The Agile Mindset: ‘Being’ Agile in Higher Education (Part 1)

Will Trevor is the Faculty Program Director for Marketing at Excelsior College. The original post can be viewed on LinkedIn.

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Title Picture: Frog in a Pot 5 by James Lee: https://flic.kr/p/7ZaYNY (Creative Commons)

‘Agile’ is one of those buzzwords that seems to be on everyone’s lips at the moment. And while it is currently a preoccupation for many in both business and academia, it is more than just a management ‘fad’ – or even a fleeting trend – and it could just represent the beginning of a pivotal moment in the way in which organizations both operate and embrace change. This ‘Agile Revolution’, as some are calling it, will have a profound impact upon higher education, but also, and perhaps more importantly, for how we prepare our students for the world of tomorrow. In this article I am going to look at ‘being’ agile, and the importance of developing the agile mindset; and in my next article, I am going to look more fully at ‘doing’ agile and some of the frameworks and approaches that have been applied in order to put agile into practice, but with a specific focus upon higher education.

So what is Agile?

Agile started as an advanced project management technique that had its roots within the software industry. The most common form of agile in industry is the use of the Scrum project management framework, but it is now moving beyond software and recent articles in influential publications, such as the Harvard Business Review, have focused on how its effects are being felt in a range of industries, from manufacturing to education – and why it is rapidly going mainstream.  For a more technical definition, agile is described by the HBR as something that achieves results

[b]y taking people out of their functional silos and putting them in self-managed and customer-focused multi-disciplinary teams, the agile approach is not only accelerating profitable growth but also helping to create a new generation of skilled managers.”

But perhaps the Agile Alliance puts it most simply and succinctly in defining it as

The ability to create and respond to change in order to succeed in an uncertain and turbulent environment..”

Being agile, however, is indivisible from doing agile, because the development of the agile mindset inevitably leads to the use of, and the involvement with, behaviors and practices that can only be described as agile. But, as already mentioned, in this article I am going to concentrate more upon the latter definition and explore more fully the actual practice of agile in Part 2.

Why the Agile Mindset is Needed: the Persistence of Change

It is an age-old truism that, ‘change is the only constant’, but it is one thing to acknowledge the persistence of change, but quite another to embrace it and prepare for it so you can ‘succeed in an uncertain and turbulent environment’.  A well-known and powerful metaphor for change is the parable of the frog in a pan of boiling water: as a cold-blooded amphibian, if you place a frog in a boiling pan of water, it will jump straight out.  But put that same frog in tepid water and slowly increase the temperature, then it will remain where it is, slowly relaxing in the rising heat until it is boiling and the frog dies.  The metaphor is both a warning against the reaction of individuals to sudden change, but also to the danger of inadequately preparing for gradual change and the fate of both individuals and organizations when it overwhelms them.

Just like the frog, examples abound of organizations that failed to adapt to their environment. Kodak dominated the photographic film markets in the twentieth century, both in the USA and overseas, but failed to respond to a changing environment that was signaled by the rise of digital photography, until it finally filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Hoover dominated global vacuum sales, but failed to have sufficient agility to respond to the rise of the bagless vacuum – which challenged both its business model, in terms of the sale of Hoover bags, but also its market dominance.  Finally, the myopia of typewriter manufacturers resulted in the extinction of an industry, whose central belief was that they were in the ‘typewriter industry’, whereas the reality was that they were in the business of processing words, which was the technology that ultimately overwhelmed them.

The Role of Higher Education in a Changing World

Higher education is primarily interested in preparing students for the world of tomorrow, but it often lags the changes in business and the wider environment that it is supposed to serve. Previously we sought to develop leaders and employees who would enter the workforce for a specific career path and remain in either a single organization or industry from the beginning, all the way through to retirement. But according to Professor Richard Foster of Yale University, the average lifespan of a company listed upon the S&P 500 has decreased.  In the last century a company could expect to be on the S&P 500 for an average of 65 years, but recent research shows that this is now down to 15.  This means that by 2027 roughly three-quarters of businesses on the index may be companies that we have not yet heard of. Who, for example, could have predicted the demise of both Hoover and Kodak in the 1980s and the rise of Google and Amazon a few decades later? But these changes will have a significant effect upon that already derided and defunct notion of a ‘job for life’ and also the idea of career longevity within a single business or industry.

Futurist Thomas Frey has predicted that nearly 2 billion jobs that exist today will disappear by 2030 – which is nearly 50% of jobs worldwide. Duke University Professor, Cathy Davidson, in her highly regarded book, Now You See It, has also suggested that around 65% of current grade school students will enter careers that do not exist at present. And commenting upon the advance and pace of technological change, Thomas Friedman, one of the most prolific writers on globalization, has stated that

[a]nything mentally or physically routine or predictable can be achieved with an algorithm.

Which profoundly supports Frey’s notion of the mass disappearance of many existing jobs, as robotics and artificial intelligence disrupt a range of previously stable career paths, whether those jobs are in accountancy or call centers.

