Strategic Thinking – An Intellectual Endeavor: Developing an Abiding Approach


Current complexities inherent in the field of music and the academy require music administrators to manage and oversee an expanding number of issues, events, and activities. Music executives are always developing and applying expertise in areas such as curricular design and innovation, building operation and maintenance, personnel management, student health and well-being, fundraising, the development of advocacy campaigns, strategic planning, and the like. As expected, growing complexities produce growing responsibilities, not only to address an increasing number of issues, but also to understand and respond to their broadening variety, intensity, and levels of difficulty. Ultimately, all such issues require attention; many responses require significant action. Success is often dependent upon the thoroughness one pursues to reach a decision – a journey which includes:

  • collection of information about conditions being studied (considered in terms of accuracy, currency, scope, depth);
  • assessment and prioritizing the applicability and criticality of information collected (answers can vary from little to great by issue or event, or within the various elements of an issue or event);
  • ideas reviews (considered against core values and analyzed for logical consistency against specific foundational purposes including mission, goals, and objectives);
  • checks to ensure that views or decisions are not held to be valid in a specific situation solely because they simply sound good, because someone or everyone else supports them, or because they appear to work well elsewhere;
  • deep considerations of local realities, especially in the near term;
  • reviews of probable risks and rewards for specific representations, proposals, and actions in the local situation; and
  • probability assessment of short-term success as a basis for long-term success and viability.

Unfortunately, the journey does not end once information has been collected and realities, risk, rewards, and probabilities have been considered. Instead, these accomplishments merely bring those involved to the place where decisions must be formulated, put in their final form, and implemented.

Successful decision-making requires the existence of a number of conditions. Paramount among them is the implementation of a deep and abiding strategic thinking process which supports and promotes an analytical approach which, as noted above, not only focuses on the present but also contemplates the relationship of the present to the future and its possibilities. Implementing such an approach is also one of the best ways to be prepared for the next challenge and for locating potential needs for change. By having explored a wide range of possibilities and considered them in terms of their local applications, options and possibilities can be in hand before the arrival of the next set of problems. Engagement in strategic-oriented analytical work can serve to coalesce faculty, staff, and administrators, thus enabling the establishment of viable sets of consensus-based priorities which can promote greater confidence, rekindle a sense of purpose in difficult times, and result in a collective commitment for thoughtful action. However, absent a well-established proactive approach which considers aspects and conditions strategically – an approach which is firmly embedded within the culture of the music unit, and which anticipates, if not always welcomes, and is poised to address the next challenge – decision-making for the music executive and the music unit can become difficult if not overwhelming. A well-considered and implemented analytical approach can assist to frame any issue; bring meaning, order, and structure to any process; heighten clarity; and deepen understanding in any set of circumstances, all critical components of a decision-making process that creates action plans which not only address current issues but do so in ways that reinforce the basic foundation upon which the unit’s future rests, that tie decisions and basic purposes together in a productive continuity or framework within which change is expected to occur, and does.

Cultivating such a way of thinking is not inordinately difficult, but it does require a willingness to face general ambiguity, a flexibility which supports trial and error, the fortitude to return to and rethink the same issues as often as necessary, and sufficient patience to allow the work to bring forth well-formed, viable options. Much like establishing daily personal routines which often serve to provide structure, security, and comfort, the establishment of a strategically oriented intellectual routine can lead to a similar result, especially during chaotic and uncertain times. It may be that these routines are or become the only activities over which an individual administrator has some definitive control, activities that can be reassuring when all else seems uncertain. Implementing an approach takes study and practice. However, the more one studies and practices, the better one becomes at formulating effective questions, framing considerations, and drawing useful conclusions quickly, and the more confidence one gains in recognizing and managing rapidly changing conditions. As well, the interrelated processes of gathering information, forecasting, assessing, prioritizing, analyzing, making applications to local situations, and evaluating options also expand mental capacities and develop creativity in finding solutions and new possibilities, and at reaching states of true innovation from time to time.

Artistically centered strategic intellectual thinking creates spaces which contain various ideas, information, data, techniques, aspirations, values, possibilities, disciplinary contents, experiences, and common sense. Artistically centered strategic intellectual thinking results in the acquisition of knowledge, the cultivation of which will not necessarily prevent difficulties from arising in the future, but may assist in avoiding or surmounting them, or even gaming them if circumstances warrant. The analytical work that takes place in these spaces can inform decision-making which not only advances institutional initiatives, but produces, hones, and promotes appropriate institutional uniqueness and originality, and at times can serve to provide music administrators with the courage needed to avoid decisions which merely result in sameness or duplication. Over the years, successful music executives have demonstrated that typically, regular practice of intellect-driven strategic analytical thinking can turn apparent difficulties into strengths and produce conditions for higher achievement over time.

