Balancing Strategic Priorities in a Time of Crisis
There’s an age-old tension between urgent and important, and most IT leaders know it all too well. “Don’t let the urgent get in the way of the important,” or so the saying goes. But this is much easier said than done.
During ‘normal’ times, one’s day can easily get derailed by a system outage, audit finding, or a colleague across the university who suddenly decides they need a new system implemented, yesterday, and were told that no IT resources would be needed. Except for single sign-on integration. Oh, and something about a bi-directional data feed….
When a crisis like COVID-19 emerges, it’s expected that managing the urgent—which is also critically important—will be all-consuming for many, and for an extended period. A situation like this often requires ‘all hands on deck,’ and the best-laid plans, projects, and priorities are likely to be put on hold under a ‘best case’ scenario. In some cases, they may just be canceled outright.
It is easy to assume that once things ‘return to normal,’ you and team will be able to pick up right where you left off. Except…. when people make it through a crisis period, they are likely to be more fatigued, not less. Productivity decreases as folks take time to breathe, decompress, and process the experience they’ve just through. Some may be grieving. Others may not know what they’re feeling, but they feel differently, somehow.
Then there’s the question of if, and when, normalcy will return. Is this the black swan moment, as some have proclaimed, that leads to a ‘new normal’ for higher education? Or will universities mostly return to their pre-coronavirus state, when all is said and done?
Amidst all this uncertainty, one thing is clear—we will eventually get to the other side of the coronavirus crisis. And the challenges that institutions faced before the pandemic—enrollment declines, financial uncertainties, student retention, and completion—will still be there and are likely to be exacerbated by the current situation. Those institutions that can find ways to continue making progress on their longer-term strategic priorities, while still focusing on the urgent coronavirus response, will be in a much better position to not only survive this crisis but to thrive.
So how might IT teams balance their strategic priorities and projects while still focusing all the time and attention needed to support continuity of operations during this crisis? Here are some ideas:
- Adopt (or adapt) a 1, 3, 5 approach: This is a time management strategy that suggests you prioritize and focus on completing one large, three medium, and five small tasks each day, or some other increment of time that makes sense for your work. This can be adapted as needed, so you may choose to focus on one strategic, three routine, and five urgent items each day or week, for example. The idea would be to identify one activity or item that focuses on your long-term strategic priorities each period. Just one. It needn’t be the full strategic item (e.g., write a strategic plan), it might just be one ‘to do’ that moves you along the path (e.g., write one strategy for the strategic plan). Being a football fan I’m fond of saying that you don’t need to get to the end zone with each play, you just need to keep moving the ball down the field. Adopting this approach helps do just that, and before you know it…touchdown!
- Cross-reference priorities and urgent needs: Look at your strategy and priorities lists, and determine what is urgently needed in the near term to manage the crisis. Was O365 on your projects list for the year? It might be time to expedite it. Don’t worry about all of your priorities. Focus on those that will significantly help you in the near term and divert or refocus resources where possible to bring these to fruition quickly. You may still need a bridge strategy or the ability to roll the new solution out agilely (as in, using agile methodology), but focusing on those priorities that solve short- and long-term needs can be a win-win activity.
- Create a skunkworks team: This method is frequently used for innovation work but can be used to protect resources during an ‘all hands on deck’ period, too. Form a small team that is relieved of any crisis management activities and all day-to-day work. Prioritize your longer-term strategic goals and have the team work on tackling them sequentially. If you create this team, you must protect their time at all costs for this to strategy to be effective. And, take note – you may also be asked to ‘justify’ why some team members get to work on the cool strategic projects while others are stuck fighting fires. Consider how you’ll reward and recognize your firefighters as much as, or more than, your skunkworks team.
- Rethink your priorities: This one may sound a little like cheating, but often crises have a way of illuminating what’s truly important. Review, revisit, and rethink your previous priorities, looking at them through the lens of what you’ve seen and done in response to this pandemic. Have assumptions changed? Will things look different or need to be different when this is ‘done’? If so, what might you be able to do now to begin formalizing or building on some of your temporary measures, improving them in the short run for current use but enabling them to be genuinely strategic and fully production-ready in short order? Maybe this should be called “leverage your momentum,” instead. Either way, it’s a strategy that can work.
- Seize opportunity and capitalize on ‘quick wins’: Also, under the leverage your momentum’ category, sometimes what stands in the way of IT projects and priorities isn’t technology capabilities or IT resources, but institutional inertia. That business process improvement project you’ve been trying to get buy-in for? I’ve heard some CIOs say that they’re suddenly getting support for initiatives they’ve been advocating for, unsuccessfully, for years. Look at your strategic plan and focus in on those projects and priorities that may have most institutional interest and buy-in at this point.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities have finally begun to recognize the importance and value of information technology. Now, more than ever, IT leaders must help their institutions imagine the strategic possibilities that technology can afford them and outline a clear path to get there. By finding wants to balance the urgent AND the important, that work can begin today.