Spotting grey swans: using foresight for strategy development in academia

How can universities adopt more flexible and adaptive approaches to strategy development? Gert-Jan Scheurwater reports on TU Delft’s progress in introducing foresight as a tool to tackle this challenge.

Covid-19 took most organisations by surprise. Universities, for their part, were equipped to quickly switch to digital education, thereby demonstrating their resilience. However, this was largely an unintended consequence of the development of digital education facilities in many universities, and not due to a common ability to anticipate unforeseen events.

Indeed, universities are operating in increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) contexts. This presents challenges for institutional strategies, which must systematically consider the non-linear qualities of external developments and their possible impacts. For this reason, the Executive Board of Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) has decided to develop a strategic foresight facility over the next five years. This endeavour aims to strengthen TU Delft’s anticipatory capacity and thereby enrich its decision-making processes.

What is a grey swan?

From the perspective of strategic development the Covid-19 pandemic could be classified as a ‘grey swan’ event - a variant of black swan events. Grey swans include events that we know can occur, but the probability of which many consider low. On the other hand, with the benefit of hindsight experts see such events as more or less logical outcomes of developments. Events such as the financial crisis of 2008, Brexit, the Russian invasion of Ukraine or the recent developments regarding generative AI could be considered examples of grey swans.

As these events show, the context in which universities operate can change abruptly and fundamentally, disrupting any form of conventional strategic thinking. It also clearly demonstrates, once again, that universities highly depend on external developments and are not perfectly autonomous.

Assuming that other new grey swan events will occur, TU Delft was prompted to explore foresight infused strategy. Could this broaden our conventional ways of strategy development, enhance our anticipatory capability and strengthen our strategic flexibility and responsiveness?

Assumptions and internal dynamics

While rethinking strategy development, it became clear to us that extrapolation from existing developments is common practice: the future is expected to be more or less similar to the past, indicating deep-seated presumptions of continuity and a deep trust in linear causal thinking. Consequently, the duration of strategic plans is often quite limited, from 1 to 5 years, with a focus on the current situation and challenges.

Furthermore, the focus on internal dynamics in many universities is often so powerful that this pull can easily obscure the potential impact of external developments on the organisation. This mixture of factors and assumptions can lead to incremental planning and organisational myopia. It may therefore be sensible to organise a form of counterweight that includes external developments. Introducing strategic foresight is a promising way of creating such a countervailing capability.

Strategic foresight and its related methods are relatively new and underdeveloped among universities. Introducing strategic foresight in an academic setting implies changing habitual thinking about the university's future, re-considering customary mindsets and testing entrenched assumptions. Impactful implementation revolves around organising broad acceptance and support, avoiding that strategic foresight becomes an isolated theoretical exercise conducted in an ivory tower.

The Delft approach

TU Delft’s decision to work with strategic foresight was preceded by an extensive round of interviews with internal stakeholders. This exercise sought to find out whether foresight could meet their needs and whether they recognised its potential added value. Without such empirical groundwork, a decision to introduce strategic foresight would quickly be perceived as a top-down imposition. In this preparatory phase, local experiences with strategic foresight and scenario development within the university were also used. When implementing strategic foresight, it is also worth considering learning from lessons codified in literature: Maree Conway's Foresight infused strategy - a guide for using foresight in practice (2016) is a particularly valuable resource.

Following Conway's analysis, TU Delft is starting with pilot initiatives. This ensures small-scale experimental learning experiences and is cautious about “rolling out” foresight activities on a central level. It is also important to recognise that foresight requires sufficient and diverse capacity; therefore a team within the strategy development department was established. This team should be strengthened in the future with colleagues from other units.  In addition, targeted training is offered and – where necessary – external expertise (e.g. facilitators) is hired. Part of the “Delft approach” is demonstrating strategic foresight’s added value by linking it to current strategic topics, such as the development of a new HR strategy or an international funding strategy.

Furthermore, developing a clear organisational structure for strategic foresight is an important ingredient to enhancing acceptance and support, avoiding common pitfalls in these processes. Our university has opted for a programmatic approach, with work streams that make it clear which deliverables are being worked on and which services can be called upon. A user group with a diverse composition provides direct feedback and guarantees a clear link with the broader organisation. In addition, explicit quality will be assured through an academic reference group, another element that facilitates acceptance and support in an academic setting.

In conclusion, strategic foresight is complementary to the usual linear way of doing strategy in a university. It promises to be helpful in navigating the uncharted territories that universities increasingly face. However, in order for strategic foresight to become of permanent value in a university, a change process aimed at structural buy-in from academic, management and governance layers is paramount.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Gert-Jan Scheurwater

Gert-Jan Scheurwater is Director of Strategy Development at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), the Netherlands. In this role, he is currently working on the implementation of the university’s strategic foresight capability.


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