The Basic Elements of an Approach

Approaches vary. They must, if they are designed to serve the needs of a specific institution. Approaches should align with the nature of the discipline, including its habits of mind, and with current institutional initiatives and priorities. They must, if buy-in is desired. However, approaches can share common elements. The list of elements below is offered as a starting point. It is not exhaustive by any means. It is, however, intended to assist music administrators as they begin or continue to develop approaches that will assist them to address challenges strategically.

  • Define the nature of the challenge. Take the time necessary to fully formulate and analyze the challenge at hand. Remember, defining the nature and characteristics of the challenge is the foundation upon which all else rests – strategic thinking, decision-making, action planning, etc. What is the challenge? Why does it exist? What and who caused it to arise? When did it begin? How pervasive is the challenge? What is its probable shelf life? What can cancel it? Develop a detailed and thorough understanding of the challenge in terms of that which is critical to the viability of the music unit; describe the challenge with utmost clarity; set down your findings in writing and see how they read. Avoid solutions at this juncture. Share your situational understanding with those who will assist you to address the challenge. A poorly defined or insufficiently considered problem is far more difficult to address than one that has been carefully analyzed and clearly defined. The more clearly a challenge is defined, the broader the array of possible options that usually appear as considerations proceed.
  • Define the type of problem/challenge. Is the challenge characterized as easy or difficult (i.e., hard to address); simple or complex (i.e., interdependent, diverse, possessing an ability to adapt); single- or multi-faceted? Does it have a single answer, or multiple answers? How dynamic is it; how frequently does it change or morph? Understanding the nature and scope of the challenge will assist in aligning resources and aspirations, revealing how current resources can best be used or invested to produce desired artistic and educational results, and developing the resource base needed for the future.
  • Gather information. Ascertain what you know. Seek reliable information that provides insight into what you do not know. Ensure sources of information are trustworthy. Seek comprehensive, realistic, accurate information. Try to avoid propagandistic analyses, or at least be aware of them. Often gathering information requires going well beyond the most typical sources.
  • Begin the process of discovery. Review in detail the range of information in hand. Verify; reverify. Seek ideas and input from others. Seek wisdom from those you trust. Attempt to structure the discovery phase so that the process builds toward consensus or negotiated agreement as you consider possibilities and begin to narrow the number of viable options in your situation.
  • Develop an action plan. Consider what must be accomplished in the short-term. Consider the impact short-term actions will or could have on long-term viability. What core values, content, and operations are indispensable and therefore make-or-break variables associated with fulfillment of essential published purposes? If sacrifices must be made, what can be let go without harming or devastating the long-term health and viability of the operations of the music unit?

Considering Conditions and Patterns

Having formulated and structured an approach guided by the sequence of basic elements provided above, we turn now to conditions and patterns – realities that can impact decision-making and therefore must be considered if a tailor-made solution to a challenge is to be created and realized. Provided below is a list of general considerations. The list below provides examples, a springboard for institutional amendment and expansion which suggests the consideration of questions intended to produce helpful findings in the course of decision-making.

Conditions. The relative importance of conditions offered below should be considered in light of the challenges faced.

  • Goals. What institutional and music unit goals are relevant to the specific decision-making challenge in terms of content and student achievement? What music unit goals are relevant to the decision-making process chosen in a particular instance? How must/will these goals influence decision-making? How can proposals best be tested against the requirements necessary to meet applicable goals?
  • Other Initiatives. What ongoing activities associated with the work of the music unit/institution are relevant to the challenge faced and the decision-making process chosen to address it? How will these conditions influence decision-making? Is there evidence that the context contains opponents of the music unit?
  • Anticipated Changes. What change factors (situations or conditions that affect change) such as information, economic conditions, technology, demographics, political climate, etc., are likely to have a direct bearing on the planning process? What change mechanisms (techniques or procedures that affect change) such as funding patterns, legislation/regulation, governance/administrative systems, technology/technological applications, etc. are likely to have a direct bearing on the planning process?
  • Constituency Analysis. What constituencies such as students/parents, institutional administrators, public officials, etc. have a stake in decisions made, and what does the answer mean for operations of the analytical process prior to decision-making?

