A strategy for strategy

 From a speech at Høgskolen i Oslo og Akershus, June 17, 2015

It’s a simple film, but I find it incredibly inspiring. When I first watched it, I actually found myself a little sad because it shows such cool kids and I won’t get to know them since they’re moving along now. But others are coming, and they are surely just as cool and getting to know them is an exciting thought.

It’s a tremendous responsibility for all of us here to share the task of running an institution which thousands of young people every year choose as their academic home. They want to give themselves a chance to become better educated and to prepare for a career.

They also want to give us a chance to be worthy of the choice they made. These are our ambassadors for the next 50 years. We want them to leave us not only happy but firm in their belief that we’re doing something important.

Deliver on discovery

Of course, youth who are getting an education aren’t the only students at HiOA.

The word student is perhaps one of the easiest to find the history of for those who speak Norwegian. The changes from Latin are essentially invisible.

The Latin verb studere is broken into its parts and its stem stud is combined with a suffix -ent and there we are. To apply oneself. In Norwegian, we might say sette seg inn i or granske or betrakte nøye.

That’s not just a description of what these young people do when they pursue an education; it’s also a description of the rest of our core activities. And that makes all of us students.

The idea is that when we sette oss i something, we are learning. We are discovering.

Some of us — those we traditionally call students — are working to discover things that they don’t know themselves, even if someone else already does. That’s perhaps the heart of education.

Other of us — now done with out student years, but still working to apply ourselves — are working to discover things that no one knows yet. That might be the definition of research.

So, we’re all students. We’re all working towards discovery. And that’s why I say delivering on discovery is the heart of what we’re doing.

Becoming a responsive organization

We want to be better at this. We don’t need outside pressure to want that. We’re engaged and focused people and we always just want to be better at what we do.

The way we work is affected by our context and that context is constantly changing. And here’s where I think we start to touch more directly on the notion of strategy. Because strategy is forced by — and it forces — a changing context.

How is our context changing right now? The tools we have for delivering on discovery are changing. Digitalization, for example. The expectations of society about the relevance of our results are changing. Innovation, for example.

And we as an organization will be constantly changing. Our work is not about going from one static state to another. It is about becoming a responsive organization.

We won’t be haphazard; we won’t implement change without thinking carefully; we’ll be deliberate. But we will make changes often, even continuously.

We want to ask good, hard, intelligent questions and think through them until we find creative answers.

Talking about strategy

When we talk about strategy, we are talking about the long-term. We’re talking about the position we want to take. We’re talking about creating better circumstances for discovery. We’re talking about anticipating the changes that are coming and even influencing them, rather than simply reacting to them.

This is strategic work. Finding our long-term goals. Thinking about how we’re different from others and how our way of doing things adds value for society. And then we’ll work to preserve the advantage that gives us as an organization.

Think for a minute about our goal to become a university. That’s a long-term goal. In some ways, our goal is to be like others: the same category, the opportunities that will bring, and ideally the funding model.

But we want to do it in a different way. How should that look? We talk a lot about becoming a university with a focus on profession-oriented programs (profesjonsuniversitet) — maybe that’s a good way to describe our niche. Or maybe not. Personally, I’m not sure how unlike others that is; we might need to find a better way to think about our own unique profile — perhaps a better way to define our advantage.

We have to find that niche and pursue it and then use it to create an advantage that let’s us keep getting better and better at delivering discoveries of many kinds to society.

It’s important to keep in mind that “strategic plans” are more than just “big plans.”

Some things that feel big are still not strategy items but rather measures to get to where we think we want to go.

For example, our board (Høgskolestyret) has made a number of historic decisions under the leadership of Kari Toverud Jensen. One was to restructure our organization with one management line rather than two. Another was to incorporate the external research institutes last year and most recently to incorporate two more.

But let’s not confuse those decisions with strategy. It’s not our strategy to have one management line, nor is it our strategy to have a bunch of institutes organized with us.

It could be, of course. It could be a strategy to merge institutions of higher education with research institutes. But in our case, it’s more of a move intended to take us towards university status by improving our organization in some of the areas where it needs to be better to achieve university status — areas such as research activity, grant writing skills and more.

It’s a decision that feeds our strategy. And it’s an important, good, and exciting decision, in my opinion. But it’s not our goal.

