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

Part 4: A Strategy Framework for Building an Agile Administration

Let’s face it: Organizational change is hard. It takes time – sometimes years. It often fails or may not work out as intended. It requires tremendous stamina, resources, and willpower. It requires sacrifice and giving up long-held beliefs and habits. In short: Change sucks. And when we consider how ossified higher education workplace and leadership structures often are, we may well just throw up our hands and give up before we even get started.

But not changing how we work in response to the socio-political and cultural upheavals of recent years and the drastically changed expectations of our workforce is not an option.

We owe it to our staff, our faculty, and our students to make college and university administration better places to work that also reflect the values, needs, and expectations of today’s post-pandemic workforce.

However, we need to start somewhere.

This fourth and final part of my series on Agile transformation in higher ed administration is all about where and how to start the transformation process while also adhering to the values and principles of Agile/Agile 2 that guide this transformation.

Laying the Groundwork

Before we get going, I’d like to establish some foundational rules and assumptions about the type of transformational change process I propose, a set I call the Five Cardinal Rules for Agile Transformation in Higher Education:

  1. Start small.
  2. Don’t scale too quickly.
  3. Let the network do the job.
  4. Be patient.
  5. Be courageous.

Start small. No meaningful and sustainable change happens overnight. And given the fact that we are trying to change the workings of a complex adaptive network of individuals, doing too much too fast will, in all likelihood, not yield the desired results and even make things worse. Instead, start with one leader and one small team. Allow that team to experiment on one or two “above-the-waterline” (i.e., safe-to-try-and-fail) processes, procedures, policies, or workflows.

Don’t scale too quickly. As a corollary to starting small, it is also important to keep the reduced scale until the network of staff employees begins to demand more. Leaders need to resist the urge to use initial wins and changes to go full throttle on the change. What works with just one leader and a few individuals who coalesce around a common project or mission may not work when complexity increases. Also, remember that you are probably working in an antiquated and rigid hierarchical system that will resist meaningful change at every turn. Scaling too quickly can easily result in standardization, a lack of agility, and the emergence of further bureaucratic impediments. Don’t let change become an ideology rather than a gradual process to the benefit of your staff.

Let the network do the job. As I mentioned earlier, we are working within a complex adaptive social network of employees that is likely at odds with how the organization is structured around job titles, reporting lines, and hierarchies. For any idea or innovation to be widely adopted, it must have the freedom to organically spread throughout the network. Pushing change and making it happen by fiat may be effective in the short term, but it is rarely sustainable. After all, complex social systems have a way of pushing back when facing force. Instead, I urge leaders to embrace the mindset that they need to nudge the system and let it respond naturally. Trust that any change perceived as meaningful will eventually permeate the network – it may just take a while.

Be patient. You may be shocked at how quickly some process, policy, or workflow improvements may be adapted by the staff community at large. On the other hand, some innovations – especially the “sexy” ones that leaders are the most eager to affect – may take a long time to take hold. So, everyone involved in the transformation must be prepared to play the proverbial long game and to give change the space it needs to unfold.

Be courageous. Finally, we must acknowledge that all this takes guts and grit. A leader’s readiness to give up control and question long-held beliefs about accountability and the real locus of expertise require the ability to sacrifice one’s ego to the greater good. This is hard, but not impossible. A leader showing and modeling courage to be and do better to the benefit of all will eventually pass on these attitudes and behaviors to those whom they support and empower, and create the type of environment where learning and innovation can flourish.

Are you ready?

As you can see from these assumptions, the most important foundational element of transformation is changing a leader’s mindset. I would even argue that 80% of our combined effort needs to be focused on shifting mindsets. This is, of course, infinitely easier said than done. Just as our workplace networks are complex organisms, an individual’s beliefs, attitudes, feelings, and behaviors are the function of a complex system of experiences, aspirations, and social pressures. Changing these, too, takes time and nudging an individual’s (neural) network.

Once a clear understanding of the challenges and overall approach has been established, the first step in the transformation journey is to assess the readiness of leaders.

