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Strategic Thinking in Three Dimensions

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

All of us have the ability to think strategically but, as with any skill, it comes more naturally to some than others. The good news is that we can all get better at strategic thinking with a better understanding of what it involves and with practice.

I was recently explaining what I mean by ‘strategic thinking’ to a number of Heads of independent schools as part of a research project, and realised that there is no easy-to-remember framework to help teach people how to think strategically. So I’ve developed the Strategic Thinking in Three Dimensions framework to do just that. It is specifically designed to help staff apply an organisational strategy to their own work and to ensure their day-to-day decisions help deliver that strategy. (If you don't have an organisational strategy yet see my additional advice at the end of this post.) Although the examples here apply the framework to schools, it is equally applicable within any organisation, whether not-for-profit or for-profit.

As the Head of an independent school recently told me: “You suddenly see a whole area of the school come to life when someone’s thinking and acting strategically. Boy, does it make a difference!” So help your staff at all levels think strategically and start building a culture of strategic thinking by sharing this framework with them.

Strategic Thinking in Three Dimensions

Imagine you’re standing at the ‘x’ at the base of this graph contemplating a decision you need to make. To encourage yourself to think strategically you remind yourself to look up and consider how the decision aligns with the organisation’s strategy, then you look around and consider how you might collaborate with others both internally and externally and finally you look ahead to consider the possible future impacts of the decision.

Let’s focus on the three dimensions in more detail and look at the questions you could ask yourself at each stage.

1. Look up - Alignment

How does this decision connect to the organisational strategy? How can it help deliver that strategy?

I would argue that almost every decision made in an organisation has some connection to the organisational strategy. You’ll probably be able to think of a few that don’t have a connection, but I’m betting you’d find it harder than you think. Choosing a stationery provider? Cost and environmental credentials connect to the strategy. Selecting a painting for the reception? Sends a message to visitors about what’s important to the organisation, which is why many schools display pupil’s art work. So first, find the connection to the strategy, then explore ways to best deliver the strategic objectives.

For example, a school’s strategy may include celebrating the international diversity of its community. When the Head Gardener contemplates the planting plan for next year she may decide to incorporate plants from all the countries represented in the staff and student body. By producing a document at the start of each academic year listing these plants and their location she helps everyone see how the gardens reflect the college’s international community. This also helps during school tours, where the gardens demonstrate what's important to the school.

What if an activity has no connection to the strategy?

If an activity you’re reflecting on does nothing to contribute to the organisational strategy then you need to initiate a conversation with colleagues and leaders about why you are doing this activity. The result may be that you stop doing it (Great! We’re all short of time so finding things to stop doing is a bonus and gives you more time for strategic thinking!). Or it may be that you refine the activity so that it does contribute to the strategy. Either way, it’s an essential conversation to have.

2. Look around - Collaboration

How can I connect this to other activities across the organisation? How can I leverage opportunities and innovate?

Next you need to look around inside your organisation to connect your decision to other activities that are already taking place. You’re looking for opportunities to collaborate with colleagues and leverage your work. In other words, you’re looking for ways to maximise the beneficial outputs without having to substantially increase the effort you put in.

For example, it may be that a school’s strategy includes the desire to integrate real-world experience more into the sixth form curriculum, and also to increase alumni engagement before the next fundraising campaign. The Business Studies teacher decides to invite some external speakers from the business world. Rather than using his own network he talks to the Development Office about inviting alumni in. The Director of Development then invites some alumni she wants to re-engage before the next fundraising campaign. This cross-school collaboration means the effort that goes into inviting speakers not only improves the educational outcomes for the Business Studies pupils but also provides an opportunity to engage key alumni. The work of the teacher and Director of Development are leveraged through collaboration.

What’s the impact of the external environment? Are there benefits to collaborating externally?

The second component of looking around extends the view beyond the school gates and into the external environment. You're looking for external trends which might impact the activity you're reviewing, information about how similar organisations approach this activity and how successful they are, and academic research which might provide additional evidence or suggest a fresh approach. It's also important to consider the opportunities for external collaboration, for example with local state schools or community groups. This is especially important if the organisational strategy aims to enhance external partnerships, as is the case for many independent schools.

For example, a school's strategy may include ensuring the maximum benefit from termly pupil reports. The group of teachers tasked with reviewing the current approach may research the methods used by other schools, search for academic research on the way reports are received and acted on by pupils and parents, consider whether recently published research on encouraging behaviour change may be useful and consider whether external developments in the use of technology might offer opportunities to streamline the process. Note how this all flows from looking up to align the reporting process with the aims of the overall strategy.

3. Look ahead - Forward thinking

What are the future impacts of this decision? Do I need to build in flexibility?

Strategic plans contain long-term goals, but these goals are often achieved through a number of small steps rather than one giant leap. So when you are considering a decision look ahead to consider its future impact and how it may be just one step towards a greater goal.

For example, enhancements to an alumni relations programme may precede a major fundraising campaign, which then enables an enhanced specification for a new building. So when making day-to-day decisions about the alumni relations programme it is useful to have in mind the longer term goals you are working towards.

It’s also important to consider the need for future flexibility, especially when trialing a new idea. For example, if a boarding school wants to change the format of evening prep in the boarding houses it may decide to trial the change for the sixth form first, then review and tweak the new format before rolling it out to other years. This builds flexibility into the initial decision and encourages continual improvement.

Will future trends impact the decision?

The other component of looking ahead relates to the external environment again, but this time involves anticipating future trends and needs. For example, a boarding school would need to look carefully at trends in the demand for boarding from UK and international pupils before making any decisions about building and facility expansions.

Practise, practise, practise!

Now you have a better understanding of what strategic thinking involves it’s time to practise. Share this framework with your colleagues and use it together in meetings or independently when reflecting on your day-to-day activities. Use it with your partner next time you have a big decision to make together, like buying a new car. Use your strategic thinking skills wherever you can – practice makes perfect!

No organisational strategy yet?

This framework is designed to be used once an organisation’s overall strategy has been developed and agreed, because without this you have no strategy to look up to and align with. The Strategic Thinking in Three Dimensions framework will certainly help you get in the right frame of mind for strategy development, but you’re likely to need a little more direction to get the most out of this process and build a robust strategy.

I’m planning future blog posts about the four key components of a good strategy and getting the most out of a strategic planning process. In the meantime, do get in touch if you’d like to talk about ways to encourage a culture of strategic thinking or design a strategy development process tailored to your organisation.


I always welcome feedback - debate and conversation sparks innovation! Please contact me via Twitter or LinkedIn.

Juliet Corbett is an experienced education management professional and consultant.


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