Written by Jennie Yelvington, MSW, ACSW, Program Manager, MSU HR Organization & Professional Development
Strategic thinking has always been an important leadership skill, but as we make our way through the pandemic, it is a must. “A danger for many organizations is that in the rush to get back to business, managers will reinforce yesterday’s way of doing business when the world around them has changed. The challenge therefore for managers is to develop a clear view of what they need to change, why, and when” (Healey, May 2020). The temptation when stress and uncertainty are high is to grasp on to what you know. If instead you can embrace the unknown and expand your thinking, you’ll be further ahead.
Fortunately, our brains are designed to help us with this. In normal times our brains work on default mode, with our routines and ways of doing work flowing without much conscious thought on our part. In times of upheaval, it is a different story. When your brain can’t make sense of the environment “it scours our surroundings, trying to connect the dots between ideas that were right in front of us all along, but that we just never noticed before” (Tasler, May 2020). It is precisely in these disorienting periods of fear, frustration, and loneliness that we can see everything with new eyes, lending itself to new opportunities.
From Crisis to Strategy
“Turning attention to the short term is no doubt essential to survival as we work our way through this crisis. However, at some point soon leaders need to turn their attention to the future state. Leaders need to actively start to assess the external environmental forces at work today that will shape their industry structural ecosystem tomorrow” (Hodes, May 2020).
Here are some big picture questions to consider ensuring you have the right business model and capabilities for the post-pandemic era:
- How will higher education change?
- Will new funding sources be needed?
- Will customers and stakeholders require new or different ways to connect?
- What level of working remotely will be the new normal?
- How much faster will some segments of the university grow while others struggle?
- What do we as an organization do particularly well, and how can we deploy that capability to serve unmet needs?
- What existing or new technologies will be critical?
As you ask yourself these questions, be sure to invite your colleagues into the conversation. Getting diverse viewpoints, experiences and perspectives strengthens the opportunity for creativity and ingenuity. The strategic choices we make today will be incredibly important as we emerge from this crisis so “take time to look across the internal boundaries of your organization and talk to colleagues who are in close contact with customers, suppliers, and emerging technologies. Now is the time to widen your information channels” (Healy, May 2020).
Here are some additional tips to consider as you move forward:
1) Upskilling may be needed. For a workforce to be agile, they need to possess the right skills and be empowered to utilize them. Strategic employee development is more important than ever, and that includes not only classes, but experiential opportunities that let employees spread their wings, test their skills, and make decisions. As a formal leader, you need to make sure that those granted decision-making authority have business acumen and understand the organization enough to make wise decisions, and have the needed leadership skills to bring ideas forward effectively.
2) Reassess business priorities, given the new world. Look at your goals from last year. What worked well? What is no longer applicable? What have we learned? What will continue to be important going forward? What new priorities do we have given the situation and its impact?
3) Don’t stay stuck on what was. Learn from the past and put energy into your vision of a different future.(Nevins, August 2020).
- What opportunities might exist in the industry?
- Based on what we know now, why have past strategies worked—not worked? And can we re-frame how we think about the future based on those insights?
- What strategies have not been tried? Why not?
- What do we as an organization do particularly well, and how can we deploy that capability to serve unmet needs? (Especially if that skill or capability is hard for others to copy.)
4) Think differently. Instead of thinking logically, practice thinking analogically, drawing lessons from one setting, and applying them to another. Going with the tried and true methods may not get you where we need to go now. Increased collaboration and thoughtful risk-taking may be in order.
There is no doubt that this is a time of incredible challenge, while also one of tremendous opportunity. In order to be able to think strategically to effectively meet these challenges, it is imperative to assure that you are taking good care of yourself. These are not normal times, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed and off-center. Keep doing the things that you know can help you to be at your best: getting enough sleep and exercise, eating healthy food, connecting with friends and loved ones, all can help us to access the stamina and creativity needed as we move forward. None of us will be perfect, but together we can meet the needs of today while building an exciting future for MSU.
Healy, M. (2020, May 28). Strategic Thinking in a Crisis. Retrieved September 16, 2020 from
Hodes, B. (2020, May 8). Strategic Thinking for a Post-pandemic Era. Retrieved September 16, 2020 from
Nevins, M. (2020, August 12). It’s Time to Re-Set Your Strategic Thinking Post-Covid. Retrieved September 16, 2020 from https://www.forbes.com/sites/hillennevins/2020/08/12/its-time-to-re-set-your-strategic-thinking-post-covid/#23f3263f3801
Project Management Institute. (2020, August 31). Change Makers Step Up During the Pandemic. Retrieved September 16, 2020 from
Tasler, N. (2020, May 5). Is the Pandemic Making You Smarter? Retrieved September 16, 2020 from