2020 has thrown your institution’s strategic plan for a loop. Now what?

Expert Insight

2020 has thrown your institution’s strategic plan for a loop. Now what?

Eighteen months. Forty-seven committee meetings. Three and a half years. When we ask partners how long it takes to create a strategic plan on campus, the responses typically converge on a single theme: too long. And yet chances are, it took a mere matter of weeks for the COVID-19 pandemic to throw a major wrench in these carefully laid plans. With uncertainty only growing around the future of the sector, the relevance of our pre-COVID plans is fast fading. However, we can’t afford to wait another year before finalizing and implementing bold strategic moves.  In fact, revisiting and revising institutional strategy now is perhaps the most important step in ensuring long-term sustainability for our institutions.

To assist our partners in revising their strategy, we’ve developed a hands-on Market-Informed Strategy Pivot framework and workshop facilitated by senior EAB experts. Here are some of the top-line lessons:

Interrogate your initial assumptions

The first step is to revisit the prior assumptions underlying our strategy, and ask ourselves a series of questions:

  • What did we assume about various market and institutional forces—which include everything from institutional resources, to labor market demand, to student demographics—when we launched this strategy?
  • How has COVID altered those assumptions?
  • Which have been invalidated (e.g., that unemployment would remain near record-lows), and which have been accelerated (e.g., demand for online education and services)?

By laying out our initial assumptions and acknowledging how the market has altered them, we can get an immediate glimpse into where and how our strategy needs to pivot.

Make quick-win decisions to “Keep, Cut, and Adapt”

Based on an initial assumptions reevaluation, we know that there are some things that aren’t going to change; for example the core institutional identity or mission of the institution, or our commitment to quality online education. There will also be strategies and goals that will need to be stopped—at least for now—based on our initial assessment. These are the goals for which COVID has rendered every single one of our assumptions invalid. However, most of our strategic goals are likely to need some sort of adaptation. Perhaps COVID has required us to rethink our implementation timelines, or has rendered some of our assumptions invalid, but not fundamentally invalidated the core of our strategy. Completing a quick “Keep, Cut, Adapt” sorting exercise provides a “quick win” decision-making opportunity for leaders, while also articulating which strategies will need more executive mindshare.

Start with “Why?” to align strategy to the market

Once we have a sense of how COVID has shifted our strategic assumptions, and we’ve identified the strategies that need to be adapted, the next step is to begin the revision process by starting with “why?” Why did we launch this strategy in the first place; what was the underlying goal? We can use the answer to that question along with our updated assumptions to revise our approach to better reflect market realities while still achieving our underlying goals. Consider the near-ubiquitous strategy, to grow or diversify enrollments. When we talk with partners about why growing enrollment is a cornerstone strategy, more often than not it boils down to creating a sustainable revenue stream for the institution. In the current environment however, growing enrollments by a significant proportion is not realistic for most institutions, so an alternative strategy is needed that addresses that need for sustainable enrollments. If we consider how COVID has disrupted the labor market, one opportunity may be to develop a diversity of market responsive programming—think short-term trainings or employer-informed programming—that directly address economic and institutional realities. Revisiting the core motivation for a strategy with an eye toward ongoing market shifts ensures that the outcome is both successful and sustainable.

Monitor progress continuously

The final stage of pivoting a strategy requires embedding progress monitoring into the everyday lives of leaders, which involves two discrete activities:

  • The first is to establish signposts, or quantifiable metrics—such as program enrollments, qualitative employer feedback, or website click-rates—used to assess the success of a strategy. To ensure market-responsiveness, at least some proportion of signposts should be assessable on a frequent (i.e., weekly or monthly) basis.
  • Then, once we’ve created signposts, we need to set a tripwire for each. A tripwire is the quantitative threshold of a signpost metric that triggers immediate action. Put more simply, it’s the signal that brings everyone back to the table to reevaluate when things start to go south. The key here is that setting off a tripwire should trigger immediate action, such as convening the cabinet, or temporarily freezing resources.

The benefit of establishing signposts and tripwires in advance is two-fold: One, we “bake in” market-responsiveness in advance  as a team, so that we’re not relying on any one individual’s or group’s perceptions of market shifts. Second, we get everyone on the same page as far as next steps. If the experience of the last few months has taught us anything, it’s that making large-scale pivots is a massive undertaking, and so the more we can do to frontload some of those key decisions, the easier it will be if and when we need to undertake another strategy revision.

Making time and dedicating mindshare to adapting your institutional strategy is a significant undertaking, which is why we’ve developed our Market-Informed Strategy Pivot playbook and workshop, facilitated by EAB senior research experts. Contact your success leader today to schedule a workshop with your leadership team, and learn more about the range of strategic support services that EAB can provide.

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