Strategy in a pandemic: lessons from one university's response
Rescuing, Reviving, and Renewing
The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, Professor Shearer West was not alone when she talked on March 6 about the "unprecedented situation" caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Nor was she out on a limb when she talked on March 21 about how the organisation was adjusting to ‘the new normal’ with creativity and agility.
By 27 April, Professor West was able to share a framing of the University’s strategic response to Covid-19 as Rescue, Revive and Renew, a three-phase approach, that was not sequential, since the organisation is "dealing with the short-term issues in real time" and recognises the "need to be developing the medium-to longer-term actions carefully over the next few months."
In the space of seven weeks, the University had framed its strategic response, alongside responding to it in ‘real time.’ The effectiveness of that response is not up for discussion here. Instead, what I’d like to reflect on is what lessons such strategic narration of the response to the pandemic can provide for other organisations.
Strategy as storytelling
I start from the premise that strategy is an organisational narrative, a collection of many different stories, told by many different storytellers, drawing on other stories in the setting in which it is produced.
These stories coalesce into a strategy narrative that sets ‘direction’ and in way that ‘tells ourselves forward’ too. We commit, in the telling, to that direction. This does not mean that there are not competing stories that might even develop into alternative or even counter strategy narratives, but mostly with the benefit of repetition and reinforcement, a dominant strategy narrative forms. That narrative only ‘sticks’ when we find it to be ‘true.’ In other words, it aligns to our understanding of a competitive environment, or an approach, and to our values, in a way that we can believe (Holstein, Starkey & Wright, 2020).
The past, present and future
The most important thing about strategy as narrative, and why it is often privileged is because it sets direction, and works by aligning ‘the past’, ‘the present’ and the ‘future.’ The way this temporal arc is narrated is not fixed. We use different versions of the past to inform our present, and different versions of the present, to narrate our future.
So in the University of Nottingham example, in seven weeks from ‘an unprecedented situation’ in which the University was reacting, we now have a better sense of direction, where we are looking to a future of ‘Renewal’, through ‘Rescue’ in the present, but anchored in the past, pieces of which we may ‘Revive.’
This strategy narrative is also sufficiently ambiguous. We can narrate this slightly differently as organisational members, it can ‘stick’ within a broad set of values or broad understanding of the purpose of the University for instance, so it aligns within the organisation.
This of course might not then allow enough space for challenge or even dissent about the actual form of ‘renewal’ or what is best to ‘revive’ and what is best left in the past. However, for the moment there may be sufficient ambiguity to narrate the University’s response coherently and in a way that does seem to chime with its key constituencies.
What are the lessons for other organisations?
A starting point could be to reflect on the current strategic response. Research suggests that in the face of crisis (Wenzel, Stanske & Liberman, 2020) there have been four types of strategic response – retrenchment, preserving, innovation and exit.
These are not mutually exclusive, nor exhaustive, nor necessarily sequential. What has worked previously is dependent on how resources are used within the organisation and the level of mitigation available outside it, in institutional responses, from bank lending to furlough, at different times.
Nonetheless, these are all narratives that help with direction setting and resource allocation. For example, part of the University’s response could be associated with all four, with ‘persevering’ possibly as the dominant response.
The next step is to ‘re-story’ that response
First, take the opportunity that Covid-19 has supplied. It is a crisis that is testing the assumptions on which the business model of the organisation is based - the series of assumptions about and alignment between - the competitive environment, the organization’s reason to exist (its mission), and resources and capabilities to accomplish its mission.
The current crisis is different, because of the scale and extent of the threat, and the immediate cure through for example ‘lockdown.’ It has occurred in an environment that was already economically fragile and unstable. For the organisation – it has exposed the assumptions on which the business model was based – accentuation of structural trends in some cases (for example think of Marks and Spencer and its response for the last 20 years to online shopping in food) and accentuation of the business model’s reliance in all cases (supply chain, customers, modes of market entry).
It makes stark and pressing the perennial strategy question of where and how the organisation provides and captures value. It is here that analysis is still important and participation in that analysis is even more important, not just in terms of communication of an existing strategy, but in actually working out what the strategy story should be (Vaara, Rantakari & Holstein, 2019).
Second, that we have to work in an uncertain future without knowing what we can use from the past or even the present is part of the current problem.
Nonetheless, one approach is to pick something that the consensus says will be useful, something that the organisation relies on or can rally around – its epic journey, its confounding of the critics, its longevity, its creativity, its retrenchment and rebirth, its rebooted future (Barry & Elmes, 1997).
Third, it is important to think of this narration as really extremely useful, and not something that is an expensive ‘nice to have’. This is because narrative helps to reduce the complexity, ambiguity and complexity of organisational life. Without narrative giving us (and organisation) some sense of stability, order and a degree of predictability, the world is less liveable, functions less well and is less sustainable.
The Covid-19 pandemic discombobulates because of the speed and scale of the unknown, but also because of the way that ‘unknown’ reduces our ‘horizon’, we are apparently locked in the present, without the sense of how we can navigate from the past, to a predictable future.
However, ‘the precedented’ was only ever a form of framing the unpredictability and complexity of our world. The ‘new’ normal was always with us; we just didn’t see it like that. The lesson in coping with this unpredictability is to try to keep on with the strategy storytelling, because it will help to productively frame an organization’s response (Holstein et al., 2018).
Good luck and here’s to Rescuing, Reviving, and Renewing.
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Dr Jeannie Holstein
Jeannie is Assistant Professor, Strategic and Public Sector Management at Nottingham University Business School.
Her research activities focus on strategic practices and processes, notably the intersection between government policy and organisational strategy. She uses discursive and narrative approaches to explain strategy and organising.
Prior to her academic career, Jeannie worked in a number of strategic roles, most recently within higher education in a consultancy and an employed capacity, and formerly in the ceramics industry, including running the UK subsidiary of a leading European fine china brand.
Between 2010 and 2015 she was a mentor on the Growth 100 programme, an executive education programme for 100 SMEs, sponsored by Nottingham City Council and ERDF.
Barry, D. & Elmes, M. (1997), "Strategy retold: Toward a narrative view of strategic discourse", Academy of Management Review, 22/2, pp. 429-452.
Holstein, J; Starkey, K; Wright, M. (2018), "Strategy and narrative in Higher Education", Strategic Organization, 16/1, pp. 61-91.
Wenzel, M., Sarah, S. & Lieberman, M. B. (2020), "Strategic response to crisis", Strategic Management Journal, 41, pp. V7-V18.
Vaara, E; Rantakari, A; Holstein, J. (2019), "Participation research and open strategy", in Open Strategy. Forms, Perspectives and Challenges, (1), Cambridge University Press, pp. 27-40.
Posted on Tuesday 2nd June 2020