By this time, I would expect that the institution has retained a qualified Agile consultant/coach with in-depth expertise in higher education who can begin an objective assessment of the central inaugural leader’s willingness and capacity to support the initiative. To do so, they may ask questions like:

  • “What would you like to have happen?”
  • “What sacrifices are you as a leader willing to make to ensure that this transformation succeeds and lasts?”
  • “What pain are you willing to tolerate?”
  • “How much – and what type of – control are you willing to give up?”
  • “How much space – physical and time – are you willing and able to provide to the new teams?”

Much hinges on the answers to these questions. Although the full impact and implications of the intended transformation are hard to predict, they will likely exceed even the most ambitious expectations. Therefore, leaders need to be ready to make some drastic concessions. Only then can we move forward with the process.

A Three-Cycle Framework

Agile 2 principle 1.3 states that “change must come from the top,” while 4.2 asks for a customized “inception framework” to guide change in the initial stages. (If you are interested in an overview of which Agile/Agile 2 values and principles are most relevant to higher education, you can find it here.)

This means that we must start with the individual leader whose personal transformation journey is embedded in a greater structure – a framework that incorporates multiple cyclical and self-reinforcing change processes that eventually involve teams and the entire network.

These processes – which I will call cycles – loosely scaffold as follows:

Three-Cycle Framework for Transforming Higher Education Administration
Three-Cycle Framework for Transforming Higher Education Administration (by Tim Jansa)

First, the Leaders Cycle focuses on developing individuals’ servant leadership skills and their ability to provide and model a compelling Why for the transformation (see Part 3 of this series). At the same time, the teams they enable and empower are given the space and autonomy to decide on how to engage in recurring innovation sprints centered around a closely defined mission. This experiential and experimental process at the team level is described in the Mission Innovation Cycle.

Finally, and because teams are embedded in their respective workplace networks, members of these social groups will invariably provide crucial information on what change is needed. Through transparent sharing of the lessons learned from small-scale experiments – no matter if they were successful or ended in failure – learning and innovation is distributed to all staff stakeholders, refined through continuous feedback loops, and freely made available for voluntary adoption at scale. As autonomous teams drive this stage and affect change at the network level, I call this process the Teams Cycle.

All three cycles revolve around the central idea of continuous experimentation, feedback, and refinement of processes, workflows, and “rules” that stand in the way both of staff doing the best work they can and feeling a sense of purpose in their work.

These cycles are by no means to be viewed as progressive steps on a ladder to be taken one after the other. Instead, they will mostly overlap, occur simultaneously, and impact each other. What all three have in common, however, is that they each revolve around the concept of small-scale experimentation.  (And in case teams struggle with finding their initial target, I suggest tackling organizational debt first.)

Also, I cannot stress enough the importance of involving an institution’s human resources (HR) operations in the process, even if it is merely to keep them apprised of the initiative. Optimally, they will serve the transformation in an advisory capacity and facilitate gradual adjustments to the job ecosystem, including new job titles, work arrangements, compensation, and incentives, as well as ensuring adherence to relevant HR policies.

Keeping all this in mind, the overall structure of the framework I propose looks like this:

Three-Cycle Framework for Transforming Higher Education Administration around experimentation
Three-Cycle Framework for Transforming Higher Education Administration (by Tim Jansa)
The Leaders Cycles

The Leaders Cycle begins once a leader’s readiness – see above – and an appropriate level of HR support have been established. A full, honest, and voluntary commitment to change will enable a gradual mindset shift toward reframing one’s professional identity as a servant leader.

The process of shifting the leader’s mindset is guided by the Agile consultant who will assume different roles over time – trainer, mentor, coach – depending on the leader’s needs. The goal here is for the leader to (1) understand, embrace, and eventually model the values and principles of Agile; and (2) establish and facilitate maximum transparency in articulating and sharing the rationale for and results of the transformation.

Leaders Cycle (by Tim Jansa)

As burgeoning servant leaders, former managers may need to shift from a traditional top-down hierarchical management style to one where their primary focus is guiding the formation of their team(s) and enabling, supporting, and empowering them while removing any impediments that may stand in their way. Teams and the leader then decide where to focus their efforts and how the experimentation should progress (see Mission Innovation Cycle).

