Harness the Current

Access Continuum’s Leadership Model for leading through novel unknowns

Continuum Consulting Services LLC

As the breadth, scale and long-term impacts of the global pandemic continue to emerge, the stakes are rising. The actions taken today will determine not only how well you and your organization fare now but also whether or not you’ll thrive on the other side, whatever the other side may be.

To make effective decisions today, leaders are having to relinquish any need for predictability, all the while attempting to offer some semblance of certainty so that they can stay two steps ahead of the curve. Here’s a great example.

Two Steps Ahead in Higher Ed

On higher education campuses around the world, leaders know that the health of their community, the quality of the education they offer, and the future of their institute are at stake as they establish COVID-19 regulations and decide whether or not to open their campus for classes.

Dr. Janine Davidson, President of Metropolitan State University of Denver [MSU Denver], and her leadership team have worked around the clock navigating the complexities of running an urban university, exacerbated by the global pandemic. They have worked tirelessly to make and execute decisions that initially seemed untenable but now are panning out.

MSU Denver made their decision on May 12th to keep classes online for the 2020 Fall Semester, which minimized confusion and anxiety for students, faculty and staff and put MSU Denver two steps ahead of most other universities in the United States. Columbia University reversed its decision only a few weeks before classes were scheduled to start. Whereas UNC-Chapel Hill started with on-campus classes hoping for the best. They had to abandon their plan within the first week of classes, after students had already moved into dorms, due to the rising number of reported COVID-19 cases on campus. The cost of disruption has yet to be calculated. 

The Decision Making Process

In times of uncertainty, decisions may appear unfavorable for some; yet in the end, the outcome may turn out better for all. It’s not about playing it safe; it’s about playing it smart. Here’s how: 

  1. Focus on what is most important. Identify what is most important under the circumstances and use those focus points as the decision-making criteria.

MSU Denver’s core focus was quality, and their task was to balance the safety of students, faculty and staff with their educational mission. Their decision-making criteria became their priorities going into the fall 2020 semester:

  • Commitment to the health and safety of the community
  • Commitment to the academic success of the students
  • Fiscal responsibility and affordability.
  1. System engagement. Engage stakeholders and subject matter experts in scenario planning and in the decision-making process. This step affords leaders three critical benefits:
    • creating better understanding of the whole picture;
    • collecting the best ideas for consideration; and
    • fostering ownership of the decision.

At MSU Denver, Davidson was careful to engage the full system and received this affirmation from an associate professor: “The way the pandemic has been handled has been exemplary. University leadership has worked tirelessly to make it as easy on students, faculty/staff as possible, with full transparency and input from everyone. This makes me proud to work here. The early decision to move online took the guesswork out of our preparations and brought me a level of security my colleagues at other universities do not have.”

  1. Reserves build resilience. Particularly in times of disruption, it’s important, when possible, to have back-up systems and resources in reserve for the unknown and for delays.

Despite necessary furloughs, MSU Denver decided to invest resources into amplifying the value of the MSU Denver experience and degree. They leveraged funds from the CARES Act to upgrade the online IT backbone and train faculty to best deliver the curriculum online.

  1. Abandoning the notion of accuracy and predictability. The decisions you make may come with unwanted consequences, but in the era of COVID, we must embrace uncertainty and draw on our imaginations and instincts, which may prove to be transformative in the long run. 

As Vikram Mansharamani, a lecturer at Harvard University, shared in his article, How Fiction Can Help Us Imagine the Future, “The blunt reality is that accuracy cannot and should not be the criterion upon which to evaluate thinking about the future. Usefulness, I propose, is a far better standard.”

In a recent conversation with Davidson, she explained her team’s thinking to me. “We announced early so students would not feel ‘bait and switched’ when the inevitable occurred in the fall, and even more importantly, so faculty could prepare and plan. Designing online courses from the start is far superior to pivoting later.”

  1. Trusting intuition. Continue to reassess the knowledge you have on hand, trust your intuition and make the next best move, even if seemingly unfavorable or unpopular.

MSU Denver’s early decision afforded their community some sense of certainty. In the end, their decision strengthened the community’s confidence in the university’s leadership, sustained enrollment numbers and allowed time and space for the online team and faculty to have confidence they could deliver a high-quality educational experience. Now Davidson and her university find themselves two steps ahead and can declare their COVID rally cry with confidence, “Roadrunners are ready to face the challenges of the road ahead.”                        

Read more about MSU Denver’s successful enrollment trends.

For additional support resources as you continue to navigate these novel unknowns, please visit 

Lisa Marie Main, co-founder and partner for Continuum Consulting Services, is an accomplished leader, trainer, consultant, executive coach and facilitator of interactions that lead to alignment and results-based action for business and organizational leaders around the world.