Shifting us into warp drive, distorting the time-space continuum, recent technologies like machine learning (such as GPT-3), analytics, cloud computing, blockchain, and connected devices have challenged many established higher education systems. This combined with the rapid entry of mega-corporations (e.g., online program management providers, course and learning program competitors, private-public mergers, and big-name textbook publishers) into learning and development spaces should propel you into action, to gain a competitive edge.
Alternatively, no action could slow down innovation or, worse yet, lead to the dissolution of our higher education organizations. Pressures are mounting with declines in funding, rising external political divisiveness, scrutiny about the value of academic degrees, rising demands for non-traditional or skills-based learning, growing need for sustainability to protect the environment, expectations for flexible work arrangements coinciding the Great Resignation, emerging modalities of learning, and cybersecurity concerns (Pelletier et al., 2022). Leaders, regardless of roles or titles or places in the organization, must respond.
As an assistant program director in digital learning, my head spins just thinking about the multitude of challenges; nevertheless, I realize the importance of quickly delivering solutions. Traditional methods would likely take too long to readily address the challenges of this distorted time-space continuum.
Digital learning efforts, in the past, were often characterized by extensive planning proffered by a select few, perhaps fueled by rigid processes or systems requiring that budgets be set well in advance. The expectation was that those who do the work should interpret and sequentially carry out the plans, without advanced testing of tenable components, and without ease of modifying the scope for efficiencies or to meet changing stakeholders’ needs. This top-down flow of plans would work quite well in a stable, less competitive world, within a static organization, for an effort with well-defined, tangible goals, and predictable, one-size-fits-all student needs.
That stable scenario, however, does not reflect our current contexts. We must engage in newer systems and better methods for leading in higher education, utilizing agile leadership.
Call for Agility in Higher Education
Even in stable times, the type of work we do in higher education is less concrete than other types of work. We perform knowledge work (as technology experts, engineers, teachers, scientists, lawyers, doctors, writers), not industrial work. This knowledge work is invisible, changing, autonomous, focused on changing things or minds, as well as involving constant decision making, questioning, and making progress on understanding tasks or learning (Griffiths, 2018). People are our most valuable assets in higher education.
As a facilitative member of a cross-functional team of programming in learning technologies, instructional design, multimedia specialists, LMS administrators, I have faith that we can create a thriving emerging technology ecosystem across one of the largest and most innovative universities in the United States. I am confident in the experience and expertise of our team, and I aim to bring out the best in people.
Agile leadership facilitates to the forefront a variety of expertise. This people-centric leadership involves:
- Encouraging self-organized teams,
- Aligning efforts,
- Facilitating continuous improvements,
- Fostering collaboration and transparency,
- Failing fast to reduce risk,
- Minimizing overproduction to create efficiencies, as well as
- Focusing on the value of people (e.g., staff, faculty, students, administration).
For example, effective leaders in disruptive environments or times used an agile strategy to deliver results and retain their productive employees, through enhancing job and life satisfaction (Aftab et al., 2020). Many higher education institutions drew upon agile practices to face challenges brought about by the onset of the pandemic, by collaborating, self-organizing, responding to students’ learning needs, transparently communicating, and reflecting on progress for enhanced decision making (Varga-Atkins et al., 2021). More recently, an array of leaders, from emerging to established, congregated at the Institute for Emerging Leaders in Online Learning (IELOL) to contemplate their approaches in their current context, often described as uncertain and complex. They realized that practicing agility by virtue leads to incremental or iterative successes for their organizations and their learners.
Agile values guide collaboration on new digital learning efforts (e.g., rolling out an online academic program, creating faculty development opportunities, scaling digital technologies), bit by bit. I hope you are as humbled as I am by these simple yet powerful set of prioritized values from the Agile Manifesto (Beck et al., 2001):
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working deliverables over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
I refer to these frequently for guidance about how best to move efforts forward. These principles inform leadership practices aimed at facilitating changes more efficiently and focused on client satisfaction.
Useful Tips for Putting Agile into Action
Transparency in roles, work efforts, communication, and constructive feedback fosters trust, as roles and responsibilities are apparent to everyone on the team. Team members who trust each other can more readily resolve problems and overcome miscommunications when these arise.
To facilitate trust, I intentionally created spaces for team members to have informal conversations and exchange information outside of structured meetings, especially needed in hybrid work environments. Among teams that do not have this type of space, I have, unfortunately, witnessed frustration and distrust, followed by resignations. Time for personal exchanges, watercooler conversations, and bonding is essential for team members to develop trust for one another, creating the glue necessary for effective collaboration.