The skillset for effective servant leadership is multi-faceted and includes the following:

  • heightened self-awareness;
  • deep and active high-level listening;
  • a desire to serve (rather than control) teams and their members;
  • embracing a growth mindset both for themselves and others;
  • the ability to function as a coach rather than a delegator of tasks;
  • modeling psychological safety, respect, and trust, including giving permission to fail; and
  • ·exercising humility and being comfortable not having all the answers.

To quote one highly relevant passage in How to Lead Across a Siloed Organization, which appeared in the Harvard Business Review in January 2024:

“High-performing, cross-functional leaders embrace expanded mindsets that lean on humility to activate bigger picture success.”

I would add that without such an expanded mindset and the learning that leads to it, building a learning culture as I described in the second installment of this series is not possible.

Higher education servant leaders, therefore, must understand that positionality and expertise are not the same – and lead accordingly. In fact, those on the margins or departmental frontlines in our colleges and universities will often possess a much greater understanding of how to improve both administrative operations and the overall employee experience. In short, those people closest to the work will know best how to get there faster, better, and more safely.

In support of this concept, I would like to reiterate the additional “fifth” Agile Value – specifically for higher education – that I introduced in the previously:

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

When leaders trust their teams to do the right thing and to do it right, they maximize the chance of the resulting innovation work being a success and eventually finding its way to the rest of the workforce. As indicated in the figure above, such success will serve the re-affirmation of the leader’s commitment and ability to grow and develop as a servant leader.

The Mission Innovation Cycle
Mission Innovation Cycle (by Tim Jansa)

While individual managers learn to become servant leaders and empower, enable, and support their teams, it is at the team level that the core innovation work is done. The reason I included the word “mission” in the name of this process is that it revolves around the greater purpose of the team’s efforts, which may include tackling one specific group of workflows, helping a specialized group of colleagues (advisement, graduate or business services, financial operations, etc.) become more efficient or chipping away at the mountain of organizational debt I previously discussed in this series. The beauty here is that teams can easily finetune or redefine their mission intermittently and depending on the needs of the college or functional group they serve.

That said, there are three requirements that will ensure that innovation teams are more likely to be successful.

First, team members must be allowed to fail and learn from these failures.

If leaders tolerate only success – however defined – and do not create a culture of learning, teams will be unable to be truly innovative.

Second, it is paramount that teams be truly cross-functional and – to the extent possible – self-organizing. While leaders may have a greater say at the initial stages of team formation, they ought, nonetheless, to give the group sufficient agency to decide what capabilities they need on the team and to request certain individuals to join. This capability also requires that transformation leaders operate across functions, silos, and units and have the backing from these staff members’ supervisors.

To establish cross-functionality, teams should coalesce around knowledgeable generalists and multipotentialites and include both T- and π-shaped professionals to ensure that in-depth expertise is embedded in a big-picture understanding of how change can happen and will likely impact the entire system.

Finally, with both the leader’s help and Agile consultant’s support, team members should center their work on a closely-defined use case maximized for value delivered – one that allows for quick successes and targeted interventions with maximum impact. Not casting the net too widely and keeping the experiments laser-focused will make it possible for results and possible prototypes to remain targeted, manageable, and… well, agile.

The Teams Cycle

Inaugural transformation leaders and teams are undoubtedly the engine in the initial stages of the change process while small-scale experimentation serves as its catalyst. But how any innovations and improvements that result from a team’s work get implemented outside of the core group, and eventually throughout the organization, depends on how these activities are embedded within the larger social and professional network of the organization.

To use an analogy from our discussion of products, customers, and value in Part 3, it is important to realize that it is the staff community for whom the transformation is designed in the first place as they are the direct beneficiaries of the change.

In other words, the network is your customer. So, become a master at nudging that network in the desired direction by drawing on, and trusting in, the will and capacity of its members to change the way they work.

That said, it is up to the leader – in close consultation with and relying on support from HR and other relevant units – to vet the changes and innovations their teams propose. In a sense, leaders serve as gatekeepers to ensure that changes adhere to institutional, system-wide, national, and federal policies and procedures before being released to the network. Crucial here is that leaders do not forget that they are servants of the process and people and enable as much as they possibly can. In no way should leaders take having the final say on changes as a tool to exercise power and block innovation they don’t like. Always remember who your customers are and then leverage everything in your power to do what’s right by them.

