How to Make Strategic Big Bets

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Published by The Chronicle of Higher Education

Being bold can be a gamble for presidents and colleges alike. "Making the wrong bet can be obviously harmful to an individual leader’s career," says David W. Strauss, a principal in the Art & Science Group, which does strategic consulting for colleges. "In some cases it can be a downright existential threat to an institution."

Some colleges start programs or build facilities simply because they see their peers doing so, or because they feel they have to try something, anything, to turn around their fortunes. "They just float out these new programs and see what they get," says Richard A. Hesel, another principal with the Art & Science Group. "That’s a foolish way to do it."

It’s more efficient and less expensive to quantify the risks and the rewards before making the investment, he says, "because they can be measured."

Just as there is no one solution that works for every college, there is no simple checklist of steps that guarantees success. But talking with the leaders of some institutions that have recently made big changes reveals crucial factors to keep in mind: starting from an empirical foundation, testing assumptions, and bringing key stakeholders on board.

The most important step is making sure it’s the right one. A college must examine whether what it’s considering fits its mission and its identity. It must research the demand for the innovation it wants to introduce and look for empirical evidence that it will be well received. It must determine whether it’s able to take advantage of its new strategy, or if it’s out of reach.

The research that Wake Forest commissioned from Art & Science indicated that an engineering program, and other science programs added to its liberal-arts mix, would convert more applicants into freshmen. That gave university leaders confidence that the rewards of investing in a new facility were worth the risk.

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