The Agile Mindset: ‘Doing’ Agile in Higher Education (Part 2)

Will Trevor is the Faculty Program Director for Marketing at Excelsior College. The original post can be viewed on LinkedIn.
Title Picture: Scrum by vegansoldier: (Creative Commons); Picture 1: 52 Week


In my previous article, The Agile Mindset: ‘Being’ Agile in Higher Education (Part 1), I looked at the agile mindset as a vital prerequisite to the actual practice and application of Agile and as a stimulus to the adoption of such an approach. In this article, however, I am going to look more closely at ‘doing’ Agile in terms of the multitude of frameworks and practices that are available to organizations that intend to implement Agile into their processes, but with a specific focus upon one: Scrum.

Traditional Project Management: the Waterfall or the Relay Race?

Traditionally the management of projects is viewed as a process in which progress advances in a series of sequential steps: from initiation, through to design, final testing, and then implementation.  Hence the metaphor of the waterfall: with one step flowing logically and consecutively to the next.  But even where no formal process exists, we can probably all relate to the idea of the relay race, where an action by one member of the team is required to trigger the next.  Delays occur as one colleague sits patiently for someone to do something, so that all can then proceed.  Issues can arise where changes are introduced in earlier phases, which can have a knock-on effect for subsequent stages.  Furthermore, if the original specification was fixed some time ago, then environmental changes can render a project out-of-date, before it has even reached fruition. How often do you hear of a project coming in late and over-budget, because the specification needed to change part the way through and in order to meet a new reality?

What is Agile? Values, Principles, and Practices

Ultimately, Agile is the mindset that we have already discussed, and it is also described by 4 values, and defined by 12 principles (commonly referred to as the Agile Manifesto), but developed through an unlimited number of practices, of which Scrum is probably the most common. While I am not going to go into the values and principles in any great detail here,  the most succinct definition of Agile, however, comes courtesy of the Agile Alliance:

Agile … is an umbrella term for a set of methods and practices based on the values and principles expressed in the Agile Manifesto.  Solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams utilizing the appropriate practices for their context.

The Scrum Team: Cross-functional and Multi-disciplinary

We’ll start by looking at those self-organizing and cross-functional teams.  And for those of you whose sport requires more helmets and padding, the title picture above is a scrum from rugby, which is the point in the game where play is restarted and the forwards bind together to engage the opposition. The metaphor of the ‘scrum’ is apt because it suggests a group of players who act as a cohesive unit in order to achieve the solitary objective of putting the ball in play, just like their agile counterparts. A well-oiled scrum team may have anywhere between about 3 to 9 members in it and 3 is usually the minimum to ensure that the team doesn’t become deadlocked.  A team should not be any bigger than is necessary, but there is debate around the ideal team size, with some suggesting an optimal size of 7 (+/- 2), but research suggests that the most common number is about 5.  The important thing is that this team draws from a range of disciplines and functions and is given a high degree of autonomy in its actions.

Scrum Roles: the Initiative Owner

This is a key role in the team.  The Initiative Owner, also known as the ‘Product Owner’, serves as an important link between the team and the customer, whether internal or external, and has the primary responsibility for delivering value to the customer, in terms of the agreed requirements.  The Initiative Owner plays an important liaison role between the various stakeholders, such as senior executives, customers, etc., and the team.  And, as such, it is able to shield the team from daily inquiries and update requests that might hamper progress, but also keep stakeholders adequately informed and on-side.  The Initiative Owner also produces the ‘portfolio backlog’, in which potential opportunities are ruthlessly ranked, so that vanity or pet projects don’t clutter the team’s to-do list and so that the focus is upon activities that add real value.  Finally, the Initiative Owner does not tell the team what to do, instead they are encouraged to produce a ‘roadmap’ that is mutually agreed and pursued.

Scrum Roles: the Scrum Master

The Scrum Master, or Process Facilitator, keeps the team focused upon following the process and ensures that distractions towards the achievement of goals is minimized.  The Scrum Master breaks the tasks into achievable modules and focuses upon the highest ranked tasks first; they also define what ‘done’ looks like, conscious of the requirements of the project.  Essentially, however, they are the guardians of the process and help the team to work in short cycles, commonly known as ‘sprints’.  The Scrum Master is often erroneously associated with a traditional project manager role,  which is not the case, rather they act as more of a coach, facilitator, or mentor.

The Daily Stand-up or Scum Meetings

The daily stand-up meeting or ‘daily scrum’ is designed to be short, so that people are focused – because no one wants to stay too long in a meeting in which they are required to stand! In a good stand-up meeting, people’s contributions are concise and on-topic and each member will discuss what they did on the previous day, what they are working upon today, and then what roadblocks exist that are preventing progress.  The strength of the stand-up is that the team is not waylaid by constant and time-consuming meetings with senior management for status and progress updates. Any disagreements are resolved through experimentation and feedback, rather than the need to appeal to authority or by paralysis through endless debates. A team can quickly test an idea and if it receives positive feedback from stakeholders in a live setting and on a small scale, then it can be rolled out more widely.

The Kanban Board: the Visible Sign of Agile

Often one of the most visible signs that an organization is embracing agile is the presence of Kanban boards, such as the simple version shown here.  While online variants are available, physical boards remain popular with practitioners, largely because they provide a visual indicator of progress.  There are more complicated versions, but at its simplest the Kanban board will show what needs to be done (the backlog), what is currently in progress, and what has already been completed.  It is a visual representation of the work flow and it allows both the team and any stakeholders the opportunity to see where the project is at any given stage.

How do we Apply This in Higher Education?

While some practitioners take a very dogmatic approach to the application of Agile and Scrum, many develop practices that are more appropriate to their context.  I have only highlighted some of the main points here, which barely touches the surface in terms of the variety and variation in Agile practice worldwide. Applying the agile mindset, in terms of learning agility and the other factors discussed in the previous article, represent a way to shape and influence the curriculum, but also the vision and values of the organization.  Scrum, on the other hand, represents an opportunity to shape the business processes of the institution.  For some of those processes, however, Agile methodologies may not represent a suitable solution, but in circumstances where change is fast-paced and unpredictable, the opportunity to adopt Scrum, for example, may be a possibility – whether that is enrollment processes, marketing solutions, or the development of online courses. While it may seem heretical to more doctrinaire practitioners, it could be the case that scrum teams and Kanban boards are adopted, rather than the whole package, but this is both the challenge and the opportunity for the organization.

But I want to leave the final word to the Agile Alliance, with a quote that, perhaps, gets to the heart of why Agile continues to evolve beyond its original domain.  Because it gives us

[t]he ability to create and respond to change in order to succeed in an uncertain and turbulent environment.


Picture Credits:

Title Picture: Scrum by vegansoldier: (Creative Commons); Picture 1: 52 Week Project – 06 by Dave Evans: (Creative Commons); Picture 2: Scrum Diagram by Karlos Donderis: (Creative Commons); Picture 3: Scrum Diagram by Karlos Donderis: (Creative Commons); Picture 4: Stand-up Meeting by Simon Blackley: (Creative Commons); Picture 5: Simple Personal Kanban Board by Kanban Tool: (Creative Commons)


Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of my employer.

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.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply