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This recent period of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic has been particularly unexpected and required a very rapid response by everyone across university systems. The use of online delivery as an immediate go-to was a necessity recognised by all parties and facilitated in our case by dedicated colleagues, supported by rapidly formed training and coaching support. However, this is not to minimise the trauma experienced in managing multiple forms of anxiety that have been evoked in our lives. The heightened anxiety experienced by all had a tendency to heighten emotions after the immediate shock. Reflecting on these is an important activity both for learning more about institutional and individual response to traumatising events, and because this first pandemic will potentially generate more surprises and may also be only the first such pandemic that we experience. Therefore, learning how to respond in the midst of major change would be of use to higher education institutions (HEIs) and may help to extract learning for how to enhance our response for next time.

‘Reflecting on these [heightened emotions] is an important activity both for learning more about institutional and individual response to traumatising events, and because this pandemic will potentially generate more surprises and may also be only the first such pandemic that we experience.’

The key questions on the immediate response revolved around safety and on how to further support colleagues and students in engaging with learning in this new and somewhat ambiguous environment. It has been difficult to identify relevant information and data. This has ranged from the inadequate and yet ubiquitous Microsoft Teams with its inability to record who is attending a session, through to not knowing if a lack of response from students has health-based or motivational causes, and even whether the technology works consistently on any given day. This has been followed by a sustained intentionality of action, both in engaging staff and also in working to build engaging, genuine learning journeys despite the loss of face-to-face contact. This intentionality has enabled the school to feel more coherent and focused as a school than before the pandemic.

Pina e Cunha and colleagues (2015) provide a useful framework of improvisation, which helps clarify the kind of improvisation that has been engaged and the implications of this moving forward. Four forms of improvisation are identified: resistive, subversive, episodic (event-related) and semi-structured. They suggest that organisation and improvisation act as opposing forces to maintain a dynamic and responsive institution. While HEIs are portrayed frequently as turgid, process-led bureaucracies, the pace and apparent effectiveness of the response suggests a familiarity and ease with improvisation. This provides an opportunity to understand resistive and subversive improvisations which may be engaged by academics in response to a sense that the university is not providing adequate responses in an area of perceived importance.

Pina e Cuhna and colleagues’ (2015) organisational improvisation and response to situations is polymorphous and supports a proposal to take all improvisation seriously, whether it complies or conflicts with performativity needs in the overall strategic direction. Multiple improvisations were seen as characteristic of departments as well as within individuals. Subversive improvisation has included such aspects as academics using Zoom instead of the prescribed Microsoft Teams. Positive resistive improvisation has appeared to focus on concern for students who may be unwittingly excluded through having additional needs of all types. Negative resistive improvisation was identified in an apparent lack of awareness of the requirement to teach online and was somewhat more damaging for all stakeholders.

Improvisation is proposed as a core element of the act of organising which enabled the significant deviation from routine required by Covid-19. In fact, the balance between routine and improvisation is an essential characteristic of sustained success in organisations as they negotiate changing situations.

Managing the balance between these elements to enable a rapid response while ensuring organisational consistency is typically the sweet spot for leadership. In this situation, reflection on the improvisation and sources of effectiveness are a key to building on the rapid improvisation for future capability in using improvisation to respond. It may be that the characteristic response can be better appreciated through the application of this framework. The current situation is by no means resolved and in the teeth of recession and uncertainty around the coming academic year, developing a capability in improvisation may facilitate effective responses that build a path through this pandemic to support stakeholders in providing higher education, research and associated community benefits.

The adjustments and innovations that were put in place to allow the continuance of communication are forms of episodic improvisation. Reflection-in-action is suggested to be a core element of improvisation. However, this builds to some extent on previous experience, which in this situation was sparse or perhaps even non-existent. One overarching question therefore remains: how can we build on this moment to fulfil the core purpose of HEIs for extending and applying knowledge?


Pina e Cunha, M., Neves, P., Clegg, S. R., & Rego, A. (2015). Tales of the unexpected: Discussing improvisational learning. Management Learning, 46(5), 511–529.