Today we also are going to talk about something that isn’t so much a strategy but is an approach that feeds our strategy.

How will we use our new model of leadership? How will it feed our strategy? How will it add value? How will it help us achieve our strategic goals?

I’m curious and excited to hear your ideas about that.

Our strategic goals of becoming a university and taking on a greater role in society, if achieved, will let us do more of what we want to do, which is excellent teaching and research. That’s what we’re here for.

The adjacent possible

Let me close with a few minutes on a strategy for strategy. Thinking about thinking.

We’re going to do a lot of this in the future, thinking about how to think. And we’ll find good ways to make it concrete and turn it into a skill.

But for now, here’s a little taste of how I personally think about strategic thinking. The idea comes from biology in some ways, but from the history of innovation in others. And here’s an initially strange fact about innovation.

Many of the most important discoveries and inventions have been discovered by more than one person or team at more or less the same time.

Examples include:

  • Four totally independent scientists in the 17th century simultaneously discovered sunspots.
  • Two independently working scientists invented the first battery in the mid 18th century.
  • The telephone, the steam engine, the radio — all were invented by more than one group.

It seems strange when we realize there are hundreds of examples of simultaneous discoveries and inventions because we think of breakthroughs as coming out of thin air. But they don’t.

Discoveries don’t happen simultaneously because these scientists are working together or even communicating with each other. That’s what makes this interesting.

It happens because they’re all in the same conceptual space. They know what is known and they know what the problems are that they can try to solve.

They space that they’re in defines the range of potential moves they can make. It’s this way in evolution, too, but that’s a topic for another day.

Students and researchers experience multiple discovery all the time: when confronted with a problem, they come up with a solution and they travel off to class or a conference, only to learn that someone else has come up with the same solution. Multiple discovery is actually quite normal. It’s still discovery, but totally isolated groups find themselves making the same move.

The idea that the place we’re in defines the moves we possibly could make is called the idea of the adjacent possible. It’s Stuart Kaufmann’s idea which I myself became aware of through one of my all-time favorite books, Steven Johnson’s Where good ideas come from: the natural history of innovation. An absolutely glorious read. Take it to the beach this summer.

Imagine being in a room in a house. That room has maybe three doors that lead to other rooms. If you want to move, those are your options. But as soon as you open one of the doors, you might see a room with three more doors.

Before you go into that room, though, I want you to open the other doors from the room you start in. Have a look into all three of them.

Study them. Betrakte dem nøye. And then make a move. And when you do, restart the process and move again. The possibilities you have are the ones that are adjacent to where you are and they are actually few.

We can’t jump to university status. It’s not adjacent to where we’re at. There are quite a few rooms to go through.

When we’re thinking hard about what our niche might be, what our advantage is, what makes us unique, there are several possible answers. We find those answers by studying carefully where we’re at and imaging the moves that we could make.

So when you’re engaged in thinking about strategy, do it slowly and carefully. Be aware of the adjacent possible. Figure out what the options are. Remember that there are many rooms; peek through several doors and don’t just run through the first one you open.

And remember why we’re doing this. We want to deliver on discovery. We have a longterm vision and we’re finding the rooms that hold something that can add value. And while I don’t want you to run into the first one you open, I do want you to move into one and commit to it.

Commitment means leaving other possibilities behind. One of Steve Jobs’ great lines, I think, is this: At Apple, we say no to good ideas every day. We should do that at HiOA, too, if we want to focus. And we do want to focus. There are lots of good ideas out there; let’s say yes to the ones that feed our quest.

We want to move forward and we want to move society forward. Education and research are the keys to making that happen.

We also want to meet cool young people. And we want all of them to leave us as happy as the ones we saw in this video.

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more


1 Comment

  • Helge Høivik says:

    A sound approach!

    My penny’s worth: In order to create committment and organizational coherence it is essential not only to accept diversity. One should also respect alternative ideas and analysis as an important driver for change and development. Quite often there are differences of opinion and (some) leaders reject the ideas that are put forward by others.

    At a later stage some (new) leaders come to see that the objections may have had some merit after all. Then it is better to openly adm it that — with due respect — rather than “gliding” into a new policy (“glidende overganger”.

    An organization grows strategically stronger by admitting its mistakes, not weaker.


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