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

Part 2: Of People, Systems, and Change

It is impossible to discuss people – especially in the workplace context – without first addressing the issue of complexity as a corollary to human action and interaction.

Every single one of us is shaped by our life experiences (good, bad, some even traumatic); our values and biases; our upbringing, social environments, and education; by our multiple contextual identities (colleague, parent, friend, sibling, member of an association, etc.); by our dreams, aspirations, and ambitions; by our emotions; and by the stories we tell ourselves and others about us.

And since people are complex and socially constructed beings, they will behave differently depending on a given situation and environment. This makes individuals ultimately un- (or, at best, barely) predictable, even in more collectivist societies than those of the Western World.

The Complexity Conundrum

Part 1 made the case for Agile as a guiding principle and philosophy for transforming college and university administrations while stemming the ongoing and intensifying loss of talent from the ranks of non-academic staff. Now, we turn our attention to the first and fourth values written in the Agile Manifesto and discuss what shifting our attention, effort, and resources to people and change could look like in practice:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Although our work and organizations generally revolve around specific products, services, or missions, once you put a few dozen, hundreds, or thousands of individuals, in all their individual complexity, together and let them interact, you have created an almost untamable adaptive organism made up of interconnected and socially fungible beings who build, maintain, and sometimes sever relationships that, in themselves, are continuously evolving.

Designed by Alvaro_cabrera / Freepik

Anyone familiar with social networks and the underlying theories will know that relationships (ties/edges) between multiple actors (nodes) will affect how much influence and position these actors have within the system (their centrality). Under the right circumstances, removing or replacing even a single node can have severe ripple effects throughout the system and reconfigure entire sets of social relationships.

This is the reason why no employee is simply and easily replaceable. We are not cogs in a complicated mechanism that can be “fixed” by replacing a broken component with another of the same make and model. Each of us exerts influence – positive or injurious – throughout our social sphere and, therefore, affects those around us and their ability to fulfill whatever mission drives our work.

No matter how much some folks in positions of authority across our colleges and universities cling to the notion that human beings are fully rational parts of a machinery and merely fulfill a specific function or purpose, leaders who fail to see people for the complex beings they are will invariably be unable to draw on the hidden potential of our teams or groups that is waiting for leaders to unleash.

At the same time, the intricate social systems found in our colleges, departments, institutes, or centers can either negate, cushion, or amplify the internal or external forces exerted on them – all depending on the relationships that exist within that system. When a leader does not understand that perceptions and interpersonal dynamics are crucial parameters to be considered for any change initiative, they run the risk that the change will fail, fall flat, or get implemented solely by force and fiat and gradually be reversed by others later.

I believe firmly that any aspiring leader without the will or capacity to appreciate their organization as a complex adaptive, generative, and resilient system that requires constant and careful monitoring and fine-tuning, is doomed to fail and ought not to be holding their position of authority and leadership.

Tales from the Trenches

In one most insightful conversation with a leader, a former dean told me point-blank and matter-of-factly that “everyone is easily replaceable, even I.”

What I have always found jarring bout that statement is that it reveals a level of borderline nihilism and disregard for the complexities of human interaction at the workplace for which I was unprepared at that time.

Over the years, I have seen such leaders repeatedly tell administrative staff how much they are appreciated while habitually spending 80% or more in quarterly meetings discussing matters completely unrelated to the staff experience and even boasting about the number of new faculty positions financed through the elimination, consolidation, or reassignment of staff positions. One dean refused to read a strategy report they had (grudgingly) requested from the Staff Executive Committee about ways to increase low employee engagement, morale, and retention of talent. Another leader forced, in less than a year, a massive administrative reorganization of a college with 26 departments through a behind-closed-doors process and without involving any of the 300+ staff members affected by these changes, save a few members of the dean’s office sworn to secrecy.

At the same time, I have seen college administrators who openly admitted to being uninterested in managing anyone, let alone leading a team, placed in positions of leadership. Others were eager to engage in gossip and surround themselves with cronies who they likely felt would bolster their position or power. And then there were the folks who demonstrated an uncanny unwillingness to accept and listen to dissenting voices, innovative or highly practical ideas, or information from the “front lines”  – especially by less senior staff.

These examples are, unfortunately, only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. While, admittedly, not every college or university is dysfunctional, such behaviors are not only common but also the opposite of Agile. In the abovementioned case, they have contributed to an unprecedented level of organizational fragility that now plagues the college.

