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Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctorate-granting university known for its innovative curriculum.
I vividly remember the early days of the global pandemic, when leaders were required to make critical decisions without a clear playbook. As health experts and government officials scrambled to make sense of the ever-changing information about the Covid-19 virus, I knew that my knowledge management expertise would prove invaluable in the days ahead.
Nascent trends like the virtualization of the workspace and online learning rapidly accelerated in light of the pandemic. Many businesses, organizations, schools and universities had plans in place for technological and academic advancements to be rolled out over months that were suddenly fast-tracked in days.
I am the president of Marymount University, and I am proud of how our team effectively addressed the many overlapping changes in economic, health and logistical concerns simultaneously. Together we succeeded well beyond our expectations! Therefore, I want to share my thoughts on why we fared so well in the chaotic early days of the global pandemic.
Before I stepped into my current role, I spent a significant amount of my time researching how organizations can improve their collective decision-making, particularly during a crisis, and advising on knowledge management processes and technologies to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of decisions to better achieve organizational objectives. Knowledge management seeks to identify how to best discover, capture, share and apply all types of intellectual expertise within an organization to improve critical decisions made by people. This involves using a multidisciplinary approach to achieve organizational objectives while capitalizing on an organization’s intellectual assets — the know-how that employees possess.
Decades ago, I also became interested in knowledge sharing during disasters, specifically during hurricanes. As part of my research, I completed a series of FEMA courses for hurricane preparedness. These courses taught me the structure, methods and tools needed for disaster management. So when Covid-19 hit our campus in the spring of 2020, we built an interdisciplinary team using the incident command structure — the same structure and methods used when handling natural disasters. I knew we needed to take swift action from the start because any misstep could lead to lost lives. Our highest priority was the safety of our faculty, staff, students and all those who are part of our campus community. Within days, we organized a Covid-19 task force and scheduled daily meetings to discuss current challenges. The task force informed and provided recommendations to our cabinet, who convened following each meeting of the task force to make relevant decisions.
During a crisis, leaders need to understand the value of the frequent and widespread dissemination of information. It is important to ensure everyone is adequately informed. As a result, people will be well-positioned to make the right decisions without the added risk of consequences due to information asymmetry.
A key challenge in making critical choices during the pandemic or any challenging time is decision-making under time pressure — often with uncertain and conflicting information. Collaborative decision-making today calls for not only an open mindset but also active listening to opposing views, trying unchartered protocols and working with shifting priorities.
Analysis paralysis is disruptive in regular times, but it can devastate much-needed momentum during times of crisis. Therefore, leaders must ensure that their teams do not get stuck in highly emotional exchanges or looped into fear-based thinking during meetings. Steering meetings while remaining calm and collected is one way to ensure discussions stay on track while significantly increasing the odds of success. Also, remember to trust the process and give everyone involved in the decision-making process the space to explore complex ideas and new approaches.
The best way to check in with and assess where team members are during stressful times is to tune in and listen to their unique perspectives. Everyone handles stress differently and may feel overwhelmed in their own way, so patience and flexibility are essential when working during times of crisis. Also, non-verbal communication can reveal important clues regarding fear over the topic at hand.
I always encourage open discussion of opposing viewpoints — even if doing so appears risky or controversial at first. After all, gathering multiple points of view is the surest way to arrive at an informed decision. Also, remember, it is in the organization’s best interest for leaders to hold a neutral position while weighing in on solutions.
Collecting data and information from outside experts is an excellent way to fill in the knowledge gaps when evaluating and narrowing down choices. Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, we have relied on the guidance of health experts and government officials. Depending on the expertise of industry experts is a sound move, but so, too, is listening to your intuition. I have made thousands of crucial decisions on complex issues throughout my career based on my informed intuition.
And finally, listen, ask questions and truly hear the responses of everyone in the group — because all it takes is one excellent shared idea to alter the course of action for the better!
So far, many organizations have weathered the global pandemic well because they utilized formal processes, structures, methodologies and tools. These universities, businesses, nonprofits and other organizations can continue to meet future challenges head-on by fostering the courage, determination and organization needed to stand strong together.