The Imperative for Lifelong Learning

In response to these predictions, Robert Johnson, President of Becker College in Massachusetts, has highlighted some of the changes that will envelop both the world of work and higher education.  As an educational establishment, Becker have been somewhat ahead of the curve in more fully integrating agile into both their own business processes and the curriculum. Johnson has called time on the idea that higher education is about transferring a defined set of skills to equip a student for a life in a specific career. Underlining this shift, the ‘Future of Jobs Report’ (see below), from the World Economic Forum, has also highlighted the fact that between 2015-20, there will be a greater need for a skill-set that emphasizes the softer abilities, such as creativity and emotional intelligence, rather than an emphasis upon old paradigm skills, such as quality control and negotiation.  But what is good news for high education here is that there will also be a real and ongoing demand for lifelong learning.

A greater mobility in careers will become the new normal and jobs will no longer be the lifetime engagement that they once were. Freelancing and contract work will increasingly replace the salaried nexus with an organization and individuals will become responsible for developing a brand that is their own, sustained by reputation and verified through social and business networking.  The individual will need to show experience and competence in a range of skills and become, in essence, a ‘company of one‘.  Johnson emphasizes the fact that students will continuously need to build and reinforce their future value through lifelong learning – and it is the blending of learning agility with ongoing value creation that encourages the development of the agile mindset.

What is Learning Agility in Higher Education?

A study by the executive search firm, Korn Ferry, has highlighted the importance of learning agility in both assessing and identifying high potential individuals. Research in 2012 suggested that learning agility assessment scores were a valuable predictor of long-term leadership potential, with those scoring highly as being roughly 18 times more likely than low scorers to be identified as offering high potential and to exhibit a likelihood of leadership success. Hallenbeck, Swisher, and Orr, have defined learning agile individuals as excelling at

 … absorbing information from their experiences and then extrapolating from those to navigate unfamiliar situations. They are often described as flexible, resourceful, adaptable, and thoughtful—in short, an ideal fit for mission-critical roles.”

Ultimately it is both an ability and a willingness to learn from experience and to adapt that learning in new contexts that allows the individual to apply it to novel circumstances and excel and adapt as new circumstances arise. At Becker, Johnson believes that this requires higher education to pivot away from encouraging students to store knowledge and instead it logically leads to a need to stream knowledge. This means that, while what you know is still vital, of increasing relevance, however, is that you have the skills and the mindset to apply what you know to new and challenging contexts, calling for a high level of adaptability and performance and which may require the channeling of new learning.

The Fixed Versus the Growth Mindset

In thinking about the way in which we encourage a greater learning agility in our students, it is also worth looking at the work of Carol Dweck, author of ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, who differentiates between the fixed and the growth mindsets. The fixed mindset, on the one hand, views intelligence as something that is static, and, therefore, seeks to avoid new challenges, ignores useful feedback, and feels threatened by the success of others.  The growth mindset, on the other hand, is an outlook and an attitude that believes intelligence can be developed and leads to a desire to learn and embrace new challenges.  Persistence is vital in viewing setbacks as a learning experience and criticism as valuable feedback to help the individual along the path to success.  Those with the growth mindset tend to persevere and reach higher levels of success and they are also more likely to possess the learning agility that will be an indicator of success in a changing world.  Thus oour curriculum, learning outcomes, and educational institutions, need to incubate that growth mindset, coupled with an aim to nurture leaning agility and an ability to continually create value for the individual.

Encouraging Agility and Avoiding the Fate of the Frog

While agile began as a response to the need for advanced project management techniques in the rapidly changing environment in which software products are produced, it now seems on the verge of transforming other areas of business too, with some higher education colleges already embracing agile as part of their curriculum, but also in terms of their processes. The agile mindset is all about developing a learning agility that allows the development of new skills, by embracing lifelong learning, but also through applying those adaptable skills to new and challenging environments. Furthermore, the agile mindset is also one that acknowledges the need to create future value through learning: the individual should continually be asking themselves, what will I need to know for my next project or engagement? Tomorrow’s workers will need that agility to survive in an environment that will be very different than today and they will be witness to a pace of change that is as unimaginable to us now, just as the cell phone would have been to someone at the turn of the Twentieth century. If both our students and our institutions are not to experience the same fate that awaits the frog in the boiling pan of water, then we will just need to learn to embrace a future that looks increasingly agile.

William Trevor
About William Trevor 18 Articles
Will Trevor is the Faculty Program Director for Marketing in the School of Business and Technology, in which role he is responsible for overseeing and developing the college’s marketing programs. He has a background in sales and marketing, where he filled a range of positions encompassing both consumer-to-consumer and business-to-business markets and across a range of industries. His experience spans both agency-side and marketing management roles, which have helped to inform his perspective on marketing from both a practitioner and an academic angle. And as a longtime member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, he was recently honored to attain the designation of Chartered Marketer. Will has taught in higher education for a number of years and on both sides of the Atlantic: in the UK as a faculty member with the University of Essex Online, Leeds Beckett University, Leeds City College, and Askham Bryan College; and in the USA he has taught for both Excelsior College and the University of the People. In 2013 Will was recognized for his qualifications and experience in the field of higher education and he became a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. From his practical experience in consultancy and market research, Will developed an academic interest in fields of marketing that relate to market research and the role of big data. He also explores issues of consumer behavior and the impact of the evolving field of behavioral economics on the marketing discipline. And his previous experience in sales also fuels an ongoing interest in sales and sales management and the role of sales professionals in a global context and in terms of cross-cultural issues.

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