With each passing day, we see another college or university change its plans for the fall term due to COVID-19 surges. What does this tell us about higher education’s leadership? Are colleges and universities overwhelmed and simply reacting to COVID-19? Or are these decisions based on long-established strategic plans designed to ensure success in any crisis, including a COVID-19 environment and beyond?
Unfortunately, in the weeks ahead, we fear that many higher education leaders will find themselves in a say-do rhetorical gap as they quickly pivot without basing actions on strategic plans. And, ultimately, their stakeholders -- faculty and staff members, students, and the broader community -- as well as the news media, will discover such rhetorical gaps. Those constituencies may lose trust in the decision-making ability of college leadership teams.
Indeed, if higher education leaders are reacting to day-to-day conditions independent of a strategic plan, then their future, and the future of their institutions, will be poor. However, if they are executing their strategic plan despite COVID-19, then their future after COVID-19 will be brighter.
How to know if an institution is being tactically reactive or strategically proactive?
Many college and university presidents have said that they “never saw this coming.” If a president made this statement, then it is unlikely that the college has a robust, deliberate planning process sufficient to handle the unexpected. As former National Security Advisor Susan Rice noted in a recent CNN interview, “The U.S. government has been aware of the threat of a global health crisis for decades.” Less than a year ago, “the U.S. Naval War College co-sponsored a war game that looked at how to battle a rapidly spreading infectious disease in a major urban area.”
Institutions of higher education and the military have little in common, but strategic planning is one leadership skill set they both require. Perhaps higher education leaders and their communities can benefit from three key strategic planning tips from the military. These tips may help them navigate away from the turbulent, reactive shoal waters in which they find themselves today and into more predictable currents of success.
Planning is a team sport; leaders must ensure that all team members are involved and contributing. A crisis is not the time for groupthink or hierarchical leadership. Rather, it is a time for collaboration, cooperation and competency.
To fully integrate and synchronize the entire team, the military employs Boards, Bureaus, Centers, Cells and Working Groups (B2C2WG) to increase institutional knowledge and break down information stovepipes. B2C2WG team members speak on behalf of the constituency they represent and are encouraged to share information with other teammates.
In higher education, a B2C2WG approach brings together cross-functional expertise representing the faculty, staff and student groups to support the president and leadership team and to report back to the entire community. This represents shared governance, a key concept within higher education.
The plan must take into account graceful degradation. To prevent catastrophic failure, plans must be composed of branches, sequels and institutional reserves. Branches are options for changing course as needed, quickly. The branches reduce risk in the face of uncertainty and create the best possible conditions for success. Sequels are follow-on actions. Which sequel to execute is based on the level of success in the original branch plan. Some sequels may tweak the branch plan; others may move to a new branch. Institutional reserves are the resources -- fiscal, human and physical -- needed to implement each branch plan. Thoughtful use of branches, sequels and institutional reserves gives leadership the flexibility and freedom of action to make good, agile decisions during a crisis, while not blaming others when the original plan does not execute as envisioned.
During COVID-19, Navy leadership determined the primary course of action was to employ the “bubble” approach, much like the National Basketball Association, to units such as ships, squadrons and bases so that operational deployment schedules were maintained. The branch plan, should the bubble fail, was to isolate and care for the sailors through aggressive treatment and contact tracing. The sequel action was to extend the service of an already deployed unit. This played out when USS Theodore Roosevelt’s bubble was broached and USS Eisenhower remained off the East Coast until the next carrier, USS Nimitz, was ready to deploy.
For colleges and universities, the initial course of action -- opening on-campus/in-person without enacting a bubble -- requires myriad branches and sequels, all based on infection rates. Should infections increase, the numerous restrictions required by various sequel actions -- restricting student socialization, traveling off-campus, rushing fraternities -- clash with the freedoms normally associated with on-campus/in-person instruction delivery. Presidents should have considered the risk involved with this course of action and whether the mission could be accomplished safely.
Leadership must know its start point (purpose) and its end point (outcome), before the institution actually can take all the actions required to be successful in a crisis. Presidents must quickly reaffirm and communicate their institution’s purpose -- its mission, vision and values statements -- and the expected outcome, usually found in a goals statement. This step of reaffirming purpose and outcome is especially important in a crisis. It determines which courses of action to consider and which to implement. In the military, mission drives function, which in turn drives unity of effort across the entire organization.
For higher education institutions, that implies that the fundamental mission of transferring knowledge to the next generation must drive all functions of the university: housing, food distribution, COVID-19 testing, education delivery and the rest. With a mission of transferring knowledge to students, the planning process focuses on delivery methods and the entire community’s safety, with less emphasis on the college experience, Greek life and sports. The president’s responsibility is to pick the best path. Students, faculty members and administrators should hold leaders accountable for the chosen path. In the end, leaders -- whether a college president, Navy admiral or CEO -- must be able to explain why they expected the selected course of action to achieve the desired outcome.
One powerful technique useful in staying true to the institution’s purpose and outcome is to employ the military’s risk to force and risk to mission approach. This naturally balances the three key priorities for success: mission, people and safety. No one can accomplish the mission of educating students without healthy faculty and staff members, and faculty and staff members will not be healthy if college leaders do not keep them and their students safe. When deciding which course of action to execute, higher education institutions must be passionate about balancing the risk to their people and the risk to their mission. If they do, they will select the correct course of action and manage the COVID-19 crisis successfully.
Knowing the purpose and outcome of the institution helps identify what success looks like, so the president and the institution can say truthfully “mission accomplished.” In higher education, the mission simply has been, and always must be, to transfer knowledge safely. Failure in this mission is not an option.