Higher Ed Futures: Why context matters

If you follow the world of literature on higher ed, books proposing ideas for what’s next are released at an almost monthly rhythm.

That’s a good sign. Publishers–and a few authors–are recognizing that the status quo won’t broadly serve higher education in the next decade.

But there’s something missing with (most of) these new releases. Many posit the next move in higher ed. It might be the infusion of technology for online or tech-infused experiences like Minerva. It might be a new wave of hybrid education that revolutionizes the classroom experience. Maybe it’s competency based learning.

But here’s the problem: Context matters.

The strength of this industry is (and can be) its diversity. Pursuing the same metrics and same students and same definition of prestige is what has created many of the current challenges.

Instead, the strategy to develop excellent, relevant learning opportunities for students moving forward will look different for each successful institution.

It will take into account the unique mission of the campus, the top program offerings and expertise of the faculty, and will be grounded in the unique needs and personality of the physical location.

The flagship research-focused state institutions and the well-known private institutions with large endowments will likely continue to offer the familiar collegiate experience of today. But the small and mid-size public and private institutions will benefit from moving into a future that is focused and uniquely their own.

How to think about time

Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute, just shared the institute’s 2019 Tech Trends report, which includes more than 300 tech and science trends and 48 scenarios for consideration.

In the introductory remarks, they provide a summary of how leaders should think about time and plan for the future:

The organizations the Future Today Institute advises are always thinking about the future. But most often, their planning timeframes miss the mark. We observe teams stuck in a rut of three or five-year planning cycles. Many are reluctant to do any serious planning beyond five years. They argue it’s pointless, given all the technological disruption.

To effectively plan for the future, organizations need to learn how think about time differently. For any given uncertainty about the future—whether that’s risk, opportunity or growth—leaders must think strategically about tactics, strategy, vision and systems-level change.

Start retraining yourself to think about change and disruption to your organization and industry across different timeframes and build actions for each. The next 12-36 months – tactical actions. 3-5 years – strategic action. 5-10 years – vision and R&D initiatives. 10+ years – how you and your organization can create systems-level change so that you catalyze that change for your benefit.

The Future Today Institute’s 2019 Tech Trends report

12-36 Months: Tactical Actions

3-5 Years: Strategic Action

5-10 Years: Vision and R&D Initiatives

10+ Years: Systems-Level Change

Sometimes, when we think about planning horizons, it becomes either/or. Instead, this frame provides a helpful rubric for multiple levels of simultaneous work and thought to prepare organizations for future needs while acting on immediate opportunities.

The Future Today Institute’s 2019 Tech Trends report

Closing the loop

Donating blood to the American Red Cross can be an inherently rewarding activity. You know you’ve broadly done a good thing. You’ve helped someone.

But look what happens a few weeks after you donate:

What a surprising, unexpected follow up!

It’s another chance for relationship and a reason to remind people to sign up to donate again. It makes the general good a specific good and further anchors the positive feelings.

How many times do we thank people in the moment but miss an opportunity to follow up, close the loop, or add specifics?

The direct application might be that survey you give or the feedback you request. What happens with it? What change does it inspire?

But take it a step further. What other ‘one more thing’ moments might be embedded in your daily routine?

“Thanks for the discussion in our staff meeting. Here’s what we did and where we’re headed.”

“We noticed you all really liked this event, so we’re planning two more like it!”

It’s easy to underestimate the noise we all live with and assume others see the things we see. It makes us think the follow up we did from that conversation or work is obvious.

Sometimes, a small ‘here’s what we did’ can make a big difference.

You won’t believe what happened

It happened again. They did something irresponsible. Rude. Lazy.

They were wrong. You are right.

You can feel it. We’ve all felt it. The anger. The tension in the chest. The laser-like focus. The words you’re going to say running through your mind. The list of how they’re wrong.

Now what?

What feels good is to step into our justified, righteous actions. To blame. Vent. Expect an apology. Or at least some groveling.

You might be right to expect them to make it right. And they might actually follow through.

But if they don’t, consider whether it’s worth giving all of that power and control of your day to the very person you believe is wrong.

We can get stuck in the bad behavior of others. But what does that really do? What good does that create?

Instead, consider the alternative.

Rather than what’s deserved and what’s owed, what if you asked a different set of questions?

Questions like ‘what would great look like?’

‘Here’s what I need. What will it take?’

Even better yet, ‘what’s their perspective?’ ‘What led them to write/say that?’ ‘What if they’re right? Or what part of what they said is right?’

To let an email ruin your day is normal, but it’s not leadership.

When these moments happen – and, unfortunately, we all know they will – we can get even, or we can get better. Which option makes us stronger leaders a year from now? Which one puts our organization in a better place tomorrow?

Belonging comes from follow through

For all of the great programs and resources we can offer, the foundation for a sense of belonging among our students starts with …

a quick response to that emailed question,

a conversation with an advisor that helps them know what they need to do next,

and a clear understanding of what’s expected of them in class.

Belonging comes from layers of interaction, involvement, and mattering. But it’s built on a foundation of responsive people and clear systems.

Is vision a filter or a frame?

As I research senior leadership teams in higher education who have led successful, adaptive change, one thing that stands out is the strength of the vision the leader sets and the commitment of the team to pursue that vision together.

The shared vision and mission motivate the team towards unity and excellence.

But that’s not news. I get it. It’s boring. Pick up any book on leadership, and you’ll find a section on vision.

But when we talk about vision, it’s usually in the context of inspiration. It’s implied the (often inspirational) clarity motivates and unifies the team.

I’m beginning to think it’s the other way around. Rather than a clear vision helping a team unify around a cause, it seems like most often, a clear vision helps people opt in or opt out. Knowing what the team is committed to and fanatical about provides an immediate cue for people as to whether or not they’ll resonate with the work.

These teams talk a lot about hiring well. They respectfully share about folks who have exited because it wasn’t a fit. They recognize the courage it takes for a leader to set clear expectations and – at times – help someone leave who isn’t following through.

I know strong cultures can be polarizing. But successful teams usually have strong cultures.

Successful teams have clarity. But if it’s due to an opt-in/opt-out effect, we don’t want to be caught surprised when transitions happen. They may not signal failure. They may just show that the vision is taking hold.

As much time and effort into the small number of things that give huge rewards

Since this is related so closely to yesterday’s post, we’ll go ahead and add it here.

One of the problems here is a sort of digital FOMO. “If I don’t have that thing”—Facebook, Instagram, whatever—”what benefit might I be missing out on?” You’re pretty unplugged. How do you deal with that digital FOMO?
There’s a rarefied number of activities to invest time in that are really important and return a lot of value—the amount of value [in these activities] is way higher than, say, the little bit of value you get by seeing a funny Tweet or writing a comment on a friend’s Facebook post. Spreading your time and attention over these low value things takes your time and attention away from the things that are disproportionately higher value.

If you want to maximize the amount of value you feel in your life, the mathematics are clear: You want to put as much of your time and effort as possible into the small number of things to give you these huge rewards. When you think about it that way, fear of missing out looks like, just mathematically speaking, a really bad strategy.

– Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism (and a number of other great books), in this interview

What a challenging, but clarifying way to see the trade offs of technology and how we spend our time.