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

Part 3: Of Products, Customers, and Value

To be frank, I have always had a strained and uneasy relationship with the notion of customers and customer service in higher education, especially within administrative operations.

As the saying goes, where there are customers, there’s attitude – and we certainly have plenty of that in our field already. After all, shouldn’t we all work in the same direction and toward fulfilling the mission of our institutions? But, then again, maybe not.

The Customer Conundrum

The central problem in much of higher ed administration is the frequent lack of a common goal or purpose. I have often heard (and, frankly, thought to myself), “What am I even doing? Why? And for whom? How does any of this matter?” Readers with experience in this sphere will likely have had similar thoughts – because the mission of administrative operations is often ill-defined or outright absent.

Questions around mission and attitude aside, my biggest beef with the idea of customer service in higher ed administration is that it invariably reinforces the kind of outdated leader-follower dynamic I discussed in previously: Just as delegating tasks in a traditional hierarchy flows downward while accountability flows upward, bosses like to see themselves as the customers of those who do the work lower in the org chart. Ironically, those closest to the work to be done are rarely – if ever – considered anyone’s customers, even if they ask something of their managers.

products and customers in higher education administration

Unfortunately, the notion of “excellent customer service” also lends itself to being used to punish behavior by an employee of which a superior doesn’t approve. I have repeatedly observed how leaders use such a demand to justify all kinds of abuse, much to the detriment of motivation and engagement among frontline workers.

Another issue that makes this topic so touchy in higher ed is the puzzling truth that you can’t have customers without also having a product. And you can’t have a product without first knowing what customers value. That is, you can, but then you run the risk of developing a product that no one wants or needs. (Remember Google Glass?) I bet any user experience or customer experience professional can attest to this statement.

Despite my initial trepidations, I believe that these values not only apply to college and university administration but also open the window to some fascinating dynamics, they lend themselves to supporting much-needed Agile transformation.

Therefore, let’s take a deep dive into the remaining two Agile values:

  • Working products and services over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Who is Who?

So, what is the product of what non-academic staff across our colleges and universities do daily? (It certainly isn’t “education” or “degrees.”) And who are the customers? (Students? Think again…) And if there is, in fact, a product, our leaders could certainly do a much better job providing a definition and giving those closest to the work a compelling sense of why they do what they do. The same goes for our customers.

As I mentioned above, at the center of this conundrum lies a pervasive absence of a common goal, a shared mission, or joint values that drive our administrators’ work. Against this backdrop, let’s start by parsing the out basic taxonomy and define how these apply to higher ed administration, namely products and customers, as well the thing that connects both: value.

And since customers and products are two sides of the same coin, let’s first ask a deceptively simple question: What is a product?

This question has stymied many, me included, until I learned an equally and deceptively simple answer: A product is anything (a tool, service, item, or artifact) that provides value to the customer. By this definition, a product can be as simple as a singular piece of information, a report, or a solution to a problem; on the far end of the spectrum, products can get as involved as new technologies and tools used by hundreds of employees… all the way to a full-scale reorganization of an academic unit or college.

What is important here is that the product – whatever form it takes – must provide value to a person or group of individuals, who, by definition, constitute the customer.

But how do we know that a product provides value?

By extension of the Agile leadership attitudes, behaviors, and practices I discussed in the previous article, the answer lies in listening to those who benefit from the product, no matter who they or where they are on the org chart. The important thing here is making sure what these customers receive is not only the right thing but also that it is done right. And this requires expertise, which we will explore further on.

So, for now, let’s define customers as anyone who is the primary beneficiary of a suitable product or, conversely, those who feel the greatest pain if value is not delivered. These individuals or groups may well be found on the margins of the organization among those closest to the work, such as lower-level employees sitting in small offices in our departments, institutes, centers, and service units.

A Customer Service Model for Higher Ed

As you can see, we are starting to crack open Pandora’s Box: If those who have the most to gain (or lose) from our products are, in fact, the customers, they will often not include those in positions of authority. As I explained earlier, frontline workers are generally the ones who know best What is needed to address the myriad administrative challenges staff – and, by extension, the unit at large – face every day in service of the educational mission of their institution. To borrow a term from Six Sigma: they represent the voice of the customer.

So, what then is good customer service? Based on our previous findings, the answer very much depends on the value proposition of each product or service and those whose needs – excluding ego, a hunger for affirmation, or feeling invincible – are to be met. Case by case.

