How to Evaluate Your Scenarios for the Future

Almost every client we speak with right now is in the midst of creating, evaluating or focusing on scenarios to describe the path forward when limitations are lifted post-pandemic. Without knowing specific dates, details about anticipated economic recovery or ongoing health-related behavioral guidelines, we’re hearing from campus administrators who are stymied. We’ve been advising that this is a great time to imagine voraciously; but that can be difficult without much footing to count on.

Our conversations with clients and as a team center on all the variables going forward as well as all the new conditional circumstances that must be considered. New relationships with vendors and local healthcare providers must be examined. Use of space (or lack thereof) reshapes the picture of the fall and beyond. Insufficient data about student populations (How many will return? How many new students will enroll? What will attrition look like?) leaves such daunting open questions that make planning seem inconsequential.

We encourage our clients to think beyond trying to return to “normal”. In fact, we suggest you let go of what you hold as normal. We, that is, higher education, will never be the same. We are not going back to something we were in 2019. Many colleges and universities were still pressed down from the 2008-09 recession. Some were just getting back on their feet and others were starting to feel like their new selves. Now higher ed faces challenges and changes that are more dramatic.


Now is not the time for re-creation of what you had. But this is a season of great opportunity for you and your campus. This is a remarkable time and occasion for innovation and re-invention. Think about what’s possible.

As you evaluate processes and decisions, and particularly as you evaluate the various scenarios for the year(s) ahead, it’s likely you have somewhere between three and twelve scenarios on the table that you and your leadership team are considering. You’re trying to determine the most viable, the best path forward. Here are five overarching considerations as you conduct your studies and evaluations.

1. Find the ideas that make your hair stand up. If it’s not thrilling to you, set that notion aside. Don’t let unexciting ideas cloud the time and energy you need to make thrilling ideas take root. And if you’re hair doesn’t stand up, your audiences’ hair won’t stand up either. Emerge from this as a more exciting and compelling institution.

Really stretch. If your ideas don’t scare you, they’re likely not very good ideas. You should be terrified by what you are imagining. The reason you will be terrified is that you’ve not seen it done before or it seems above your capacities. That’s great because it will mean you will likely be an “only” and that is precisely what you want and need in the market ahead.

2. To get to the awesome scenarios, say “no” as often as possible. Dismiss ideas freely. There’s no value in racking up a dozen or fifteen scenarios if ten of them are bad. You won’t get extra credit for a longer list. A long list will only confuse you, your team and your audience. Get to the good stuff and allow yourself to focus. Kill anything that stands in the way of only the best.

3. No matter your choice(s), be certain that you will both delight and disappoint at the same time. You cannot please everyone. Don’t evaluate your choices based on trying to delight the most people. Evaluate on the basis on what’s in the best interest of your institution for the long run. You may however consider creating a grid organized by audience. Audiences across the top, features of your scenario down the side. Evaluate each feature asking yourself: Who’s this idea good for?

We’re quick to suggest that all your best thinking and big ideas won’t put a dent in the demographics, eradicate a virus or change unemployment statistics. Those mind-numbing obstacles are real, and can motivate to think beyond current circumstances and outside old patterns.

4. As you look ahead, think about your “community market.” If adult learners don’t fit handsomely into your service or delivery picture, you might think differently about potential customers if you think about what your community needs from you right now. With the highest rates of unemployment in history, your community is scrambling to find alternatives and solutions. You can be a key player. Work with civic leaders to solve big local issues. Assess your assets in light of what you may bring to retooling capabilities. Inspire and train entrepreneurs. Host educational outreach sessions. Help your neighbors. You may find ways of serving that expand your capacities and open doors to new future opportunities. You will not regret your investments in being an open partner to your surrounding community.

Once you’ve chosen a scenario that will seemingly work best, stand up for and behind your choice. Still, if you commit 100% to your scenario, don’t think of it as permanent. Don’t think of this as a forever choice. Other pandemics and economic crises are ahead, and you will need to pivot to address those when they happen. Don’t be shortsighted but also don’t try to create something now to last 100 years. Your resilience will be rewarded.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.