I admit that all this may sound like I found myself in an unfortunate confluence of circumstances (which, frankly, I did). However, I have also had myriad conversations over the years with friends and colleagues at a wide range of institutions, from Ivy Leagues to small community colleges – and almost all of them have told me similar stories. And what I have heard up and down the board sounds eerily similar: non-academic staff are, in many institutions, often an afterthought, taken for granted, their needs rarely considered.

Even now, with scores of administrative employees continuing to leave our campuses seeking greener pastures, staff affairs are generally dismissed as an afterthought. After all, there are always qualified and desperate job seekers out there who can easily be hired to fill the ranks and keep the trains running on time. I hate to break the bad news to those who still believe this, but those times are long gone.

There are, of course, notable exceptions and examples of leaders who truly appreciate and support – in both words and action – the contributions of their staff members, irrespective of rank or title, and lead thriving schools and colleges.

I also admit to feeling a tinge of envy whenever I hear tales of staff members having their expert knowledge sought out and being empowered to develop a tool or process that serves the benefit of an entire college. Some of these leaders even admitted that their approach was inferior to their staff’s. Such occurrences are way too infrequent in the world of higher education and ought to be the norm rather than the exception. That’s what good leadership in the 21st century demands.


Agile is based on the idea that mutually beneficial, trusted, and lasting relationships between teams, leaders, and customers are the only way to respond to rapidly changing business environments. The same is certainly true in higher education.

Since our exploration has invariably landed on the topic of leadership, I’d like to stress the latter – in my humble opinion – does not mean outdated concepts of top-down management that serve only to maintain authority and power and thereby strengthen a leader’s position in the organization. That’s neither good practice, especially post-pandemic, nor reflective of Agile.

As I have outlined elsewhere, there is a clear distinction between management and leadership, although there are certainly gradations to consider.

While I invite you to visit the link above, I’d like to illustrate what I consider to be a much-needed shift in the leadership paradigm at many of our institutions with the following:

Leadership and management
Manager-Leader-Follower Dynamic Shift (by Tim Jansa)

The left block shows the common dynamics between those with positional authority – often (and at times erroneously) called “leaders” – and their subordinates. While the delegation of tasks flows “downward,” accountability is normally directed in the opposite direction. In this configuration, it is clear who is in charge: the person higher up on the org chart. Here, authority is vested in formal positions, titles, and corresponding reporting structures.

The right block of the diagram represents a desired future state and hints at the fact that leadership is highly contextual. It can be earned, granted, and exercised by anyone in the organization given the right circumstances.

I urge those in traditional positions of authority to take note and accept the fact that they will need to rely on those informal leaders to do much of the work they, themselves, are ill-equipped to handle. In return for their genuine trust in the latter’s ability and competence, formal leaders are more likely to receive the support and transparent sharing of information required to excel in their jobs.

Agile 2

Let’s now connect the dots and see how the previous discussion aligns with the tenets of Agile. To do so, we will take a brief look at Agile 2, which I have referenced previously. The unique feature of this evolutionary (but ultimately complementary) step in the history of Agile is its distinct and express focus on leadership in a contemporary workplace context.

Without going too in-depth, here are some major takeaways:

  • Leadership is a complex matter and requires a holistic understanding of organizational dynamics.
  • Leadership is very much context-bound and needs to be adjusted in style and substance to any given situation, oscillating between transformational and collaborative servant leadership (preferred) and more authoritarian (if necessary) approaches. To that effect, Jeffrey Buller, in his 2015 book Change Leadership in Higher Education: A Practical Guide to Academic Transformation has stated that “autocratic or authoritarian leadership styles may produce change in the short term, but that change will be superficial and not sustainable over the long term.” Embracing such leadership will inexorably “inhibit the creative side of your employees whose knowledge and energy you need to advance and reinvent.” (p. 208)
  • Collaboration between all members of the organization is essential for success and general well-being.
  • Even with autonomous teams, Agile leaders still provide direction and vision while allowing teams of experts to take the lead on implementation.
  • Team autonomy without leaders’ or managers’ interference forms the foundation for agility in developing and deploying products and services quickly and in response to customers’ needs. (Much more about this in Part 3 of this series.) That said, I would argue that leaders should strive for maximum viable team autonomy that should be adjusted over time, depending on the level of Agile maturity of the organization and its teams. Not all teams and their members are ready to embrace full autonomy, especially not in a command-and-control environment which exists at most higher ed institutions.
  • Agile leaders recognize and leverage the immense value generalists, and not just those trained in a narrow field of expertise, bring to the table. Both can offer insights and perspectives that translate into better practices, processes, speed, and engagement.
  • And finally, this one will undoubtedly raise some eyebrows: “Leaders should be replaced when they have outlived their purpose to the group or the organization.” – Let that sink in.

