Thinking Beyond the Status Quo

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How to think beyond the status quo to deal with the strategic uncertainty Presentation to Tertiary Education Management Conference, August, 2011.


Thinking beyond the status-quo to deal with strategic uncertainty

Thinking beyond the status-quoto deal with strategic uncertaintyMaree ConwayThinking Futures

Tertiary Education Management Conference August 20111

#temc11Hands up who uses twitter? Use the hashtag #temc11 and tweet anything that you like or hate about my talk as we go, and tweet questions as they occur to you.

Now theres a sorry tale of a presenter doing this at a conference where everyone hated her presentation and said so so that everyone in the room could see the criticism appearing on a tweet stream behind her - but Im sure that wont happen to me!



STORY: when I started my career as a tertiary education manager at Griffith University as a Graduate Clerk, we used IBM golfball typewriters, tipex and carbon paper. I used to track the schools postgraduate students on cards. The only computer I used was a dumb terminal to get statistics about student applications from QTAC.

At Footscray TAFE, we had one Wang word processor that we all shared and one 20MB computer for our student records. At Chisholm Institute (now Monash), we had 4 word processors that we shared and two terminals for our student records. Email in the form of Banyan Vines just emerged then.

When I arrived at Swinburne in 1991 as Asst Registrar of the Business Faculty, I asked my predecessor if I could get a computer. She said, probably not. I got one.and I got email. About 2 years later, the head of the IT department told us we would need to employ someone to look after the WWW whats that I said?

Its less than 20 years later and my, how working in a university has changed.

4 the first university in medieval times


To the ivory towers6

To the mass university model7

To new forms of online universities emerging todayand the rules of the game are changing.8

Universities are like chameleons able to change their look to fit in with the environment, while maintaining basically the same structures and ways of operating.9

The shape and form of the university of the future, and how it will operate in that future, however, is largely unknown.10

And the transition to that future university that we are now in is characterised by a degree of strategic uncertainty not seen before. There are no certainties, or right answers.


This degree of strategic uncertainty means there will be big changes ahead:

To learningTo workingTo the future of the physical campus

To structuresTo work and how we communicateTo how students engage with the university


And we will need to build strategy that allows the university to adapt and evolve in order to respond to the strategic uncertainty and the change it will bring with it.

But what are our usual responses when we are told that we have to change the way we do things?


We ignore itand keep doing what we have always done.14

Or we get pushed and dragged into the new environment15 can resist the change16

All these stances about change mean that you are happy to just let the future happen to you.17

And I guarantee you, if you let the future happen to you, this is how you will look18

If you embrace the inevitable change that comes from strategic uncertainty, you will be ahead of the game19

We dont have a choice today. We have to embrace the strategic uncertainty in the external environment and work with it not against it. We have the opportunity to shape the change rather than let it happen to us.

20 importantly though, to deal with strategic uncertainty, and to shape the change, we have to leave the status quo behind.21

The usual response to dealing with strategic uncertainty is to do some strategic planning.


22(c) Thinking Futures 2007

These sorts of diagrams abound when we look at strategic planning.23

Improvement action identified/changes to plans identifiedMaking VU 2016: A Statement of PurposeStrategic vision and objectives

University Priorities2008-2010Outcomes & Strategies to implementUnit Strategic Plans2008-2010Faculties, Schools& Service areasImplementation of University Priority strategiesInternal & External Planning Inputs Ongoing environmental scanningEducational & societal trendsGovernment policy driversLegislationUniversity cross-sectoral strategiesOther University Plans (eg OHS, Disability, Staff Equity etc)SPDP: individual Staff PlansQuality Improvement Reviews (QIRs)Approval of operational plansReview of current years performanceReviewed each year in first half of yearReviewed and updated in August/September; finalised following QIRs in NovemberHeld in November each yearUniversity Budget ProcessIterative process to align budgets and plansBudget sign-off at end SeptemberQuarterly Budget ReviewsDepartment PlansCurrent until 2016

QIR Inputs Organisational Unit QIR PortfoliosFaculty Review OutcomesAnnual Course ReportingCourse ReviewSubject Evaluation OutcomesAQTF outcomesAUQA Follow up


Think tomorrow is going to be more of todaySwinburne University of Technology25Develop a single default future which is usually a linear extrapolation of today.

Cant cope with the unexpectedOften lack the flexibility to deal with unexpected changes in the external environment.


Usually dont explorelong term alternative futuresUsually dont include any processes for systematically exploring the long term future of the organisation they develop plans for 3-5 years out thats not long term.


Prefer quantitative over qualitative information

Tend to rely heavily on quantitative data, suggesting a single outcome, and dismiss validity of qualitative data.


Dont challenge assumptionsMiss potential innovation and strategic options because they dont challenge organisational assumptions and ideologies about doing business now and into the future.

Ignore the opportunity to spend some time in the future to test whether what they do today will be relevant in that future.29

Downplay or dismiss staff beliefs, hopes and fears about the futureAnd, they usually dont include any systematic processes for listening to the views of staff, before a plan is written.



32(c) Thinking Futures 2007

Traditional approaches to planning leave us in the flatland the place between the past and the present called the status quo.33 escape the flatland, we have to move beyond the status quo. We have to leave it behind.34

We still need to plan, but35

We need to do it in the context of a new view of strategy development and implementation, one that allows us to move beyond the status quo and beopen to new ways of thinking about what is possible in the future.


Its not about certainty and prediction anymore37

Moving from the probable to the possible and understanding that there are options available to us3839Environmental ScanningEnvironmental Scanning

Provides the raw information to inform your strategic thinking.Both internal and external to your organisation.