Teams Cycle (by Tim Jansa)

As former managers transform themselves more and more into agile servant leaders, they provide increasing support and autonomy to their teams. Guided by the Agile coach/consultant, they also develop their coaching, mentoring, and facilitation skills. The teams, on the other hand, decide what issue(s) to tackle first and how to experiment on changing processes, tools, and ways of working.

During all this, a targeted communication campaign will provide transparent information on the team’s (and leader’s) progress to the greater staff community, including both positive and negative learning outcomes. After all, it may turn out that some processes or policies simply cannot be changed due to legal issues or because they violate a university system’s policy on a certain matter.

Now, you may think, “But no one is going to look at this stuff, take any interest, let alone follow along.” And you’re probably right – at least at the beginning. This is where, once again, good leadership and trusting the process comes in.

As long as the staff community believes that this initiative is nothing more than just one more feeble attempt at giving employees the illusion of things changing for the better, their interest and engagement will remain low.

This is why introducing small but meaningful changes incrementally and early on is essential to build credibility and demonstrate first-hand that leaders are serious about change. Once a certain threshold of support is built, I have no doubt that proverbial magic will eventually happen.

To get to this point, teams and leaders should set aside time at regular intervals to introduce, disseminate, or present the fruits of their labor to community stakeholders. Such a forum will give the other staff members the opportunity to ask questions, provide feedback, and receive documentation on how to improve their individual workflows. This documentation is also collected and made available in a central location (a web portal or website; or via Trello, Asana, or Slack, to name only a few) for staff to refer to when needed. Giving staff time to review and implement the changes will also stimulate their thinking, not only around additional improvement but also in identifying other areas of focus for the teams. And, with the right encouragement and leadership, some previously skeptical or disengaged staff members may well volunteer to join an existing or newly-formed team – hence the note that community staff members both form and inform the teams, thereby closing the cycle.

Speaking a Common Language

Since I touched on the need for clear and transparent communication, I need to briefly address the issue of language.

As many of my readers will have experienced, faculty don’t talk like staff; nor do members of the middle or upper administration speak like either of the two. And even among different faculty and staff factions the vernacular used will differ, at times drastically. (In fact, I published an article about this in 2019 with my good friend and former chair, Dr. William Nichols. The context was slightly different but is still very much applicable here.)

It is important to recognize that the language we use reflects our identity and is inherently biased. Our words and vernacular set us apart from others and indicate the social circle and network to which we wish to belong. In a sense, we simultaneously include and exclude others through our language use, thereby strengthening our sense of belonging.

However, when our goal is to establish a culture of cross-functional collaboration and open communication among members of different academic and functional silos, we need to establish a shared and common vernacular that allows us to escape our identity language and make us susceptible to understanding others’ perspectives.

I will not go into detail here, but I have found the concept of Clean Language tremendously enlightening and helpful in this regard, as it opens the door to deep and unbiased listening and understanding when engaging people with different mindsets, experiences, and backgrounds – people who may normally elicit nothing more than rolling our eyes at them.

As Judy Rees outlines in a highly recommended article, Clean Language helps us to understand another’s metaphors (and, thereby, their perceptions of reality) and create clarity and alignment by asking powerful questions. As Dr. Virginia McKendry, Ph.D. stated in a February 2024 interview about Clean in higher education, using this approach has enabled her to embrace a “beginner’s mindset” and be “comfortable in [her] humility.” Both are crucial to the kind of transformation I’m advocating for.

Naturally, the skills required to go from “These people are impossible and total idiots” to “I now understand where they are coming from and where we misunderstand each other” take a while to learn. But one of our many jobs as leaders is to break down hierarchies and silos, not create them. Instead, we enable our employees to do the best work of their lives. If getting trained in how language can help us accomplish this goal and create alignment across traditional administrative divisions and functional roles, it is certainly worth the effort and constitutes one important step toward accomplishing meaningful and lasting transformation.

