Can SUs find creativity in chaos and crisis?

Neil Mackenzie is Chief Exec at Leeds Beckett SU

Last year I took part in the first iteration of the Wonkhe SUs New Rules event in Manchester.

It brought together a variety of SU leaders (staff and elected students) to work through challenging organisational scenarios in a constantly shifting maelstrom of regulatory changes, government policy u-turns and ambitious demands from university leaders.

Long story short – it was fun, challenging and helped force different ways of thinking about complex problems we face in our day jobs.

This year I offered to support the project as a “co-pilot”, delivering the news of policy shifts and rule changes, helping to set the scene and nudge colleagues away from their comfort zone.

Watching a group of colleagues – some of whom I’ve known for a decade and others I was meeting for the first time – navigate this challenge sparked some thoughts on the challenges our sector is facing, and how and when we choose to be bold, brave and genuinely creative.

The crisis sparks the creativity

My group was given a fairly middle of the road scenario in terms of their institutional position. A large, modern university in a major city also containing a research intensive institution.

It had been well run in the past twenty years, riding the various waves of change to a position of stability, but the tell tale signs of the storm that is breaking on our sector in real life were clearly visible.

Once we had moved beyond introductions to one another and the task, the team started to work through some analysis of their current position, conducting a SWOT analysis of their institution and thinking about the services of the SU.

It was all perfectly sensible, reasonable stuff that anyone involved in a strategic planning exercise will have engaged in.

But I think it was fair to say they were struggling to have a “hook” into changing their approach beyond that of the traditional SU, and why should they? This was a stable, mid-ranking institution, with a stable, traditional students’ union.

However, around 90 minutes into the exercise, the crisis dropped. Challenges to student recruitment and overall institutional finances has led to a new University Finance Director halving the SU budget.

Iterating was off the table, arguing against was impossible, and innovation was the only way through. Things in the group really accelerated at this point – and the focus immediately shifted to the needs of students and how to serve them.

While the financial constraints caused concern, they also created a freedom of thinking – because the old way of working had to change. There was a genuine return to first principles around student needs, and a radically different type of SU began to emerge on the various pieces of flipchart scattered around the room.

Real crisis is more chaotic – and lacks creativity

This experience isn’t too unusual – and was shared by many of my facilitation colleagues, indeed, it’s the point of the exercise – what if all of what appears certain about our sector model shifted? If you had a blank piece of paper, would you design the SU in exactly the way you see it now?

The chaos of a crisis in an exercise like this is designed to spark creativity, and it worked well.

But on the rare occasion I have been involved in organisations facing a crisis, my experience has not often been of leaders ready to take a leap of faith, or make a major shift. Indeed, the instinct is to focus on how to quickly get back to “normal”.

The reality of having to change a mindset when the real crisis hits, with all of the chaos it brings (and reassurance that people crave), can hold back change, with uncertainty and complexity getting in the way. Sticking to the plan you had at the start of the crisis becomes a way of creating stability.

This gap – between the creativity we have when it is just a game, and the conservative approaches when it’s for real – is not at all unreasonable, or even wrong. It is the process in getting there that sparked my interest.

Watching my group work, it was the crisis that allowed them to focus on what really mattered, and I think they all left the day better ready to face a crisis in their day jobs. Groups needed the safety of the activity being in theory – before they can apply it in the real world.

Crisis plan now to give clarity in the chaos

Wonkhe has spent the past months warning of the coming storm to our sector, and it is clear that it will impact SUs. And I’m sorry friends, if you think this year’s budget and planning round is tough, the coming five years are going to be quite a shock to the system.

We need to have the crisis conversations with senior managers, trustees, officers and institutions now – before they feel too scary, or we risk hitting a full-on crisis without the clarity and agreement of what really matters.

The good news is that there are answers out there. Opportunities will emerge, there’s lots of ideas around both the UK and the rest of the world that can be adopted, students are still creative and resourceful when we enable them to be, and we know that skills and citizenship, belonging and mental health and finding ways to enable students to do things and make things happen for each other will continue to matter.

It feels hard now – but if we can find the time and space to do the tough work in what feels like a safe space, we’ll be better able to embrace the chaos and the creativity it can bring.

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