriented.

There is now a huge literature on the importance of understanding the future and the role leaders play in creating vision and implementing change. The key words in this literature include “visioning”, “leading change,” “adaptive change,” “strategic thinking and planning,” “environmental scan,” “future search,” and others. Your institution’s leadership development programs should tap into this literature and promote the value of forward thinking.

Indeed, there are well-developed tools and techniques that leaders can learn and pass on to others for surveying the future, prioritizing issues, and taking action:

  • Tools for assessing future issues include: mind mapping, future timeline, and environmental scanning.
    • The Future Search Conference makes use of a particular type of mind mapping that is useful for predictions.
    • For a description of the future timeline activity developed by Pat Sanaghan — and a case study showcasing the results of one such recent activity (November 2016) with leaders in higher education, see my article “24 Leaders Look to the Future,” published as a companion piece to this article. The future timeline activity was first described in Larry Goldstein and Pat Sanaghan’s “Looking Beyond the Moment” (in NACUBO’s Business Officer, 2003) and first published in full in Collaborative Strategic Planning in Higher Education by Pat Sanaghan (NACUBO, 2009).
    • For a description of one environmental scanning technique that is currently in vogue, STEEPLE (Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, Legal, and Education issues), see Jeffrey R. Buller’s Change Leadership in Higher Education (Jossey-Bass, 2015), p. 68-69.
  • Tools for assessing the implications include potential problem analysis, risk assessment, and scenario planning.
    • The techniques of potential problem analysis and risk assessment have been around for a long time; you can find a good description of these tools in The New Rational Manager by Kepner and Tregoe.
    • Scenario planning was pioneered by Shell Oil in the 1970s and is described in “Planning as Learning” by Arie de Geus in Harvard Business Review. Buller discusses scenario planning for higher education in Change Leadership in Higher Education, p. 120-22.
  • Tools for action planning include: force field analysis, stakeholder analysis, and contingency planning.

Some representation of the components of this three-part toolkit for scoping, assessing, and planning for future events should be part of campus leadership development programs for faculty and staff.

How Might This Work in Practice?

Suppose the Provost convenes a diverse group of stakeholders to look at the future of the institution and using a technique like the future timeline that identifies possible events over a ten year period. Once the data from the future timeline is analyzed (see this case example), a next step in the process would identify the most significant items in terms of impact and the most likely. For these, detailed action plans would be developed so that these are ready to be implemented as soon as a triggering event occurs.

Those events or issues that would be highly impactful but relatively unlikely would be subject to broader scenario planning (i.e. what if this happened or that happened?). These scenarios would indicate steps that might need to be taken. Understanding what would need to be done even in an uncertain but important scenario may be key to avoiding serious consequences in the future.

Such activities have an additional benefit for the institution because there is a connection between planning and leadership development. Many years ago industry demonstrated the fact that planning is in fact a learning activity, and that thinking about the future allows decision-makers to respond more effectively to future events in real time (See “Planning as Learning” by Arie de Geus in Harvard Business Review).

However, this anticipatory learning only occurs if leaders at all levels regularly look at future trends, events, and issues, and then think seriously about how to address them. In the case study attached to this article, we show how using these kinds of methods can also help identify the competencies that future leaders will need and that should be the basis of future leadership development programs.

How to Implement with your Team

Since analysis and assessment of future events is expensive in time and energy, leaders must find a way to make it cost effective and habitual for their teams. Here are some options to consider, but each team and each leader should experiment with how looking at the future and its implications can become a regular part of team practice.

  1. Have a one-hour (or 30 minutes) monthly team meeting devoted to discussing latest trends and events relevant to the area of your responsibility (e.g., development, enrollment, facilities, curriculum, etc.). Assign a follow-up responsibility if an issue seems important and likely enough.
  2. Start each staff meeting with a five-minute discussion of one recent event that may have future implications.
  3. Identify websites that publish trends and events in your area and assign a website to each member of your team to monitor on a monthly basis. Have each member send a monthly one-page summary to other team members.
  4. Schedule an annual update of your strategic plan and include an assessment of future issues, trends and events.
  5. Create a standing “committee on the future” that meets quarterly and makes a report to your group.
  6. If you are a senior leader, require those who report to you to design a plan for monitoring and reporting future relevant trends, issues, and events in their area.
  7. Create an internal website where groups can share relevant, trends, events, and information.
  8. Have one criterion of performance review relate to monitoring and acting on relevant future trends and events.
  9. Require each of your direct reports to attend at least one webinar or conference each year in which future trends, events, and issues are discussed and report back.
  10. Assess, on an annual basis, which of your future monitoring activities are most productive, and tweak accordingly
  11. Add another activity or modify one of the above activities so that it works for your team.

Conclusion: Leading and Managing in 3 Time Frames

Leadership, ever challenging, is becoming even more complex. Effective organizations are strong on implementation and continuous improvement of existing processes and purposes (i.e., near-term leadership and management). However, now more than ever they must have an eye on the future and an ear to the ground. They must be ready to adapt quickly (i.e., mid-term leadership and management) and even be ready to reinvent themselves for the future (long-term leadership and management.)

This means effective leaders must really run three different organizations (near-term, mid-term, and long-term) on a rolling basis and make it all work together for the good of the many stakeholders of institutions of higher learning. Giving sufficient attention to understanding and assessing the impact of future trends, events, and issues is key to delivering this high standard of value.


In this companion article, I describe the future timeline activity developed by Pat Sanaghan. Pat and I co-facilitated this activity at a recent conference with 24 leaders from a diversity of institutions. In the article, I share a transcript of the activity:

24 Higher-Ed Leaders Look to the Future