Patterns. The organization of ideas and information into patterns can assist in developing wide-view perspectives. Patterns provide insight in that they tend to suggest predictable outcomes that occur with regularity given similar sets of existing conditions. Two examples are provided below.

  • Strategic Points-of-View. The points-of-view (individual, collective, small group, or factional) held within or by a music unit can have a substantial impact on the approach the unit takes to address challenges. Imagine the variations which could result given any one or a combination of any of the following overall strategic orientations or points-of-view brought to a specific problem: preservationist, conservationist, reactionary, pragmatic, experimental, policy-focused, and/or speculative. What affect do any of several current “mainstream” points-of-view have on institutional considerations? To what extent do these points-of-view represent true consensus? Does the consensus under consideration make sense when a range of ramifications are considered? What weight is to be given to each point of view? What dictates any weight given to each? What about points of view outside the institution or the music unit? For further information, see NASM Sourcebook for Futures Planning, (pages 38-42).
  • Trends. Trends can serve to indicate changes or events which can be anticipated, and therefore which could impact either current or future work of the music unit. As examples, trends in market conditions can affect the financial viability of an institution; trends in the propensities of students can affect enrollment and retention. It may be helpful for the music administrator to remain apprised of trends that may directly impact ongoing and/or planned initiatives of music unit and/or institution. For further information, see NASM Sourcebook for Futures Planning, (pages 43-51).

Developing Action Plans: Testing Intentions

Having defined and articulated the challenge; established an approach; considered information, conditions, and patterns; and with formulated plans in hand poised for implementation, prudent administrators usually revisit and affirm planned intentions and otherwise continue to ask themselves questions about viability. The sample question set which follows can assist in this regard. Naturally, questions can and should be modified given the nature and disposition of the challenge faced. The questions are intended to discern probable results—positive, neutral, or negative—and therefore, inform the specific actions of the music unit.


  • Have there been any changes in the challenges/issues/realities facing the music unit/institution since the onset of a particular challenge consideration?
  • If no action is taken regarding the challenge, what is likely to happen, who is likely to prevail? Consider both ends of the range and assumptions in between. If no action is taken, what is the anticipated best-case scenario, the greatest benefit? If no action is taken, what is the worst-case scenario, the greatest risk? Plan for the greatest risk. Ask the same questions about possible actions derived from strategic thinking. Always consider the make-or-break variables for the educational program of the music unit. It is this consideration and others of its type that makes a consideration strategic.
  • Given results of the considerations above, what must the institution or music unit do, what can it do, what should it do? What outcome is desired/expected to succeed?
  • What are the barriers standing in the institution or music unit’s way? Can these barriers be circumvented, and if so, how and in what time frame? Who can provide assistance?
  • What additions to options, opportunities, and possibilities exist in addition to those discovered so far? Are there more effective ways to approach/address the challenges/issues/realities given current conditions and desired results? Is there the possibility or need for a phased approach? A phased approach where only one phase is developed or revealed at a time?


What is offered above may seem time consuming and overambitious, especially the first time one considers or tries it. However, when implemented and applied regularly, such an approach may quickly become second nature, a way of thinking that takes hold organically and results in broader, more thoughtful consideration of the realities faced in and by the academy today. It helps to remember that strategic thinking is a thought process first and primarily, not a bureaucratic reporting system. Historically, for music administrators, little prodding has been needed to affirm the value of practice and the results that occur when strategic thinking expertise is pursued to virtuosic levels. The alternative, a “wait and see” approach does not seem to be a viable alternative at this juncture, especially given the breadth of adverse consequences that face the field and the academy today.

It is always difficult to predict whether an individual or an institution’s strategic thinking initiatives will be successful. However, developing and implementing an approach that is guided by artistically centered intellectual thinking and tested against serious and informed considerations in light of current facts and realities, and reasonable possibilities, a process which aligns with long-standing and well-understood practices employed for decades by music executives in the academy, seems to be well-worth the effort. It helps to remember that strategic thinking is a primary way to protect and enhance fulfillment of essential purposes by consciously tying decision-making to those purposes in ways that strengthen continuously a strong relationship between means and ends in dynamic, unpredictable conditions.

For further information, please do not hesitate to contact the National Office staff. In addition, NASM makes available on its website resources which focus on futures planning. For further information, please see:

NASM professional development session, Strategic Thinking – An Intellectual Endeavor: Developing an Abiding Approach
Sourcebook for Futures Planning and Supplements I, II, III, and IV
NASM Executive Summaries