In addition to these guiding principles, the operative action verbs the authors of Agile 2 use reveal the spirit of how Agile leaders behave: Instead of controlling, directing, and demanding, they ask, negotiate, inspire, teach, trust, help, coach, mentor, train, and support people, as well as “demonstrate the behaviors they are asking from others.”

I urge you to compare the above – objectively and with an open mind – to the behaviors of both formal and informal leaders at your institution. And if you are unsure… well, then you have a problem right there. Find out and take a critical and unbiased look. You might be surprised by what you find.

Why Change?

By now, some of my readers may be thinking, “This is all good and well, but higher ed doesn’t change all that much and is rather predictable. Why do we need to transform the way we operate in the first place?”

I understand these critics, but I believe their argument is based on outdated and flawed assumptions.

Consider the simple fact that our student bodies cycle every two or three years (in community colleges) to five or six years (in most other schools). Incoming students bring with them different expectations, habits, uses of technology, ways of thinking, and social norms. And then there are the accelerating socio-cultural, environmental, and geopolitical changes we hear about in the news. All these affect the way students – and employees, too – interact, view the world, and change how they value various aspects of their personal and professional lives differently over time. These constant changes also affect how (and how well) we do our jobs, what kinds of professional environments we prefer, and what behaviors and attitudes we tolerate.

Admittedly, most institutions did make it through the pandemic more or less unscathed and were able (well, forced, to be honest) to pivot quickly when campuses were shut down in the spring of 2020. But even before COVID, many academic programs had already understood that the world of tertiary education was quickly evolving and made impactful modifications to their curricula, content delivery, and instructional technology.

The question remains, however: What have we really learned from the pandemic and those units that have embraced change all along? Non-academic administrative operations certainly remain – by and large – stuck firmly in the mid-20th century and returned to a pre-pandemic modus operandi.

The Agile Way
Agile team collaboration

After this rather critical and candid analysis of how many of our institutions struggle to live up to contemporary ideals of modern organizational design and leadership, you may wonder what this “agile way” I keep mentioning looks like.

To answer this question, I offer you a list of strategies – in no particular order – that I urge formal leaders to embrace to honor the values and spirit and Agile and to create a foundation for meaningful, equitable, and sustainable transformation of administrative operations in our colleges and universities:

Get to know as many staff members as possible, no matter how far down the org chart they appear. Learn about their aspirations, accomplishments, and unique contributions, and discover ways to access their untapped potential.

Listen actively and without judgment; do your best to understand and not to respond. Listen to what is said, and what isn’t. Affirm and acknowledge the whole person. Yes, this takes time – a lot, in fact. But what you invest into relationships will be returned to you manyfold in the form of trust, engagement, excellent work, innovation, and motivation to go the proverbial extra mile.

View and treat your staff members as the complex human beings they are. Acknowledge any trepidations and fears about change; some of these may be rooted in past experiences you are unaware of. Make sure everyone is heard and has an actual say in the direction the institution is going. This is not only the right thing to do but constitutes basic good leadership.

Be transparent, open to feedback, and admit that you don’t have all the answers. When discussing the need for change and innovation, leverage staff members’ knowledge and expertise and empower them to make meaningful contributions. (This, too, is good leadership practice.)

Respect and listen to your “black sheep” and their dissenting or critical voices. Even if this makes you uncomfortable, you may learn something important about the root causes of the organizational challenges you face.

Lead change, don’t just manage it. Leading involves the inclusion of a broad spectrum of stakeholders and changemakers who are empowered to affect the approach and direction of your initiatives in ways that serve those who will bear the brunt of the change. Managing, on the other hand, merely mitigates unintended consequences of unilateral change by decree and ensures that the intended results are achieved, no matter what.

Understand that complex adaptive systems cannot be fixed and can only be nudged in a certain direction. Often, such systems respond vastly differently from what leaders intended due to the interpersonal relationships at the heart of the social network. Be cognizant of the fact that forced change without a commonly understood purpose will likely result in unintended responses and severely impact the motivation, engagement, and well-being of your staff.

Make sure leaders genuinely care about the level of motivation, engagement, and well-being of their staff. If they don’t, I urge you to transition them into positions where a lack of empathy and people skills will do the least damage.

Be courageous and ready to make the necessary personnel changes. Within reason and what is possible at your institution, critically examine the suitability of each manager and formal leader. Capitalize on these individuals’ strengths, knowledge, skills, and expertise – and if leadership is not one of them, find a better place for them so they can thrive.

