Recalibrating strategy in the COVID era

These unprecedented times have made it clear that we must rethink strategy in the light of the changing environment. Professor Neal Juster, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, reflects on the personal and professional challenge of devising a strategy for the University of Glasgow in a time of great uncertainty.

A guiding star in stormy waters: plotting a path to success

Navigating uncertainty 

"The institutions most resilient and successful in the coming years will be those who continued to focus on a world after COVID-19, holding true to their purpose and vision."

Just over 18 months ago, I started the consultation process for what would have been the third five-year strategy written in my time at the University of Glasgow. Following a by-now well understood process, and after well over a year of conversations with more than 1,000 staff, in March 2020 I began to commit our developing strategy to paper: setting out the actions and investments that needed to be taken in pursuit of continued success. 

By April, the world was reeling from the most significant global health crisis in a century. I mused on the fact that whilst we often create a roadmap to accompany our strategy, the path towards it is rather more like a sailing a ship than driving a car: our journeys aren’t across predictable man-made roads, but oceans of uncertainty – and while we can set out in any direction we wish, the winds and the waves may have very different ideas. 

Now, without precedent, we have entered uncharted waters. There are few, if any, evidence bases or historical precedents we can call upon to give us confidence in our decisions. However, by considering a range of divergent scenarios in which we could end up and identifying the common themes in our response to them, we began to identify the strategic decisions that should work in our favour in any given scenario. 

Recalibrating strategy by exploring plausible futures 

These unprecedented times made it clear, we had to rethink: how would we recalibrate our strategy in the light of the changing environment? The potential variations in student numbers, research funding, public sector finances, and government and societal expectations makes it extremely difficult to say anything certain about the future we may face in the times thereafter. 

Firstly, it was important that we did not get sucked into solely considering the immediate response to the crisis that was unfolding around us. We know that the institutions that will be the most resilient and successful in the coming years will be those who continued to focus on a world after COVID-19, holding true to their purpose and vision: these serve as the guiding star of any organisation and inform its response in stormy waters. 

Secondly, we needed to consider the range of possible futures we might face. Like many organisations, we have often used scenario planning exercises to envisage plausible futures and imagine how we might respond within them; worlds where international student flows were curtailed, or where students started to clamour for greater flexibility through digital learning, or even where universities were expected to take a greater hand in the development of the regional economies by Government. 

Developing an adaptive and flexible response to an uncertain future 

"Amongst the unprecedented uncertainty I am sure of one thing – because of our excellent staff, we have a bright future."

The immediate response to COVID-19 forced a number of immediate decisions upon us in order to deal with the initial disruption. Many of the changes we have been forced to make in the recent weeks and months will have to be made permanent in order to ensure we are equipped for this new world. To achieve this, we will need to invest in the appropriate physical and digital infrastructure, modify systems and processes, and train staff. But when will it be the right time to make these longer-term changes? 

To help us answer this question, at the University of Glasgow we developed a systematic process to identify those actions we believed we should implement almost immediately, and those where we feel we need to gather more evidence before we commit our resources. 

We refer to the former as ‘just do it’ initiatives - actions which command a high level of confidence we can implement quickly and successfully, and which will add real and immediate value to the University. For example, in the area of blended learning, we have identified modules which have a high student demand, but don’t require face-to-face teaching in specialist spaces such as laboratories. These modules are prime candidates to have ‘digital twins’: this is activity we are already undertaking, and which is already eliciting great feedback from our students. 

The second group of actions are those that have a potential to add significant value, but in which we currently have less confidence we can implement quickly and successfully. To determine whether or not these should be progressed, we must gather more information: what steps we need to take; how quickly we would need to take them; how much resource would be required; and how reversible the action would be if implemented. 

This information is supplemented by ‘trigger points’ – events or data that provide clear evidence that the time is right to take that action. For example, providing all appropriate staff with the technology to work from anywhere and so create a more dispersed and flexible workforce is possible, but expensive and not without complexity: we would need to remodel on-campus workspaces, train staff, alter systems and processes, and negotiate with our trade unions. The expense and effort to implement is only worthwhile if the changes are long-lasting. To determine this, the triggers we are monitoring include demand from staff for more flexible working arrangements, government policy on lockdown, financial pressure to maximize the use of the estate, and the pervasiveness of remote working technology. 

Over the last 18−24 months we have built agility and curiosity into the University through a transformation programme with a change network of enthusiastic colleagues at its core. The members of the change network collaborate and share their experiences to help us achieve our strategic ambition. 

We recognise that we can never predict the future, nor will we know all the answers in advance. However, by building change readiness and agility into the University, we can determine when and where our current path is right and when to respond and change direction as required. 

Agile and curious: the anchoring power and potential of our staff 

If strategy is a ship, our staff are its crew. As any captain knows, if the crew are not on board, we’ll go nowhere fast – and that is why our people, our values and our behaviours are vital to implementing our strategic vision. 

When I began to draft our new strategy in March, it was shaped around a central idea: that our potential to change the world multiplies when our community of exceptional minds comes together. Over the past few months, my colleagues have been united in their efforts to support our students, our NHS, and the collective research effort to find a COVID-19 vaccine. And so, in that sense, despite the uncertainty, the direction of our strategy hasn’t changed at all: we may be further apart physically, but the sense of purpose it has brought to our organisation has brought us closer together than ever. 

Amongst the unprecedented uncertainty I am sure of one thing – because of our excellent staff, we have a bright future. 

First published July 2020.