Before we explore the dynamics, roles, and responsibilities of customer service, I invite you to reflect on the following figure, which aims to illustrate the complexities involved:

customer service model for higher education administration
Customer Service Model for Higher Education by Tim Jansa

As you can see, this system revolves around the dichotomy of customers and those who develop products, services, or solutions – the experts. These individual contributors or teams are the central nodes in delivering the kind of value that matters. To accomplish this not only quickly but competently and in the spirit of continuously improving on their work, they need support and autonomy granted by their superiors.

Who are the (Real) Experts?

One would hope that at least some employees or teams in your organization possess the necessary expertise and know How to develop products that deliver actual value in just about any administrative scenario. (If you don’t, you have a hiring and succession planning issue.) But contrary to both common wisdom and practice, these folks are likely spread far across the org chart and may be found in unexpected places, waiting to have their expertise acknowledged and put to work.

The well-established Peter Principle tells us that, across continents and industries, competent people eventually get promoted into positions of relative incompetence, meaning that they gradually lose touch with what actually needs to get done to resolve an issue. It is important to note that this is by no means a criticism. After all, Chief Administrative Officers, for instance, cannot possibly know all processes, rules, and workflows that span financial operations, grants and contracts, enrollment and graduate services, and HR.

Leaders had better take note that those with positional authority are often not the functional experts needed to do the job.

However, for the Peter Principle even to apply, an organization must first possess a healthy culture of promoting from within. And this is where higher ed, particularly on the administrative side, often falls short.

First, in many unhealthy institutional cultures, only staff members who conform to those above while aggressively asserting their position to those lateral or below will stand any chance of being recognized and promoted – and then often not because of merit but because of their usefulness to the boss. At the same time, those with the greatest potential to innovate are sidelined and ignored as unwelcomed squeaky wheels, black sheep, and disruptors; these immensely valuable folks are never given a chance to unfold their full potential.

Second, to reach a level of higher positional authority, you must either emerge from the professoriate (chairs, directors, associate deans, deans, etc.) or be hired from outside the institution. And because many “leaders” assess a non-academic staff member’s ability and potential to contribute meaningfully solely based on function, title, and job description, qualified staff often find themselves in dead-end jobs and squashed against an artificial glass ceiling, the breaking of which is often virtually impossible.

Against this backdrop, I would like to add a fifth to the existing set of Agile Values:

Competence, expertise, and experiences over function, title, and experience

Leaders who allow themselves to be guided by this maxim while helping to establish expert teams and then trusting them to get the job done will likely be surprised by the speed, quality, and ingenuity of the work provided.

Leading the Experts

So, what is the role of leaders concerning experts in a healthy institutional environment capable of embracing Agile and its principles?

The first role of positional leaders is to recognize who has the real expertise for any given project. This means that leaders must come to terms with the fact that it is likely not them but someone much lower in the hierarchy. This requires sufficient self-awareness and (gasp!) humility to admit one’s limitations and lean on those who know how to design workable solutions for complex problems.

The second role of leaders is to trust the experts and leverage their positional authority to remove impediments. In other words, unless bosses have the competence, skills, and real-life expertise to know what the customer really values and needs, they should focus on providing support and resources to their expert staff, removing obstacles… and then stepping out of the way so the latter can do great work.

The third and final role of leaders is to provide a compelling Why – and thereby purpose and meaning – for the work to be done (see the figure above). I choose the word “compelling” deliberately. Too often, the Why we hear from leaders boils down to “because this is the process,” “because I’m your boss and I said so,” or “because I don’t have time to do it myself.” Those are, obviously, not compelling reasons to do anything with any sense of purpose. And it often leads, at best, to unmotivated sub-par work.

In short:

Functional experts must know that leaders will always have their back and act in the best interest of the team.

An Opportunity for Leadership

All this said, in the need for formal leaders to provide a compelling Why also lies a tremendous opportunity to shine.

Those in leading positions are often privy to high-level information and are, therefore, better positioned to understand the bigger picture and how individual projects or tasks advance the mission of the organization. However, for this knowledge to translate into better team performance and services and provide the most value both to customers and the unit, leaders must be skilled in articulating the Why convincingly and in ways that resonate with their staff and their work.

Even if leaders possess the necessary expertise and capabilities to fully accomplish a task or solve a complex problem on their own, I strongly urge them to know, utilize, and trust their experts to do the job. If a leader is an expert in his or her own right, they can always provide feedback and request subsequent refinement. What they ought not do is provide solutions and answers unless absolutely necessary. By trusting and empowering their experts to find their own way, they provide a sense of purpose and meaning to the work at hand.