The Role of the Agile Coach/Consultant

A close reader will have noticed by now that I refer to what both Agile transformation leaders and teams do as work – not their job. While involved in the transformation process, their job titles, descriptions, and functions will likely not change. What matters is that leaders – in consultation with HR – provide time and space for teams to do autonomously what they deem most meaningful, impactful, and motivating, which may include taking other tasks and responsibilities off their plates.

Agile coaches and consultants help transform administrative operations in higher education

Operating in such spaces space of not-knowing is a scary thought to anyone used to a rigid hierarchical organizational structure with clear chains of command, roles, and responsibilities. (As a side note, have you noticed who much military jargon many of us use when talking about our organizations? I’m certainly guilty of this. It tells you a lot, though, doesn’t it…?)

It is precisely this uncomfortable zone of uncertainty, of relinquishing control, that a skilled Agile consultant will help leaders and teams to navigate. The coach’s work may initially be rather directive – teaching the fundamentals of Agile, facilitating group discussions, or mentoring leaders – but will eventually become less and less noticeable as they build understanding and capacity in those who drive the transformation on site. This is by design.

As strange as it may sound, the end goal for external Agile consultants is to make themselves obsolete by gradually transferring the skills and knowledge to sustain continuous improvement and transformation to their client institution’s leaders and staff network. To accomplish this, Agile professionals specialized in transformation work are uniquely positioned to get the job done.

The Agile Coach Competency Framework, designed by Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd, gives us a glimpse of the complexities involved in guiding and supporting such transformations. A good Agile coach will both embody and model the tenets of Agile and have achieved mastery in at least one of the main competency domains: technical, business, and transformation – the latter being the most salient for this purpose. I call these vertically arranged aspects the being axis of the Competency Framework. At the same time, Agile coaches must also possess the necessary skills to deliver value and affect learning in the form of teaching/training, facilitation, mentoring, and professional coaching. These capabilities are located on the horizontal the doing axis.

In his 2022 book, Irresistible: The Seven Secrets of the World’s Most Enduring, Employee-Focused Organizations, author Josh Bersin outlines seven principles for making any organization literally irresistible and attract the best talent. Among these ideas is the focus on teams formed around a common purpose (instead of adhering to outdated hierarchies); bosses assuming the role of coaches (which is especially salient in today’s world where artificial intelligence is increasingly impacting the way we work, undermining traditional job descriptions); the promotion of a culture of learning and growth for everyone; and considering the overall employee experience. Such changes can and ought to be the eventual long-term results of meaningful Agile transformation.

These systemic long-term goals should (and will) also organically emerge from the transformation journey I have outlined in this and its preceding articles. All this will take time. But as the old saying goes, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This step takes courage, commitment, and an unwavering belief in the good that will come from transforming higher education’s administrative operations into places where people want to work, learn, and grow.

In Conclusion

A framework is only as good as its potential application and ability to make a meaningful and sustained impact in the real world. This is precisely why I believe the approaches outlined in this article are worth considering. I have spent much of my professional career in higher education administration, and I have seen what horrendous effects either not changing or engaging in poorly-devised, single-minded, and ego-driven transformation can have.

This framework gives me hope that the kind of change so desperately needed in how many  college’s or university’s administrations operate is possible. It provides a roadmap and general holistic structure suited to create a smorgasbord of options and avenues for implementation in virtually any institutional context.

This implementation is, of course, highly dependent on the people who are tasked with making the transformation work. In a sense, what I have presented in this article is an ideal – one that may never be attained. After all, any deep and long-term change process in an extremely change-averse and complex organization will invariably run into roadblocks, setbacks, and active opposition.

I acknowledge that as straightforward as my framework may sound, realizing it is anything but an easy or smooth process. Above all, it takes conviction and faith… and remaining agile in the face of an uncertain future.

However, as long as we learn, grow, and continue to do what is right for our employees and teams – and, by extension our students – we can be optimistic that we can overcome any obstacles and resistance that seek to derail our efforts.

Agile is built on the idea that we can thrive in complexity, volatility, and uncertainty and deliver great value to our stakeholders along the way. Let’s put its values and principles to work and make higher ed administration great places to work.

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