Agile transformation in higher education by Tim Jansa; abstract image depicting before and after the change

Agile: Higher Education Administration’s Best Hope?

Administrative operations in higher education institutions are in trouble, with record-low employee engagement and motivation, along with massive turnover of non-academic staff.

This 4-part series explores ways in which a transformation of administrative operations in our colleges and universities is not only needed, but possible. Following the values and principles of Agile, I outline specific shifts in mindsets, leadership behavior, and team dynamics that – if implemented correctly – promise to turn an institution’s administrative services into great and meaningful places to work.

Part 1: Making the Case for Agile

“Agile has failed. Officially.”

This was the provocative title of a short piece I came across on Medium in December 2023.

I can certainly appreciate the argument that many Agile transformations fail. Moreover, the Agile community has undoubtedly fractured over the past 20 years while the understanding of what constitutes agility has been somewhat diluted and misappropriated. However,

I strongly believe that Agile as a principle is alive and well – and infinitely relevant to bringing about much-needed changes in higher ed administration that are at least two decades overdue.

As most colleges and universities have both solidly embraced and institutionalized a corporate/business mindset and adjusted their leadership and administrative structures accordingly, let’s follow the proverbial trail of breadcrumbs and apply both some contemporary industry thinking and proven practices to the higher education enterprise…

A Primer on Agile

Before I go into specifics, let me explain how applying Agile values and practices informs this series on transforming college and university administration.

First and foremost, Agile is a way of being rather than a way of doing. In its purest form, it is a mindset, a philosophy, in which Agile practitioners, teams, and coaches forefront interpersonal connections, frequent and open communication, continuous improvement, transparent processes, and embrace change to deliver maximum value to customers with high frequency.

Second, it is an umbrella term that includes a few dozen methodologies, frameworks, and related practices with clearly specified roles, responsibilities, and structures. Examples of such frameworks are Scrum (the most popular methodology), Extreme Programming (XP), SAFe, Kanban, and many others.

Regrettably, many conflate Agile itself with specific approaches and practices, thereby getting lost in the weeds and losing touch with the overarching goals: streamlining processes through iterative experimentation, eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy and redundant work, focusing on people as principal drivers of innovation, striving for constant improvement, and viewing change not only as inevitable but as something to be embraced, appreciated, and leveraged. To put all this into practice, small and autonomous teams of developers deliver incremental and frequent product iterations based on ongoing customer feedback and collaboration.

What all Agile methodologies have in common is that they create value through collaboration, adaptability, and an unblinking eye on customer satisfaction. They promote iterative development of products and services, continuous improvement, and the ability to respond to change quickly. These principles not only align well with the dynamic, decentralized, and complex nature of higher education but offer a high-level approach to addressing many of the issues plaguing our industry: high staff turnover, low employee satisfaction, massive bureaucracies that stand in the way of responding to various stakeholder needs (more about this later), and command-and-control leadership structures that stifle innovation from the administrative front lines.

The Agile Manifesto, published in 2001, summarizes the four principals driving value as follows:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working [products and services] over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Some readers will have noticed that I put “products and services” in brackets; the original word here was “software,” as Agile was initially designed for software development. However, over the past two decades, these four values, associated principles), and specific frameworks have been applied to a wide range of industries outside of software development – from hospitality, healthcare, aerospace engineering, and product development to the financial sector and large-scale mergers and acquisitions – and have proven to be adaptable and beneficial across various industries by generated impressive results in changing the way organizations work and create value. This explains why I chose the wording above, which I will also be using going forward.

It is also important to point out that the Manifesto merely places certain values over others; both have their place and purpose, but the focus lies on the bold-faced ones.

Agile methodologies – especially Scrum – have already found their way into higher education, albeit primarily either as part of the curriculum (for instance, in engineering and computer science programs), instructional technology, or instructional practices that emphasize agility in project-based student collaboration and incremental learning. However, because Agile values are simultaneously broad and profound, they lend themselves to much wider application in colleges and universities and their unique institutional contexts, in particular the design of administrative processes and leadership structures.

Applying both Agile thinking and being to administrative services and related leadership and management structures in higher education is a field of inquiry that is thus far virtually unexplored.

This series of articles aims to remedy the gap and explore how embracing the tenets of Agile (and, more recently, Agile 2) has the potential to bring about much-needed change to the way our institutions’ administrative core functions and treats its people.

Competing Priorities

It may be an understatement that agility is a term infrequently found in association with how colleges and universities operate.

As I have outlined elsewhere, many a reader with experience as a member of the non-academic university staff will agree that working in such a capacity in a college, school, center, or institute is reminiscent of large traditional corporations of the late 20th century: strong and deeply embedded hierarchies, top-down command and control structures, and a culture concerned with maintaining existing power structures and the status quo rather than fostering innovation, empowerment, and agility in response to inevitable and ongoing change. As a result of higher ed’s pervasive resistance to change, and adherence to outdated management and leadership practices, non-academic staff turnover and disengagement have skyrocketed while morale continues to reach new lows.

On a Mission
Agile transformation in higher education

As a leader deeply committed to continuously improving operational excellence while responding to and supporting people’s ever-shifting needs with compassion and empathy, I have struggled with finding a fulfilling and meaningful career as a higher education administrator or staff member – as have many of my peers.

When I left the largest college of a sizeable urban R1 institution that alone serves more than 13,000 undergraduate and 1,800 graduate students, I had resolved never to return to higher ed. Over time, however, I realized that I believe too strongly in the promise and transformative power of tertiary education to turn my back on it. I have come to understand that my disillusionment with the university enterprise was something I could turn into a valuable asset and do something about.

