Storm-Proof Strategy: Navigating Uncertainty and Times of Change

When you look out at the horizon and see a disturbance headed towards your ship, there are two options: brace yourself and prepare to struggle, or shift the sails and move to uncharted territory. And, the same is true for organizations with disturbances in the market. 

Startup companies can shift on a dime. In this case, even major overhauls only impact a small number of people. 

On the other hand, legacy institutions have more players to think about. For instance, higher education institutions have to consider the impacts changes will have on their students, staff, alumni, sponsors, and even the community. 

Larkin Briley, Assistant Vice President of Strategy and Transformation at Belmont University, knows this predicament well. With many years of experience in strategy within higher education, Larkin works to address looming storms, such as the enrollment cliff. 

Larkin shares his expertise in navigating storms that arise in these slow-to-change industries. The secrets to success lie in adopting strong, appropriate metrics, learning from failures, and embracing select methodologies.

Listen to The Strategy Gap

A podcast about the space between savvy strategy and practical execution, including everything that can go wrong on the way. 

The storm: the enrollment cliff

The enrollment cliff is a phenomenon that is plaguing the hearts and minds of academia, and it’s only going to become a bigger dilemma over the upcoming years. 

Declining birth rates in the US have caused the overall anticipated number of traditional college student enrollments to drop — drastically. Beginning in the early 2000s and amplified by the financial crisis of 2008, people in the US are not having as many kids as they were before. 

This means there aren’t the same number of young adults enrolling in higher education institutions. Starting next year, academia expects to see a decrease of around 15% in new, traditional enrollments over the upcoming decade. 

That is coupled with the perception that degrees aren’t as meaningful as they once were. Over the past 10 years, the value of a traditional degree has dropped between 20 and 25 percent. 

Of the smaller demographic that will be approaching the age of 18 over the next few years, many of them are considering alternatives for education after high school. From on-the-job training to trade school to direct entry to the workforce, new adults are opting to skip out on student debt entirely. 

This pins higher education leaders in an unfortunate position. Their target market is decreasing alongside the value of their product, and the competitors are grabbing more than their usual share of the market. 

“This is a Netflix moment for higher education. In some ways, we’re Blockbuster.” Larkin says. “We see disruption coming. Are we going to dig our heels in for the traditional model, or are we going to respond and innovate to meet the needs of our future students?” 

Elite schools will find themselves to be more resilient than smaller schools and schools in rural areas. This will be a problem of massive proportions for those local, hometown education institutions. Already, some of these small, rural schools are closing.

These local schools are key resources for communities because they offer higher education at a fraction of the cost without requiring massive commutes. To survive the upcoming enrollment cliff storm, these schools will have to do a lot more than make some trims to budgets. 

In reality, they will have to completely and holistically reorientate their strategy.

The sails: collecting strong data

This need for extreme innovation is not unique to education. Government and healthcare agencies have been dealing with this issue for years, and, like education, it is hard for them to adapt quickly. 

Yet, higher education may be unique in how they assess their data — a discrepancy that may increase the severity of the storm. 

“There’s certainly been disruptions across a variety of other industries, and we’ve seen them in certain sectors of higher education. But now, it feels like we are trying to cross a forest that is covered in a thick layer of fog,” Larkin says. 

That fog represents the lack of clarity and the shallow nature of their metrics. 

“The temptation for some folks may be to get a little bit of data, such as not seeing a tree directly in front of them in the fog. Then, they just run really fast in that direction,” Larkin says. “If they aren’t getting the right type of real-time data needed to respond, they’re going to end up running into a lot of trees they didn’t see coming.” 

This issue with metrics could go in the opposite direction, however. 

“There may be the temptation to freeze and go super slow. In turbulent times, we are terrified of making mistakes because resources are scarce and we don’t want to make large bets on anything that isn’t guaranteed to work,” Larkin says. 

As usual, the solution can be found somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Strong, real-time, and reliable data, are the sails that higher education institutions need to solidify to navigate the upcoming storm.

In order to make the changes necessary for survival, smaller schools must first gain a complete understanding of how they currently operate and why they operate that way. 

Higher education institutions, like other legacy institutions, can easily fall into a wash, rinse, and repeat cycle. If something worked years ago with new students, often, institutions will continue that same practice for years to come. But, along the way, they forget why the practice is done and what value it may bring (or take away). 

Understanding current core values and the institution’s strategic direction for development is the crucial first step to making any major changes.

The shift: a new perspective on higher education

Shifting the sails to steer clear of the storm comes in the form of changing perspectives and assumptions about what a higher education institution is and what it can become

It is key to start the conversation and reimage what the future holds for these schools, not just find solutions to remain competitive and keep the lights on. Finding success in making the next generation’s leaders is the mission. 

The two keys are leaning heavily into impact over activity and real-time data. This is how Larkin’s organization landed on a framework based in objectives and key results. 

Rejecting the archaic wash, rinse, and repeat mentality to embrace an OKR framework has boosted innovation at an unprecedented rate. By pairing aspirational qualities with quantitative measurements, OKR frameworks can offer concrete targets and consistent insights into progress.

This system will ensure that goals are reached (and never forgotten). Additionally, goals will be formed based on the overall direction of the organization, so all strategic goals will eventually tie to the same end goal: innovation. 

OKR frameworks can help to avoid over-indexing and turning strategic plans into a massive document as well. By laying a strong basis for the direction, there is no need for hundreds of pages pertaining to strategy. These large and overly complex documents often lead to the opposite side of success in the end, anyway. 

“I’ve read hundreds of strategic plans, and some are over a hundred pages and all over the place. You can’t even think about being agile with something like that because the weight is overbearing. We’re trying to keep it simple and agile, and focus heavily on the why,” Larkin says. 

The survival: learning from failures and adapting with new disruptions

Even after shifting your sails and avoiding the storm, there will be more storms along the horizon again. New disruptions will come, forcing you to pick up your sails and shift time after time. 

The key to long-term survival and success is to remain agile and keep the storm on the horizon instead of noticing it once it is over your head. 

If you do find a hole in your boat (or your strategy), it is crucial that you learn and adapt. Mistakes will happen, and learning from failures is the only way to ensure success. 

Interested in learning more? Listen to our full conversation with Larkin, where we take a deep dive into navigating the seas of strategy, as well as specific methods and tactics for innovation in higher education. Listen to the latest episode of The Strategy Gap on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player. 


Meet the Author  Jonathan Morgan

Jonathan Morgan is the VP of Revenue Operations and Head of Marketing at AchieveIt. Jonathan has spent time in roles across strategy consulting, sales, customer engagement, marketing, and operations, enabling a full picture view of strategy & strategy execution. His generalist background encourages a full picture view of strategic planning & strategy execution. Jonathan graduated from Georgia Tech and received his MBA from the University of Florida.

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