Use only processes, tools, and technology that serve your (human) employees and not the other way around. Ask end users to provide feedback on the utility of a tool or process and find out how they actually implement it. If you find that a perceived innovation causes only confusion, more work, or creates additional points of failure, dump it. Just because you think it’s a great solution doesn’t mean that those who will be using it agree.

staff employee networks in higher education

Put people first and your ego last. When an employee comes to you with an innovative idea or solution that has the potential to solve, or at least partially address, a pressing problem, take that initiative seriously. Be open to a solution that may not follow your predetermined and chosen process and admit that your ideas may be inferior. Certainly, don’t dismiss that staff member on the grounds of not “following the process.” The process is yours. Change it.

Create called a Culture of Innovation. I find it infinitely ironic that our colleges and universities – centers for learning, research, and innovation – are among the least innovative places to work as far as their administrative operations go. To address this gap, Jeffrey Buller, whom I cited above, outlined the idea that organizations that readily embrace change share certain features that allow them to practice continuous improvement, create a positive and empowering working environment, and thereby better serve all employees – what he called a culture of innovation. Among these commonalities are continuous questioning of the assumptions concerning how problems are to be solved; leaders not providing solutions unilaterally but letting them emerge organically through a collective and collaborative process; and not just accepting, but expecting creativity from all employees, irrespective of rank, function, or title. In short, these employers institutionalize the cultivation of a growth mindset across the organization. The theoretical frameworks Buller draws on – Schein’s learning culture theory, Puccio et al’s creative leadership, and Seligman’s learned optimism – to name only a few – align beautifully with what Agile calls for, namely the ability to adapt quickly to changing environments and requirements through learning, continuous improvement, and a common belief in teams’ capacity to do the right thing and do it right.

Finally, it is of note that Buller, analogous to the Agile Manifesto and associated principles, stresses the importance of providing transparency and support to autonomous, self-organizing teams while he also makes a compelling case why traditional strategic planning – and stubbornly following the resulting 5- or 10-year plan – is a deeply flawed endeavor that uses precious resources but often severely curbs an institution’s ability to flex in a timely manner to changing circumstances.

Empower your staff teams to experiment and let what works well percolate organically through the system. In Brave New Work, author Aaron Dignan uses the analogy of drilling through a ship’s hull either “above” or “below the waterline,” representing experimentation around processes, organizational structures, or products. Failed attempts that cause no or little disruption are considered above the waterline and, therefore, safe to try, while those whose failure may have major detrimental consequences or endanger the organization are considered “below the waterline.” When you empower your teams to try out new ways of getting the work done, set boundaries, and establish where the waterline lies. Then, make sure the drill is plugged in, the power is on, and obstacles are removed. Help sweep up the sawdust and mop up whatever water splashes through the drilled hole… but move out of the way to let your expert staff do their best work. This approach honors the complex dynamics of adaptive social systems while also maximizing the impact of meaningful change.

Finally, tackle your organizational debt. In a truly insightful (and delightful) podcast, Sam Spurlin and Rodney Evans at the consulting firm The Ready discuss a major issue many organizations – and, as I have found, most higher education institutions – face: organizational debt, which they define as the accumulation of policies, processes, and ways of working in an organization that once served a purpose but no longer does. Such debt manifests in bloated bureaucracies and a stifling permission or influence culture. It also leads to frustration and limits the potential of employees. (Most of my readers will likely have no trouble naming at least three processes, workflows, and activities that make absolutely no sense. Such debt also makes it impossible to prioritize people and human interaction over these outdated tools and processes, making the implementation of Agile principles all but impossible.) The podcasters also point out that many leaders are loathe to tackle org debt because it ultimately cements the status quo, their position, function, and authority, without which they feel their job and professional identity would be undermined.

Higher education institutions are often so decentralized that the accumulated org debt makes it easy for no one to feel responsible for addressing the issue. As Jeffrey Buller concisely states: “Rules are wonderful, as long as they make it possible for you to attain your ultimate goal. But when rules start hindering you from attaining that goal, they have outlived their usefulness. . . . Never let policies get in the way of progress” (p. 204).

One Final Thought

Continuous change is here to stay. It’s inevitable and only accelerating. It’s affecting all areas of work on our campuses and deeply impacts non-academic staff. Therefore, not accepting and adapting to change or failing to adjust the way we lead the administrative functions of our colleges, departments, institutes, and centers is no longer acceptable – if it ever was. I am convinced that by embracing the basic tenets of Agile, there is hope in transforming our institutions into places where staff employees feel valued, appreciated, motivated, and stimulated to be and do better every day.

It’s about time.

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