The challenges I faced over the years have sparked a conviction to confront head-on the dysfunction plaguing many institutions’ administrative services. I have found my mission in changing the workplace conditions for college and university staff so that they would not live through the painful and demoralizing experiences many of us endure every day and, instead, find meaning and purpose along the way.

Calling BS

Most higher education institutions have a huge blind spot: the administrative core and its committed front-line workers who make our campuses work. These folks frequently comprise not only the largest group of employees on campus but are often the first and most frequent points of contact and source of information for students. They have their finger on the pulse of the student experience and are often the first to witness the continuously shifting tides of students’ needs, expectations, and struggles. It is they – frequently on the margins of campus governance but generally well-connected and keenly aware of trends – who are arguably the real experts on campus in matters related to institutional and student success. Yet, they are hardly ever included in leadership decisions, let alone asked to drive change.

At least in part, I blame thought leadership and research for the current state of affairs.

In November 2019, I attended a panel discussion during a large international higher education research conference held in Portland, Oregon. The presentation, featuring some of the best-known scholars in the field, centered on new directions and innovative research agendas in college and university leadership.

When I arrived, the room was packed and the energy palpable. I, too, was excited, but my mood soon soured as the discussion never veered from its focus on faculty and mid-level or upper administrators (deans, provosts, presidents). Never once did the panelists touch on the concerns of non-academic staff.

The assumption underlying this omission was an all-too-familiar one:

Front-line staff are, to many administrators, easily replaceable non-entities without any ‘real’ expertise; they merely exist to do necessary and often unappealing bureaucratic grunt work while ultimately having no measurable impact on the success and failure of institutions.

Spurred on by this lack of attention to a sizeable constituency, I asked if the panel had ever considered including departmental, school, or college staff as a demographic worthy of inclusion in leadership research.

My question was met with confused silence. The panelists looked at each other, obviously stymied. After an awkward moment, their response sounded something like, “Hmmm. … I hadn’t really thought of it. … Interesting idea. … Anyone? … No? … OK, next question.”

Not only was there no recognition that excluding an important and sizeable group of campus employees from research is not only folly but outright detrimental to the morale and ability of staff to make meaningful and sustainable contributions to the success of their institution. What I witnessed was also an utter (and ironic) lack of interest among academic faculty in responding to a novel idea, entertaining a different line of academic inquiry, or changing direction in light of alternative ways of thinking.

I wonder how many missed opportunities there have been over the years for titular leaders to embrace practices and initiate strategic course corrections that would have addressed the needs of both students and the core administrative apparatus — and changed the institutional culture for the better.

A Question of Mindset and Culture

Returning to Agile, I have found that – in its purest form, as a mindset and guiding philosophy, and not a restrictive, normative, or even bureaucratic roadmap for change – it provides a valuable foundation for the type of organizational transformation necessary to establish higher ed administration as an area that respects and empowers non-academic staff across our campuses.

The kind of future I envision

  • shifts sourcing innovation for organizational improvement from formal and designated leaders to front-line workers in departments, schools, and colleges, thereby including all relevant stakeholders;
  • requires leaders to seek out and actively listen to low-level staff and incorporate their expertise and insights;
  • encourages scrutiny of every rule, policy, and process as to whether it adds value in order to tackle organizational debt; and
  • involves staff in driving purposeful, targeted, and incremental change needed for our institutions to thrive in the 2020s and beyond.

It is thrilling to imagine the effects on personal well-being, sense of purpose, and motivation to go the extra mile such changes will have on those involved.

But before any sustainable structural transformation based on Agile values and practices can occur, we must face the proverbial elephant in the room:

Administratively, our institutions are designed to maintain existing power dynamics, positions, titles, and control mechanisms based on employees’ function, job descriptions, and (perceived) ability to complete assigned tasks.

At the same time, convoluted bureaucratic processes and outdated policies – real or imagined – continue to reinforce the status quo and obstruct positive change.

Therefore, the first challenge is to change the hearts and minds of leaders, so they understand and act on the need to relinquish control while embracing a human-centric, compassionate, and supportive mindset of servant leaders. This takes tremendous time, willpower, and a concerted effort; and not all leaders going in will emerge at the end.

Such major hurdles aside, let’s imagine, just for a moment, a world in which all staff employees – irrespective of position, title, or pay – experience full trust, respect, and psychological safety; where they are empowered to generate ideas and allowed to experiment – and fail along the way; where everyone is invited to interrogate existing policies and procedure as to their usefulness and alignment with the mission; and where all staff create value autonomously for whatever stakeholder requires their expertise.

Imagine how viewing organizational change as an opportunity to learn and grow and work collectively toward a common goal will boost motivation and productivity – which, in turn, will make leaders look good to their superiors!

Of course, people are people, and many a leader’s or manager’s professional identity is inextricably linked to their position and (perceived) level of influence, further impeding change. No organization will ever transform into a flawless and conflict-free corporate utopia of total happiness and fulfillment. But allowing ourselves to be guided by such ideals and introducing small, incremental, and innovative changes in the way we run our colleges, schools, institutes, and departments promises to be a powerful antidote to the general malaise that has long gripped higher ed administration.

Looking Ahead

Agile transformation in higher education administration is not just about adopting a set of practices; it’s about fostering a cultural shift towards human capacity, adaptability, collaboration, and continuous improvement even before any changes to the organizational operating system are made.

By embracing Agile principles, higher education institutions can navigate the complexities of the academic landscape with resilience and responsiveness, ultimately providing a more enriching experience for students, faculty, and staff alike.

This series of articles will delve deep into how the four Agile values can inform a transformation of mid-level higher ed administration and offer a strategic approach to accomplishing such change. At the end, I offer a framework to bring about such change in a people-centric and sustainable fashion.

I invite you to join me for this exciting exploration.

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