Becoming Ambidextrous

As an industry, higher education has been generally perceived as a huge ship that moved at a very slow pace. Nimbleness wasn’t a word we associated with higher ed; we thought change was nearly impossible. Whether it was processes or people who weighed institutions down, higher ed seemed not to be able to move swiftly.

One of the great outcomes of the pivoting mandated by the restraints of the pandemic is the expansion of our capabilities and capacities to deliver higher education. The joy of discovering the untruth of the perception that higher ed cannot turn on a dime has been a happy surprise.

More accurately, last March showed that higher ed communities can respond quickly and well to opportunities for change. Of course, those changes didn’t come easily, but they did come readily. The immediate shift to online and remote learning modes serves as a promise for success in the coming months and years. As we all begin to acknowledge that we are not going back to life as we knew it in 2019, disruption unsettles the confidence we have in the future. And while we don’t have clarity about what life looks like even six months from now, we can know a measure of confidence in our collective abilities to capably step into the unknowns ahead. What higher ed has demonstrated is clarity about the great cause of higher ed and our commitment to the highest purpose of helping students of all ages achieve their goals.

These months of addressing COVID suggest our path to post-COVID and post-post- COVID projections will be marked by our adaptability, flexibility and willingness to change. We are all now seeking some measure of comfort with these perhaps newly found skills despite the awkwardness we may feel throughout any given day or circumstance.

Let me illustrate with the use of a weak metaphor. I am right-handed. You may be left-handed. You may be ambidextrous (lucky you). Because I am predominantly right-handed, I use my right hand to write. I use right-handed scissors to cut. When I try to use my left hand to write, it’s nearly illegible. When I’ve grabbed a pair of scissors designed for left-handed users, I have difficulty holding the shears in a way that generates a clean cut. Given time or necessity to practice making my left hand more productive, I can become increasingly comfortable utilizing my non-primary hand. Good results—legibility or a straight cut for examples—start to show after greater use and exercise. For best results, I’ll work through at least four stages toward greatest capabilities. These four steps toward ambidexterity parallel the stages institutions must manage in order to successfully adapt to changed and changing circumstances.

Phase one: Relying on one hand

Perhaps you like to keep things the same, being comfortable with what you know. Life before COVID was sort of like that; we had systems and processes in place that worked: how you raise money, how you teach classes or how you recruit students, as examples. We did the things we’ve always done (that doesn’t mean we didn’t innovate) and we were fairly content to keep a well-oiled machine running. It’s a bit like using your primary hand as your lead. It works for you. And there’s likely been little need to try to work with your other hand; and when you do, it’s not immediately successful.

Phase two: Experimenting with the other hand

But stuff happens. Crises arise. And in an emergency, you’ve perhaps engaged your non-primary hand to serve you despite your discomfort using it. For whatever reason—curiosity, interest or necessity—in this phase of becoming ambidextrous, you’re trying to break out of the norm. Still, it’s messy. Inconvenient. Unrehearsed. Awkward. It’s possible that in your work on (or more likely these days, off) campus you’ve been living in a state of complexity and exhaustion from trying to do something new as well as you did with tried and true methods. Virtual orientations, remote learning, faculty meetings by Zoom, advising at a distance may all seem unnatural at this point. You might have feelings of despair, anger or anxiety. But just like learning to write with your non-primary hand, I encourage you to find and offer grace (to yourself and others) in your attempts.

Phase three: Learning and perfecting the other hand

Necessity can be the mother of invention—and determination. Your Intention to refine and excel will serve you well. Practicing new capabilities will bring finesse to your work which is important in maintaining your market position during times of disruption. If you’ve earned a brand that means excellence, performing in a way that is not excellent contributes to erosion of your true story. For example, if your audience knows you as a place that is highly personalized, your new teaching LMS may not reflect that as well. A group Zoom may not feel as tailored as your usual delivery of a one-on-one tour or advising session. Increasing your skills and applying your own touch to  these new methodologies is essential to your market positioning. In the process, you’ll become increasingly comfortable with new capacities.

Phase four: Choosing which hand

The great benefit and wonderful outcome of this time of disruption, the devastation of a pandemic aside for one moment, can be the expansion of your skills and capabilities to deliver with more tools, greater reach and broader appeal. Now that you are “ambidextrous” you have the power to choose the right tool for the right job. Now that you know some new opportunities—and particularly those that surprisingly work better—you can shape your post-COVID world more deliberately. For example, while you’ve always held that in-place learning is best, you may now know of some instance when remote learning serves students better. You may be able to attract more campus visitors virtually than you ever had with on-site tours. You may be able to eliminate unnecessary travel (that you always did from obligation) or reduce expenses from costly off-campus experiences. By expanding your capability and your comfort with new modes of operation, you’ll have the advantage of understanding appropriateness and efficacy with greater confidence.

Nobody wants disruption, especially of the proportions represented by 2020. Still, we can learn from crises. We can choose to channel difficulty for good. Now is the time to exercise your strength and will to double your resources by choosing ambidexterity: become comfortable with using everything you’ve been given.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.