Layer 1

Adaptive Planning in Uncertain Times

John Voloudakis | Nuventive, LLC

Brent Ruben | Rutgers University

Summit Stage Recording

About the Speakers

Brent Ruben, Ph.D.
Founder and Senior University Fellow, Rutgers Center for Organizational Leadership

  • Founding member of the Network for Change and Continuous Innovation (NCCI).
  • Creator of the Excellence in Higher Education (EHE) model, and the EHE-R (Renewal) model focused on crisis response.

John Voloudakis
Vice President of Consulting Services @ Nuventive

  • Nuventive, a company focused on solutions for information-based planning and continuous improvement in higher education.
  • Former executive in Huron Consulting Group, BearingPoint, and Ernst & Young’s higher education practices.

The Story

Planning in Higher Education – Not Designed for Crisis

Typical Higher Education Planning

  • Long-term focus
  • Annual updates often focused on compliance
  • Core not expected to change – fine-tuning around the edges
  • Performance metrics don’t tend to change much
  • Data analysis often focused on past performance, not predicting and addressing likely future outcomes
  • Decision making slow and distributed
Our planning process led to departments reviewing their data at the end of the cycle, then writing an apology for why they didn’t hit any of their targets, coming up with new goals, then ignoring them until the next update.
– Large state university system Provost.

Many institutions continued this approach for Fall 2020

  • Large, detailed ‘back to campus’ plans
  • Focus on trying to maintain ‘normal’
  • Short-term thinking
  • Scrambled to adjust as reality didn’t align with the assumptions in their plans

The Why

As seen this fall, schools that didn’t have adaptive plans had to take dramatic steps when the situation changed:

  • A number of institutions quickly sent their students home after infections raged out of control
  • Others had to impose lockdowns on campus or limit on campus services

By contrast, those campuses that had adopted adaptive planning processes were able to identify and react to issues before they spiraled out of control. The COVID-19 crisis has caused significant upheaval in higher education’s foundational assumptions…

And has led to dramatic changes in enrollment, funding, delivery models, and other key metrics.

  • National Student Clearinghouse reports a 13% decline in freshman enrollment in 2020, and a 4.4% reduction in overall undergraduate enrollment. Community colleges showed even steeper declines, with almost 19% decline in new student enrollment.
  • Major universities and systems expect huge short-term losses from the crisis – PASSHE, University of Wisconsin, and others are reporting expected $100M+ shortfalls for the 2020-21 academic year.
  • Many institutions have gone totally or mostly online for Fall 2020

This crisis has highlighted and accelerated existential threats for programs, faculty, staff, and even institutions.

What's Next

Back to the Past – Or Back to the Future? What Changes Brought on by COVID-19 Should / Will Endure?

The impact of this crisis will not be restricted to the current academic year, even with a vaccine on the horizon.

  • Financial ripples from budget shortfalls will be felt for years to come, leading to a range of downstream consequences, from hiring restrictions to benefits reductions to deferred maintenance to cancellation of expansion plans.
  • Student behaviors and preferences may change longer-term, requiring adjustments to recruiting and retention efforts.
  • Questions of value raised by the crisis will continue may impact institutions’ ability to raise tuition and fees.
  • Institutions will need to retain the ability to nimbly react to changing circumstances, likely leading to culture and governance changes.
  • Timely access to forward looking data will become critical to making informed decisions against a changing landscape.

Staying status quo may work for certain institutions, but others may find their competitive or operational positions fundamentally changed by the crisis.

Call to Action

Review, Reimagination, and Renewal

Key Factors to Move Toward Adaptive Planning

  1. 1.Execute pervasive review and reconsideration across the institution to align with crisis plans. What are the questions we need to address?
  2. 2.Establish methods for rapid, information-based decision-making
  3. 3.Introduce scenario and contingency planning
  4. 4.Provide access to timely, relevant, forward looking information to all decision makers
  5. 5.Implement technological alternatives to face-to-face interactions/meetings, extensive contemplation, minimal time constraints
  6. 6.Recognize transformational vs. continuous improvement
  7. 7.Change leadership strategies, structures, and styles
  8. 8.Solicit feedback from across the organization to refine strategies, identify risks, and highlight new ideas
  9. 9.Move past traditions and organizational taboos
  10. 10.Identify areas for experimentation and growth
  11. 11.Utilize frameworks and tools for proactive thinking and strategy development

Closing Thoughts

Crisis also presents an opportunity

  • Good information is critical to making good decisions
  • Core assumptions may need to be questioned
  • Plan for the situation at hand and align to the long term
  • Get contributions from across the campus to continuously improve

For a copy of Brent’s recent white paper, Leading in Turbulent Times: In Search of a Navigation System for This Critical Moment in the History of U.S. Higher Education, please send a request to

To continue the conversation, please feel free to reach out to:

Brent Ruben: John Voloudakis:

What will you do with what you just learned?

"You can design today for tomorrow, or you can design tomorrow, today."