We need an honest assessment of what went well during Covid
The pandemic has changed higher education forever. That might be a strong statement, but, as someone who has been involved in over 120 strategic campus planning processes over the past 30 years, I believe it is true.
There was no roadmap on how to manage the online transition last spring. There were quite a few leaders who tried to navigate their way with “positivity” and optimism, and others who were arrogant, convinced that they were right about every strategic decision they made. Both were humiliated by the adaptation challenges launched.
They – indeed, all university leaders – must learn the lessons of the Covid experience quickly and diligently, so that they can be applied to the complex challenges that lie ahead in the future.
Each campus should conduct a series of “after action reviews” (AAR) of the strategic decisions that were made during the Covid crisis to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Both success and failure offer important lessons that, shared across campus (and, ideally across the country and beyond), can make everyone smarter.
AARs have been around for decades and have been institutionalized by the US military. Yet although they have a simple structure consisting of only four or five questions, they are difficult to implement. It will take real courage, in particular, to unbox the failures of leaders over the past year. A ton of research needs to be absorbed for reviews to be conducted with honesty and empathy.
One question to think about is consensus. Many leaders claim to lead by consensus, but what does that really mean on your campus – and when is it appropriate? Having a consensus mentality is a noble aspiration, but it can also be used as a weapon to control and block important decisions. Campuses need to agree on a clear definition of what consensus means and doesn’t mean – and when it’s appropriate or not. It cannot be used for everything, especially when quick decisions are required.
Likewise, it is important that faculty and staff understand who decides what and the level of influence that different people have over institutional decisions. When the rules are blurry, implementation falters because people are unsure of the freedom they have to act. The board and management team should all agree on how they will make decisions about planning and implementation, and they should communicate this to everyone on campus.
We also need to become more efficient. We’re sort of assuming campus leaders know how to design and run a productive meeting, for example. Unfortunately, most don’t. They need training. Considering the number of meetings we organize, that would be transformative; the opportunity costs recovered would be invaluable.
Meetings multiply in search of perfect decisions. Most people, especially teachers, have high standards and expectations. But, often, finding the perfect plan or solution costs far too much time, attention and money. We need to improve on approaches and solutions that can be improved over time and, more importantly, change quickly in an unpredictable environment.
We should also think about who the real heroes and heroines on campus are. We tend to recognize and reward great thinkers: the “visionaries”. I found these people to be a dime a dozen. Rather, we need to identify and celebrate the crucial but often underrated people who really get things done. I think a monthly ‘implementation champion’ or ‘doer’ award would be a game-changer for campus culture, creating the kind of implementation mindset we desperately need as the challenges unfold. ‘intensify.
For my money, the relational capital between stakeholder groups on campus is the key factor in getting things done. The question that many leaders ask themselves is the following: “How to build authentic relational capital without being off-putting?” “
I suggest using a design called “tell me a story”. Let’s say we have 60 people, chosen from staff and students. I organize them in mixed groups of six participants each and ask each person to share a story in their small groups that best captures the essence of their campus culture.
It could be a time when a faculty member went out of their way to support a struggling student. It could be when the student affairs folks started a weekly support group to help some students with mental illness. This could be when the campus foundation created a “last mile” tuition program for financially struggling students. You got the idea. There are hundreds of such positive stories on every campus. The problem is, we rarely share and raise them.
After the participants have all shared their stories, I ask the groups to identify the story that captures the essence of all the other stories and share it with the whole group. All of this takes less than an hour and is best done with a little food and refreshments. I call them “chew and chat,” and they are invaluable in building relationships between the different tribes on campus.
Such exercises could be particularly useful now. As campuses face an uncertain future, it will do their residents good to remember that higher education has been exceptionally resilient this year. Whatever failures we may have had, let’s not forget that overall we did very well.
Patrick Sanaghan is an organizational consultant and president of The Sanaghan Group. His latest book is How to implement your strategic campus plan.