Letting Go of the Need to Know

I am a planner by nature. Like many of you, I am at my best when I have time to do my homework and develop a clear path forward.

Turns out, that isn’t as easy as it sounds in these “unprecedented times” we’ve been working through this last year. But one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is, not only is it ok to not have all of the answers, it may be even better.

Let me tell you why.

In January 2020 if you had asked colleges like ours, and many other businesses, whether or not we could operate virtually you would have probably gotten some wide-eyed stares in response. Sure, in theory, it might be possible, but it would take a lot of planning, policies and procedures to pull it off, let alone considerable time and resources we just didn’t have.

But by March 2020, what we didn’t have was a choice. What we had in abundance was our employees’ dedication to limiting the disruption to our students’ learning. So we did it. This is one of the proudest moments in our college’s history and the most telling as we look toward the future. While we would often talk about being what is possible, that idea also had some unintentional boundaries created by our existing business structures.

After this past year, we realize with new clarity that we can and should challenge all of those previous assumptions. It is liberating and might have been a little scary if not for our greatest resource, our people.

Large, established organizations usually have robust policies and procedures in place that clearly outline how we operate. Our employees have come to rely on them to help guide the way. There was safety in knowing what was expected and what worked.

But when we were forced to throw a lot of those guidelines out of the window when we went virtual, we all had to take a more active role in figuring out what worked and what didn’t work for us. We each had to be an advocate for our own needs while meeting the needs of our students. It was no longer about following the letter of a policy, but embracing the spirit of our mission.

As a result we’ve had higher engagement, ownership and innovation throughout the organization. We’ve proven that we are more resilient and agile than we knew. We now know we can pivot faster, we can try new things and adjust if they don’t work right the first time. Not only is that accepted, it’s expected and encouraged. We no longer have the luxury, or the burden, of needing all of the details finalized before we allow ourselves to move forward or implement changes to achieve our goals.

In this time of rapid transformation, we as leaders must let go of the idea that we should be omniscient experts. We have experts at every level of our organizations and throughout our stakeholder groups. It is our job as leaders to listen to as many voices as possible, put forth a vision, then let our teams help shape that vision and bring it to life.

We need to change what we expect from ourselves and each other. We must become comfortable not having all of the answers. We must instill greater trust and autonomy in our teams to advance our organizational goals. And they will likely surprise us with what they’ve come up with. Of course, there will be bumps along the way, but I believe we will achieve even greater success in the long run.

I am more comfortable now than I’ve ever been with not having all of the answers because I know we have the people in our college and in our community who will work together to get us where we need to go. In late 2019, when I began my listening tour with employees and community members, I knew strategic planning would be necessary to help us clarify who we are, imagine what we want to become and map out how we can successfully transition to that future state.

Some people were surprised to hear I still want to continue with this significant undertaking during a pandemic. But after seeing our college and community in action over the last year, I believe this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to not just talk in theory about re-imagining the future. Now, everything is on the table.

We’ve spent more than a year challenging established assumptions. We know things are possible that we never thought could change. Now is the time to tap into the courageous creativity this community has to design a college that will serve our learners today and in the future, even if – and especially because – we don’t know what that future holds.

Nick Nissley, Ed.D., is president of Northwestern Michigan College. He is an education executive with more than 25 years of experience including K–12, community college and university settings.