Renowned academic and innovator Johan Roos on how to manage the unthinkable

Shortly after hosting a AUC School of Business webinar on institutional readiness to change, chief academic officer at HULT International Business School, Johan Roos, speaks exclusively to Business Forward, further elaborating on his expertise managing institutions through crises, opportunities and challenges of COVID-19, and the permanent changes it could inflict upon work environments around the world.

Edited version of the Willard W. Brown Seminar 


The interview has been edited for clarity.

Going back to the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, what was the decision-making/thought process did you go through to shape HULT’s crisis response?

We quickly realized that all education had to go online and, subsequently, we moved all courses on all campuses to virtual, informed regulators and accreditors in the countries we operate in, and, shortly after, closed all campuses and helped staff and faculty work from home.

Furthermore, we restricted all travels to “blacklisted” places and cut non-essential costs as well as focused on online pedagogy practices, redefined our student promise and accelerated innovations.

How can business schools have a real-life impact in service of the communities they operate within? 

Most, if not all business schools impact their communities by the very virtue of offering higher education, graduates, and qualified jobs. The only limit to what you can impact positively is your imagination.

In our case, we have campuses in major business cities which attract international business graduates – London, Boston, San Francisco and Dubai as well as rotation campuses in Shanghai and New York. We are a small player but I hope our graduates contribute by working in all kinds of organizations or starting their own ones.

What opportunities does COVID-19 bring to business schools?

Every crisis is also an opportunity to change the status quo and I am convinced the COVID-19 is also an opportunity. In fact, crises tend to accelerate and accentuate what is already about to happen.

Online education was already challenging traditional in-person courses and this pandemic has definitely provided ample opportunity for all of us to innovate our pedagogy, course content and assessments but also how we think of and design education.

This pandemic will create many new ways of working while we cannot ignore the urge of many people to return to how it was before. Striking a balance there is an important task for leadership.

Preparedness and contingency planning is no longer a luxury. What are the characteristics of good contingency planning? How can leaders of smaller scale businesses, to which this concept is not highly established, integrate preparedness in their planning?

I’ve spend decades teaching and helping companies develop strategies and become more prepared. There is a major distinction which many tend to not think about or even ignore: Everyone wants a plan, or an action plan that is made real through budget allocations. That plan makes many people in organizations sleep well at night. But, if you think of it, a plan is for the expected and what you think you can deal with. That is great. But, what about the unexpected, what you did not think of, or could not even imagine? What about something you could not even think you had the resources to do, or prepare for? This is the ultimate problem of preparedness: you can spend all of your resources on contingency planning and still be taken by surprise.

We can learn from the field of catastrophe or disaster preparedness. People responsible for these important “contingencies” surely have plans, or rather checklists for first responders and other people sent to the frontlines of disasters. But they have more than that; they have practiced, experimented, learnt from adjacent fields, even played out all kinds of possibilities in various ways to prepare their mind to be flexible, adaptive and fast.

Will there be permanent changes due to COVID-19?

Yes, the world is changing now. Nobody knows what will emerge, but partly working from home is a likely outcome. Think of the consequences of that: less commuting to cities, less willingness to pay for office space, less people buying lunch next door, etc. Think about how social distancing practices may change how we interact; small changes can have radical impact on our societies as we know them.

What leadership qualities and business acumen that are now more valuable due to COVID-19?  

The ability to take care of your people to the best of your ability, quickly make decisions and take action in the face of ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty, and organize the work in a way that makes the organization nimble.

Can you briefly explain what is LEGO Serious Play methodology? 

This is a management tool I co-invented in the late 1990s, and its use has grown dramatically the last few years. LEGO elements function as three-dimensional models of business issues and challenges. Through narratives and constructions, LSP manages to improve mutual understanding, and it becomes easier to play out different scenarios and test different options. The aim of LSP is to create more imaginative and effective ways for leaders to develop more innovative strategies. ??????

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