How Institutions Can Build a Plan That Sees Beyond Immediate Crises

Today’s higher education leaders are responding to one of the most impactful crises the industry has faced, calling for both compassion and responsiveness to guide their organizations through uncertain times. The COVID-19 pandemic is global in scale, farther reaching, and more complex than any crisis most of today’s decision-makers have ever experienced.

The pandemic is both a health crisis and an economic crisis. It will likely result in a dramatic restructuring of the economy and changes in our society as consumer preferences and expectations shift.

For some institutions, near-term survival is the only objective. For others, the crisis presents an opportunity to pivot into a new direction. Regardless, institutions must embrace this new reality and adopt an operating model that accommodates new levels of uncertainty.

Planning for the "Next Normal"

Financial and technology functions are taking on more significant operational roles and CFOs and CIOs are becoming key decision-makers in guiding their institutions to deal with the effects of the pandemic. Most institutions have a crisis team in place that handles day-to-day challenges such as closing the physical campus, managing crisis communications, moving classes online, and continuing administrative operations. But what institutions need to consider is what happens when the immediate crisis abates; is it back to business as usual or have processes evolved and created a new normal?

Global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company recommends organizations create a “plan-ahead team” that will help prepare for the next steps following the pandemic’s decline. This team should gather information that provides insight into long-term operations and build a response plan for any future stages of the crisis.

According to McKinsey & Company, teams tasked with mapping out their organization’s future-state should follow the five following processes.

  1. Align today’s position with previously established strategies and identify if the financial, operational, and strategic objectives of those plans are still realistic or need to be reassessed. 
  2. Roadmap potential future outcomes by factoring in conclusions at various points in time, industry-specific risks, and organization-specific requirements. McKinsey & Company recommends establishing at least four different futures, as this will help institutions from simply excluding the two-most extreme options and settling for the middle outcome, which may be strikingly similar to existing norms.
  3. Identify macro objectives, rather than focusing on micro strategies. Some things will undoubtedly shift permanently following the COVID-19 crisis. Institutions should pinpoint their large-scale goals rather than trying to capitalize on many smaller, more specific potentials, thereby spreading themselves too thin in the process.
  4. Determine strategies that can perform well across a range of scenarios. It’s well understood that rigidness can lead to decay in today’s rapidly transforming world, but being extremely flexible across all domains can be expensive. As such, institutions should build plans that can play out—at least somewhat successfully—across a variety of events, even if not every plan is perfect.
  5. Establish checkpoints that trigger specific actions or recourse. While foresight may be impossible in an otherwise unpredictable environment, Presidents and CEOs should set up trigger points that notify when specific goals have been met or timeframes have been hit. Each of these should be associated with an action, which may require a shift in tactics or accelerated trajectories or something else entirely.

Institutions should continually look forward, ensure their ability to confront uncertainty head-on, and build unpredictability into their decision-making processes.

A More Agile Institution

The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating changes that may fundamentally shift the industry. For example, the technology that enables remote work and online learning is changing from a nice-to-have feature to an essential requirement. In many cases, institutions that execute a well-defined crisis plan are becoming more agile as an unexpected result.

Here are the classic characteristics of an agile organization:

  • Having a shared vision across the entire organization
  • Supporting a networked team structure with defined and accountable goals
  • Experimenting with and learning from action-oriented decisions
  • Nurturing a cohesive and passionate culture
  • Using next-generation technology and solutions

Now, compare that to some of the higher education outcomes being brought about by the COVID-19 crisis.

  • Crisis teams, assembled from academic and administration departments, are establishing a shared vision of remote work and online learning
  • Institutions are removing departmental silos and are using team-oriented structures
  • Institutions are experimenting with online learning and are learning to drive student engagement using what used to be considered unorthodox means
  • The pandemic is nurturing an undivided, compassionate, and highly collaborative culture
  • Institutions are being pressured to adopt new technologies to keep pace with rapidly accelerating user expectations

Institutions that build cohesive strategies to navigate and bounce back from the pandemic are likely to be the ones that recover and survive in the long run. By adopting new, agile methodologies that do not shy away from experimentation, higher education leaders may be able to position their institutions for success after the COVID-19 pandemic—or any other unforeseeable future crisis.

You can learn more about our response to the COVID-19 pandemic here.

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