Solving Major Higher Ed Challenges with Agile Thinking

A Fresh Approach From the 2016 Leading Academic Transformation (LAT) Circle

min read
picture of chessboard and chess pieces

Have you ever wrestled with a challenge, trying to tease out the issues and test the angles, all the while thinking, “There must be a better way? If only I could bounce this around a bit with someone who gets it, I know I would make some traction!” If so, you’re not alone.

In fact, you are in great company.

Not long ago, EDUCAUSE launched a new initiative called Leading Academic Transformation (LAT). LAT is a generative network*, 350-strong and growing steadily. It is a community of practice for senior campus leaders who advance their institution's teaching, learning, and student success mission. LAT opportunities are planned and facilitated by a highly engaged advisory committee, each of whom is personally committed to developing this community with increasing capacity to inspire and lead academic transformation.

The through-line, as advisory committee members will tell you, is “solving big problems for the institution through technology.” I know what you’re likely thinking and you’re right to be skeptical. This group was built on a healthy dose of skepticism along with a desire to catalyze and lead change. LAT members wrestle with complex issues that impact many stakeholders — most importantly, students and faculty. Community-identified topics range from change management, strategic planning, and financial models to student success, innovative structures, and learning data and privacy issues, among many others. The existence of LAT is an affirmation that we can no longer operate within the traditional silos of academics, technology, student or financial services or other segments. In service of this mission, members consciously engage with colleagues to break down barriers and collaborate broadly — across campuses, systems, and institutions — to redefine and ultimately ensure success.

Perhaps you are wondering what that process might look like? On a micro-level, I’d suggest it could look a lot like a LAT Circle. This process was first piloted at the LAT community meeting at the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference in Anaheim by Shannon McCarty, Dean of Instruction and Academic Affairs at Rio Salado College, and Jenn Stringer, Associate CIO, Academic Engagement at the University of California, Berkeley, along with other members of the LAT advisory committee. LAT Circles are an unconventional process for rapid-problem solving through the wisdom of the group.

Participants selected one of five topics prioritized in advance by the community at large. Each small group worked through a series of five steps in facilitated discussions to:

  • articulate the challenge,
  • identify resources and barriers,
  • develop strategies,
  • and define the resolution.

Table facilitators were prepared to protect the brainstorming process while listening actively [] and guiding discussion. The group only had 35 minutes, from start to finish, to formulate ideas and settle on a coherent plan.

You might suggest that's not a lot of time and you would be right. But my own observations (along with feedback from many others) suggest that it is enough time to launch a meaningful conversation, surface fresh ideas, and bust past the can't, don't, won't contingencies weighing heavily on some of the biggest challenges we face. Adding in a sense of urgency actually encouraged a lot of out-of-the-box thinking. (Perhaps we had some help from Parkinson's Law, which dictates that a task will take exactly as long as the time allotted to fill it.)

As a result, LAT Circles generated a plethora of useful and innovative ideas — ideas shared in conversations among relative strangers with widely varying roles across a healthy mix of institutions. The was a nearly palpable buzz in the room from so much great energy. Caution wasn't exactly thrown to the wind, but creativity certainly found a seat at many tables.

There were many useful (and also likely universal) nuggets of wisdom embedded in these discussions. For example, many of us would agree on the need for thorough consideration and clarity around "sacred cows." Yet how many of us consistently prioritize those conversations? Have you ever staged a sacred cow funeral? (Who has, really?) After all, bold changes don't typically arise from an atmosphere that preserves the status quo, or quashes dissent.

Now consider how the alternative might backfire. Too much shifting underfoot — whether it involves policies, programs or priorities — can leave your constituents scarcely able to catch up. If you were to capture snapshots of your office, your campus, your institution this afternoon, would you recognize signs of 'transition fatigue' on the faces of colleagues and students? Perhaps there are frayed edges in the fabric of your work life, where an effort has never really come to fruition or made the intended impact? As a result of LAT Circle conversations, I am resolved to celebrate successes, earlier and more often. Just as importantly, we should celebrate endings — both those that are intended from the very beginning and those that must happen for the sake of the success. (Maybe this is where the sacred cow funeral fits in.)

A highlight of the community meeting occurred in summary, as we asked each LAT Circle table to report out a high-level take-away of their discussion. There is much wisdom in these outcomes even for those not present or familiar with the topics.

  • Stabilize the environment to create a culture of change and resiliency.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate and then communicate some more.
  • Develop incentive structures to enable community and employee engagement.
  • Find the root cause. We started with a technology problem, but traced it back to an academic/political/organizational root cause. We helped provide a resolution path for the problem statement that is actually an academic transformation that, in turn, makes it much easier to solve the technology problem.
  • Simplify where you can. Take-aways from the learning data and privacy issues discussion were distilled in hashtags: #training4all; #OpenFramework4ClosedData; #StudentSecretAgent.

As with any realistic attempt at innovation, iteration is involved and the LAT Circle is no exception. We learned, for example, that a clear and concise problem statement is important. We learned that group size matters, and that smaller is better for tackling issues of great significance. We also learned that trained table facilitators who possess familiarity with the topic at hand are key to the process. We will continue to iterate as we are incredibly energized by this work. Look for LAT Circle 2.0 coming soon to a community meeting near you!

If you’re intrigued by what the LAT community is doing, we invite you to check out the website and view this warm welcome from EDUCAUSE President John O’Brien. Consider joining this free and open community of senior campus leaders who represent some of the brightest, most forward-thinking minds in higher ed. Please reach out if you’d like to know more or to become involved with LAT.

* See also “Investing Strategically In Social-Impact Networks: A Guidebook for Foundations” Chapter 1 discussion on generative networks.

Sondra Smith is Director of Special Projects at EDUCAUSE.