Finally, I encourage leaders with a penchant for customer service and a “corporate” attitude toward their unit to ensure they have a clear understanding of the havoc customer service as a mechanism for command and control can wreak and embrace alternative forms of generating value and serving customers.

The Agile Way
leading autonomous Agile teams in higher education

By now, we ought to have a better understanding of the complexities that come with traditional notions of customer service in higher education administration. So, let’s return to Agile and how the two values at the heart of this discussion apply.

Working products and services. Because leaders task (real) experts to develop products, services, or solutions that create the greatest value while staying out of their way and supporting those activities, they put their teams or individual contributors in a position to produce results quickly and in direct consultation with their customers. By recognizing and extending trust to those who know best how to achieve the desired results, Agile leaders have the most impact in two major areas:

First, they allow teams to self-organize around a given task – and later disband upon completion. This means that team members may bring in cross-functional collaborators from other units of the organization as needed. Since they have the most in-depth understanding and vision of the final product, they are also best placed to decide who needs to be part of the team. The leader’s job is not necessarily to assemble the team but to remove any obstacles that may stand in the way of these external contributors to be brought in.

This, however, requires that leaders know the crucial difference between groups and teams of employees. While groups of staff may have work similar in scope and function to that of their peers, they perform their duties largely independently of each other. Although they may ask their colleagues for advice and share information, each is focused on separate outcomes or stakeholders. Being a team requires a singular mission, the same desired outcome, and the same stakeholders. Team members are invariably interconnected and dependent on each other. Their accountability is to the entire team and the outcomes it generates.

The second function of leaders is to empower their teams to deliver solutions incrementally and make whatever changes and refinements are necessary after an initial suggestion or prototype. Complex problems or those that involve many stakeholders across functions may well make the delivery of minimum viable products (MVP) for customer feedback the most suitable practice. It is common knowledge that most customers don’t know what they actually want but are often very clear on what they don’t. Here, some form of experimental prototype can help tremendously in deciding whether a product or solution will work and what modifications are needed. This strategy also provides opportunities for ongoing refinement and flattening the risk instead of increasing the chance of creating a useless product that misses the mark altogether.

Teams and their customers may be best served by developing and delivering a first iteration of a solution and then working together to add and refine the product until it meets the necessary requirements and delivers maximum value.

Customer collaboration. The biggest mistake developers and their leaders can make is assuming that they know what’s best for the customer, which is often based on an incomplete understanding of the underlying issues and dynamics, such as rules, processes, relationships, and perceptions. For instance, Google recently decided to end their Jamboard application while Delta Airlines has revamped its frequent flyer program into one for frequent high spenders – both decisions which have sparked tremendous backlash, alienated previously loyal customers, and led to these corporate giants retracting actions and making painful concessions. These examples also hint at the dangers of being out of touch with one’s customers and prioritizing financial gains and ego over their needs.

In a higher ed context, similar missteps, with at times far-reaching consequences, may involve the creation of tech solutions that do not serve their users and only add to workload and frustration. Hyped-up new workflows can easily clash with established and necessary processes, such as when departments are no longer allowed to submit last-minute changes to their graduate student payroll or adjust their staffing based on the latest enrollment data and availability of teaching faculty. In extreme cases, a college’s large-scale administrative reorganization may be based on flawed assumptions and a lack of understanding of even the most fundamental roles, responsibilities, and functions of staff.

A Way Forward

An Agile higher ed organization and its leaders must recognize – objectively, without ego, and based on knowing the staff and their needs – who the customers really are in any given context and on a case-by-case basis. Then leaders should allow the expert staff tasked with developing solutions to self-organize into teams and work directly with customers while avoiding interfering and focusing on supporting (and not micromanaging!) the experts. This requires trust and the ability to relinquish control. But the solutions that emerge will likely resolve quickly those pesky issues in perhaps unconventional but ultimately effective ways that also promise to strengthen relationships and ongoing collaborations across traditional silos.

Finally, such active engagement and collaboration between experts and customers with the support of their leaders may well generate new and innovative ideas and solutions that will help the institution evolve and improve. Once you start asking, “What would you like to have happen?” you open the door to a cornucopia of possibilities – and that is what Agile is all about. After all, you can’t change direction once circumstances change if you are allowed to see only one possible path.


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