Strategic Thinking 1: AnalysingLooking for patterns and themes relevant for your organisation.

Trend analysisEmerging Issues AnalysisForecastingDelphi

41Strategic Thinking 2: InterpretingSystem structure and dynamicsWhats driving the trends? And what does it mean for us?How will they develop?

Futures WheelCross Impact AnalysisCausal Layered Analysis

.42Strategic Thinking 3: ProspectingHow will the trends evolve over the next 10-20 years?

How might we respond? What are our options?

Scenario planningVisioningBackcasting


The four level model provides a stronger framework or scaffolding for new strategy development and implementation processes that will help us explore strategic uncertainty.44

It does not guarantee, however, that we will start to think beyond the status quo.

For that to happen, we need explicit approaches that challenge and test assumptions about the nature of the change today and into the future.45

Upper Left realm of individual consciousness thoughts, values, motivations, ideas, beliefs and images. Only the individual can know this realm.

Lower Left cultural realm, rules of the game how we do things around here live here and only the group can provide interpretation and meaning.

Upper Right individual and organisation behaviour

Lower Right the world external to the individual or the organisation.46

Traditional strategic planning processes take place in the right hand quadrants, the realms of the observable, the tangible, the empirical.47

An we need to be spending an equal amount of time in the left hand quadrants in the realm of the unobservable, the intangible.48

InteriorExteriorIndividualCollectiveEXPLAIN AND THEN MOVE ON


LR: strategic scanning to understand whats coming the trends and drivers of change generating strategic uncertainty5051UR: Set up processes and tools that allow individuals to come together to understand the future the four level model.

UL: Engage individuals to understand their beliefs about the future, and to identify what beliefs need to change if they are no longer helpful to the organisation52Reactive Futures QuestionsProactive Futures QuestionsWhat has happened?What is happening?What caused it to happen?What is driving the trends that will influence how this might evolve over time?What are alternative possible outcomes?How do we respond?How might we respond?What would be the long term consequences of action we take today?What will we do?What will we do?After the eventAnticipating the eventLL: an organisational culture that asks proactive futures questions.53

So we have identified the need to change the way we think about the future and strategic uncertainty, that we need to move beyond the status quo.

But how do you actually get someone to change the way they think?54

Our minds are habitual patterns recognition machines, and as Dave Snowden points out, we might think we are making rational and logical decisions but instead those decisions are based on what he calls a first fit pattern match.

Our brain is subject to habituation, things that we do frequently create habitual patterns which both enable rapid decision making, but also entrain behaviour in such a manner that we literally do not see things that fail to match the patterns of our expectations.

It is when the external environment shifts and strategic uncertainty increases, that these habitual thoughts and behaviours become dysfunctional and need substantive change.

These thinking habits live in the basal ganglia deep in our brains, in an area that we rarely access consciously. Every time the patterns held here are invoked, they become further entrenched and stronger and more compelling as drivers of our behaviour and our thinking.

When faced with the new or the threatening or with change and strategic uncertainty, our brains move to defend the thinking habits embedded in our basal ganglia. Fight or flight response triggered by the amygdala is part of this.

Bur neural connections in the brain can change this is the idea behind neuroplasticity where the brain changes as the result of input from the environment.

So even deeply entrenched ways of thinking and seeing the world can be changed but it takes conscious effort, and

We have to identify, focus and call ttention to the fact that existing thinking patterns are no longer helpful.55Recognise that the way we do things around here is no longer usefulRe-label your reactionsReflect on your expectations and valuesRefocus your behaviourRespond with repetitionRevalue your choices in real time

56Recognise that the way we do things around here is no longer usefulRe-label your reactionsReflect on your expectations and valuesRefocus your behaviourRespond with repetitionRevalue your choices in real time

This requires us to be reflective, and to be able to take somewhat of a meta-stance on our beliefs and assumptions.57

It requires us to pay attention to the future and really focus on whats possible, rather than what we are comfortable with today and assuming that what we have today will continue unchanged into the future58

to move out of our comfort zones rather than stop when we hit a deeply held assumption about what we believe to be possible and true.59

Our assumptions encase us in the past

And prevent us from engaging with strategic uncertainty.60

Traditional planning approaches are not useful for dealing with strategic uncertainty, because they dont engage with that uncertainty.6162Four level framework provides an enhanced model for strategy development and implementation.

InteriorExteriorIndividualCollectiveWilber reminds us that we need to include the left hand quadrants to really be able to understand strategic uncertainty and develop processes that are futures focused and which involve people from the beginning.

Providing a holistic approach to dealing with strategic uncertainty.63

And neuroscience allows us to understand why we react to change and strategic uncertainty as we do, and suggests some ways we can re-wire the brain to be able to better deal with it.64Seek to understand the strategic uncertainty in the external environment.Provide spaces, time, information and opportunities for staff to be involved in strategySupport staff to change the way they think about strategy uncertaintyBuild a futures focused culture by changing the way we do things around here

Strategy processes will need to be open to new ways of understanding what is possible beyond the status quo, if organisations are to be able to deal with the degree of strategy uncertainty that is upon us and for all of us to be able to manage the change that is coming.66

Because this is where your university will end up if it doesnt embrace strategic uncertainty and leave the status quo thinking behind.67

68Contact Details

Maree Conway

Tel: 03 9016 9506Mobile: 0425 770 181Skype: mkconway1More information andBuilding Strategic Futures Guides:

Getting Started with FuturesEnvironmental Scanning