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Preparing for the Post-Pandemic World

(or, what to do when VUCA Strikes!)
Published April 22, 2021
By Nicholas R. Santilli, PhD, Senior Director for Learning Strategy, Society for College and University Planning
Planning Types: Continuity Planning

Well, that didn’t go as planned. Let’s face it, 2020 was one of the most volatile years in world history. We now find ourselves digging out from the impact of the global pandemic and thinking, “What next?” To be honest, volatility is not new to higher education. In fact, a measure of volatility is commonplace in the higher education environment. Just over a year ago, the sector was obsessively focused on the enrollment cliff, the higher education business model, and free speech. We’ve added to this list a worldwide pandemic, calls for social and racial justice, cancel culture, and waves of natural disasters.

Regardless of the source of volatility, institutions need to adapt to an environment that remains volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous—or VUCA (see table below). Disciplined planning efforts are needed now more than ever, and those efforts can’t focus on the “now” alone. There is a long-tail future that must be prepared for as institutions handle the present challenges. Planning for the now and the long term requires attention to detail and the agility to adjust plans with little notice.

VUCA, Defined

While there are signs that conditions are improving, there remains a long way to go. Most institutions found their way forward by shifting to crisis management. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic—closing down campuses; sending students, faculty, and staff home; and moving to remote learning and telecommuting—ensured that operations would continue. This pivot is complete, but it is not a long-term solution. It is now time to move from planning for the crisis to planning through the crisis.

An Integrated Planning Portfolio

One of the first steps in planning through a crisis is to examine your integrated planning portfolio. At SCUP, we advocate the discipline of integrated planning; namely, a sustainable approach to planning that builds relationships, aligns the organization, and emphasizes preparedness for change. The discipline of integrated planning sets the foundation from which institutions may form a robust planning portfolio that includes both routine and context-specific planning activities. The figure below captures some of the more commonplace planning methodologies that form the integrated planning portfolio.

Elements of an Integrated Planning Portfolio

The staples of your planning portfolio are the institutional strategic plan and operational unit plans. These plans are typically developed and executed on regular cycles; namely, a five-year cycle for strategic plans and a yearly cycle for operational plans, aligned with resource allocation decisions and implementation of strategic initiatives. The strategic and operational plans serve as the base plans for institutional functioning. At SCUP, we define these forms of planning in these ways:

Regular Cycles of Institutional Planning

  • Strategic Planning: “A deliberate, disciplined effort to produce fundamental decisions and actions that shape and guide what an institution is, what it does, and why it does it. Strategic planning is an approach to dealing with the serious challenges that an institution, its stakeholders, partners, and communities face.”
  • Operational Planning: “An instrument for implementing a strategic plan on a unit level. Operational planning is often contingent on, and driven by, annual budget cycles.”

It is likely you are familiar with strategic and operational planning. These are routine and scheduled planning efforts that, in the best case, are integrated for maximum impact. Strategic and operational planning set the foundation for the institution, but more is needed. A robust integrated planning portfolio requires plans that address context-specific situations. Plans that lie in wait, updated periodically, and are used when circumstances arise. Four types of these plans are described here:

Context-Specific Planning Cycles

  • Scenario Planning: “A process that generates multiple well-crafted contradictory narratives about the future to anticipate possible outcomes of driving forces (Wade, 2012).”
  • Continuity Planning: “A methodical and systematic process for preparing for and developing a course of action in the face of unexpected events that can adversely impact your institution.”
  • Contingency Planning: “A process designed to take a possible future event or circumstance into account. The purpose is to allow an organization to return to its daily operations as quickly as possible after an unforeseen event. A contingency plan protects resources, minimizes constituent inconvenience and identifies key staff, assigning specific responsibilities in the context of recovery.”
  • Crisis Management Planning: “A plan for actions to be taken immediately before, during, and after a catastrophic event that preserve lives, safeguard property, and reduce the loss of resources essential to the organization’s recovery. A crisis management plan is part of a broader business continuity management plan.”

Source: SCUP Planning Glossary

These context-specific plans are critical for keeping an institution change ready. One type of context-specific planning garnering a good deal of attention today is scenario planning.

A Sketch of Scenario Planning

Scenario planning has been used in the military and for-profit institutions for years as a method for dealing with VUCA and as a tool for long-term planning. Essentially, any time the future seems unpredictable or ambiguous, scenario planning helps.

How does it help? It is important to note that scenario planning does not predict the future. Instead, it allows campus stakeholders to forecast probable environmental forces that are significant to the well-being of the institution and have the potential to significantly impact its viability. Scenario planning provides an institution with the capacity to anticipate and form a course of action in the event that a scenario may interrupt institutional operations.

There are an infinite number of these trends, events, and forces at work every day. It is impossible to predict how exactly they will interplay, so every day there is the potential for any number of possible futures to come to fruition. The key to scenario planning is to identify the trends, events, or forces that could have the most impact on your institution and are also the most unpredictable. Optimally, you can confine the infinite possible futures to a manageable number (such as four to eight) that are most likely to throw your institution a curveball in the bottom of the ninth.

Once you’ve forecast these possible futures—these scenarios—your institution is less likely to be blindsided. Senior leaders can make decisions, both short- and long-term, that are informed by thoughtful projections, not wild guesses.

When Do You Do Scenario Planning?

As a method for thinking about the future, scenario planning has many uses. It’s not exclusively for responding to disruptions and volatility.

When can you do scenario planning?

  • Before contingency planning
  • After you’ve completed your strategic plan
  • Before beginning a master plan
  • While discussing how to handle long-term threats, like the demographic cliff or climate change

Beyond responding to a VUCA environment, scenario planning can inoculate your strategic plans from unanticipated shifts in the environment. The key is to designate some person or campus office to periodically scan both the internal and external environments and attend to significant trends that may impact the well-being of the institution.

If you are interested in learning more about scenario planning, consult this resource on the SCUP website: An Integrated Planning Approach to Scenario Planning