Take a Collaborative Approach
Take a collaboration approach with teams and partners. This empowers them to focus on more valuable activities, rather than time-consuming back and forth negotiations. It also enables quick response to needed changes, going to the right person for answers, and prioritizing the most valuable aspects of the scope to deliver.
The tradition of shared governance is an excellent example of taking a collaborative approach. I appreciate this tradition. As someone who holds faculty status, I can get behind the principle that a university operates at its zenith when it is transparent about its processes and taps into the expertise across all faculty disciplines.
Limit the Work in Progress
Consider strategically prioritizing initiatives. The time to complete tasks slows down more and more in direct proportion to the work in progress, according to Little’s Law (Griffiths, 2018). With too much to do at once, team members multitask or haphazardly complete activities causing rework. By creating a backlog of prioritized activities, limiting work started, team members can progress on only those most highly prioritized items in spurts to create quality deliverables. I have found that this method does wonders for time management.
Prioritized activities that entail some risk can be attempted earlier rather than later, giving teams the opportunity to fail fast and learn from their efforts together. By attempting and failing, the scope of the effort can be re-adjusted with more realistic accuracy, priorities, and estimations. By piloting new technologies, for instance, our digital learning team can collect meaningful feedback to determine if the tool should be scaled across the university. Knowing sooner rather than later saves us time and effort.
Foster a Learning Organization
Many higher education institutions often employ agility in their quality course or program review process. Teams and organizations can additionally learn through daily collaborations, team accountability, piloting or demoing, collecting feedback, reflecting, and creating feedback loops to improve on many levels, such as personal development, team development, as well as organizational processes and structures. At an organizational or program level, consider benchmarking the quality assurance and quality effort against other institutions and sharing and integrating knowledge from the quality effort for organizational change (Adair and Shattuck, 2019). I have witnessed the effectiveness of systemic feedback for all these purposes throughout my career in higher education, K-12 education, as well as staffing and training in the private sector.
Agile Leadership Change
Facilitating transparency, collaboration, strategically prioritizing activities, and fostering a learning organization encompasses the leadership necessary to quickly deliver results in response to uncertainties in complex contexts. Higher education operates in a dynamic, competitive environment, and some of us leading the charge feel compelled to deliver meaningful results quickly, iteratively as solutions or innovations to help higher education navigate the current warp in the time-space continuum.
With agile leadership, digital learning leaders can not only act with agility but with a greater sense of purpose. We all have a responsibility to guide our organizations through quality digital learning transformations in these times.
Online Learning Consortium announces the window for applying to the career boosting, network amplifying unique blended learning leadership development experience, IELOL. Participating in the Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning (IELOL) means that you have joined a growing network of online leaders in higher education focused on improving and advancing the impact of digital learning on all aspects and formats of education.
Adair, D., & Shattuck, K. (2019). Ensuring quality while creating and innovating. In K. E. Linder (Ed.), The business of innovating online: Practical tips and advice from industry leaders (pp. 97-112). Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Aftab, S., Khalid, K., Waheed, A., Aftab, A., & Adnan, A. (2022, October 18). Role of agile leadership in managing inter-role conflicts for a satisfying job and life during COVID-19 in a VUCA world. Frontiers in Psychology, 13(2022). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.979792. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9623304/
Beck, K., et al. (2001). The agile manifesto. Agile Alliance. http://agilemanifesto.org/
Griffiths, M. (2018). PMI-ACP Exam Prep: A course in a book for passing the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) exam (2nd ed.). RMC Publications.
Pelletier, K., McCormack, M., Reeves, J., Robert, J., & Arbino, N. with Al-Freih, M., Dickson-Deane, C., Guevara, C., Koster, L., Sánchez-Mendiola, M., Bessette, L. S., & Stine, J. (2022.) EDUCAUSE Horizon Report, Teaching and Learning Edition. EDUCAUSE. https://library.educause.edu/resources/2022/4/2022-educause-horizon-report-teaching-and-learning-edition
Varga-Atkins, T, Sharpe, R, Bennett, S, Alexander, S and Littlejohn, A. (2021). The choices that connect uncertainty and sustainability: Student-centered agile decision-making approaches used by universities in Australia and the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2021(1): 16, pp. 1–16. DOI: https://doi. org/10.5334/jime.649 https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1314119.pdf