I’m helping plan the reopening of UT Austin. Here’s the process we’re using

By Art Markman

I write a lot about leadership issues, often from the perspective of psychology studies, since I’m a psych professor at University of Texas at Austin. But recently I’ve been thinking about something a bit different.

A few weeks ago, I was asked by my university to coordinate planning for academics in the fall of 2020 as we transition from the shutdown of the university that began in March to holding at least some in-person classes this fall.

As you might expect, the question of whether and how to open a college campus during a pandemic is a contentious issue that lies at the intersection of several conflicting goals. Social distancing behavior keeps people safest from the disease. But much good education practice involves at least some social interaction. And a lot of what makes college fun and memorable involves no safe social distancing at all.

Layered on top of that is the same tension between social distancing and financial success that faces much of the country. And, of course, the proper response to the pandemic has become a polarizing political issue that also plays into the operation of a public university.

In fact, the only sure thing in this case is that the decisions made by the university are not going to make everyone happy. Indeed, the set of decisions that are being made involve so many factors—including academics, research, student life, facilities, and sports—that it is likely that everyone will be unhappy about at least some aspect of what is decided.

In situations such as this, where the outcome will be, at best, partially satisfying to people, it is crucial that they trust the process by which decisions are reached. There are three critical things that can help develop this trust:

Listen well

People who are affected by a decision want to know that their input was factored into the decision in some way. Decisions in crisis situations cannot be made by committee. At our university, the ultimate responsibility for deciding how to move forward lies with our president. Along the way, though, there have to be opportunities for input.

To that end, we have put together a variety of task forces to address critical aspects of academics, faculty and staff welfare, student life, physical and mental health and wellness, education practice, and even groups focused on special populations including graduate students, international students, people getting professional degrees, and students from at-risk populations such as those who are the first in their family to go to college. Each of these task forces is reaching far and wide to gather information and expertise to inform how we characterize the decision.

In addition, we are launching a variety of surveys to students, faculty, and staff to understand their concerns. In addition to discussions with experts, we are also meeting regularly with campus leaders to find out what new concerns they have.

Iterate and adapt

Listening is not effective alone. In fact, research on employee voice suggests that if you ask people for their opinion and then don’t do anything with it, people stop engaging. So, how can you demonstrate that you are listening to the information you get?

In complex decision tasks, it is impossible to get the details right the first time. As a result, it’s common to use a series of iterations to design the best scenario to work from. That process requires setting up an initial possibility that’s likely to be flawed and incomplete and allowing people to critique it and to suggest alternatives. From that discussion, a new scenario is developed, and the process is repeated.

An advantage of this process—which we are using in our work—is that it enables people to see how feedback is being incorporated into the process. The scenario changes substantially over time, which allows people to see how their ideas (or other suggestions they have heard about) have made their way into what ultimately becomes the final product. That process also helps to keep people engaged, because everyone is aware of how their input shapes the process.

Communicate early and often

In complex situations, it is easy to forget to communicate. It is hard enough to have the team gather information and work toward a plan. Having to ensure that everyone else stays up to speed on current thinking takes extra effort. On top of that, it can seem inefficient to have to describe the principles that are guiding the way the leadership team is approaching the problem.

The time spent communicating about the process itself is a great investment, though. It helps people to track the progress of the project as it develops. It gives people insight into why some changes were made and other suggestions were not acted on.

However, it is also important to communicate your willingness to accept dissent, and to act accordingly. A danger when developing a complex plan is that you can fall in love with some of your initial assumptions. When you try to iterate and adapt, you are inviting people to tell you everything that is wrong with your assumptions. There is a natural tendency to start by defending the decisions you made.

You have to resist early commitments to ideas and talk about the changes you are making as a result of the suggestions you receive. That way, in word and in action, you are inviting people to continue to collaborate. By resisting the urge to get defensive, you are creating a spirit of collaboration rather than combat.

As I write this, I have no idea how our planning process will turn out. I do know that hundreds of amazing people have come together to create a safe and meaningful education experience for our students in the fall. I’ll report back on our progress.


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