Rip it up (and start again): Lessons for crisis management

Bowie. Soul II Soul. Adam and the Ants. The 1980s music pantheon might hold the answers to the pandemic. Caroline Thomas, University Secretary at Leeds Beckett University, and Alison Kennell from R3S Global, offer seven top lessons for managing crisis at our universities.

Remember, remember, the fifth of November?

It was the first day of the second national lockdown for England.

Quite aptly, it was also the date of our AHUA webinar on crisis management.

We wound the clock back to understand the challenges of the pandemic and seek opportunities for learning… although not as far back as our titular 1980s Orange Juice hit would suggest.

A range of operational and geographical perspectives were provided by AHUA members and partners:

  • Caroline Thomas, University Secretary, Leeds Beckett University
  • Dr Robert Partridge, Executive Director Student and Academic Services, University of Glasgow
  • Ray Selby, Registrar, University of Wales Trinity St David
  • R3S Global

This blog post summarises the top seven lessons explored within the webinar on how to manage a crisis.

Each is suitably characterised to maintain our 1980s theme (and for 1980s buffs, there’s a list of artists and years to accompany the song titles at the end).

Top lessons for crisis management

1. Pump up the volume

All contributors emphasised the importance of amplified communication using a range of channels as a key aspect of crisis management.

Some useful considerations included:

  • regular messages from the top, to set the tone, and provide reassurance.
  • close involvement of the Students’ Union.
  • 360 degree vision on communication requirements.
  • remembering the important contribution universities make to support the local public health effort.
  • potential for external (local and national) media attention, both positive and negative.

2. Stand and deliver

There was useful discussion on setting up the crisis management team, and potential differences in what had triggered the initial crisis response.

Those with overseas partners in Asia and/or significant numbers of Chinese students had set up teams earlier, having drawn on international insights.

Clearly-defined crisis management teams and structures are key aspects of any response. The advice is “go big, go early.” You can always stand people down, but it’s difficult to match the pace of the emerging crisis if your response is too localised.

It is also essential to adapt and evolve structures as the crisis unfolds over a longer period of time, taking business recovery needs into account.

3. Under pressure

There was general recognition of the significant pressure colleagues have been working under during 2020.

It is important to operate effective rotas to avoid burnout, and ensure everyone has some working time away from the crisis.

Good practice included:

  • routine testing of response plans.
  • rehearsing the different crisis response roles required, beyond the usual day job.
  • leading by example in taking time out.
  • showing trust in other colleagues to carry the baton.

4. You spin me round

The sheer volume of information and continual changes to external requirements were identified as a significant challenge in responding to the pandemic, leaving us all in a spin.

The need to continually revisit guidance, processes, documents, and approaches only just established has been draining.

Crisis management teams have benefited from individuals who respond well to change, and have been able to cope with the revolving door of external policy and expectation.

5. Two tribes

Some colleagues identified further entrenchment of academic vs professional support teams as a side-effect of their response to the pandemic.

It is not difficult to see how the crisis may have widened the divide:

  • adoption of blended learning approaches.
  • challenges to embed new teaching practices.
  • requirements for only some staff to be physically present on campus.
  • Again, the ‘right’ crisis management structure and communication can help, bringing together different perspectives in the institutional response.

Some institutions moved different parts of their crisis response into business-as-usual forums to provide greater academic input, and emphasise collective ownership of decisions made.

6. Time after time

A straw poll of participants found that those with existing, effective mechanisms to capture lessons from crisis management were in a minority.

There is a risk that we will make the same mistakes again without good processes in place to capture learning. Where possible, capture and implement the lessons learned – quickly.

The cyclical nature of the pandemic – local restrictions in place across the UK, tiers upon tiers, and repeat national lockdowns – has meant that there are live opportunities to avoid making the same mistakes twice.

7. Back to life (back to reality)

A useful point of discussion was the challenge of maintaining multiple horizons for action over an extended period of time.

We all recognised the temptation of being so consumed in the problems of the day that we don’t look far enough ahead at the next problem or opportunity.

One useful tip was to establish a small, distinct group to keep scanning the longer-term horizon.

Another tip was to keep crisis management structures open until all outstanding actions have been clearly assigned to owners. This includes longer-term issues, such as impacts on mental health and wellbeing.

Here we go again

We hope these lessons offer you valuable suggestions for managing the crisis at your own institution as we enter our second national lockdown.

And remember: AHUA forums and networking opportunities are available to facilitate shared discussion around these challenges.

Here we go again. But not on our own.

Did you spot the 1980s music references?

1. Pump up the Volume, MARRS, 1987

2. Stand and Deliver, Adam and the Ants, 1981

3. Under Pressure, Queen & David Bowie, 1981

4. You Spin me Round (like a record), Dead or Alive, 1984

5. Two Tribes, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, 1984

6. Time after Time, Cyndi Lauper, 1984

7. Back to life (back to reality), Soul II Soul, 1989

About R3S Global

Chris Scott OBE, R3S Global Co-founder, and Alison Kennell, Specialist HE Associate, have extensive experience working with, and in, the HE sector across a wide range of universities.

Chris was involved in the Government’s COBR decision-making machinery, and several global sporting events: London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, 2014 Tour de France, and 2017 World Athletics Championships. This experience provides the basis for invaluable insights into high-stakes crisis management planning, which he has shared through working with a number of universities.

Alison brings 25 years of experience in the HE sector, most recently in interim roles at Leeds Beckett University and SOAS, and previously as University Secretary at York St John.

Chris and Alison worked together to support Leeds Beckett University in their crisis management journey, where they met the co-author of this piece, Caroline Thomas, University Secretary.