Stop, Drop, and Roll! Prevent the Fires Instead of Fighting Them!

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Is fighting fires your full-time job? It's time to stop, drop, and roll. Stop using old methods, drop collaboration biases, and roll with new tools to solve problems faster and with greater cultural impact. At the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), we use agile and design-thinking methods to solve everyday problems from the bottom up. Our approaches are collaborative without leading to cumbersome committee work. Rather, collaboration in this agile approach brings stakeholders together to creatively solve problems in a timeboxed manner. Through a series of small wins across the organization, staff are finding their work more meaningful, clearly seeing their connection to the institution's mission and values, and building the skills to be tomorrow's leaders.

Looking for a New Approach

Over the past year, we realized that our traditional methods for tackling problems within our teams were less than effective. When a thorny issue arose, there would be a call to action, a group or committee would be formed, and a series of brainstorming sessions would follow. Although these activities tend to identify many ideas, there can be a pattern of little or no resulting action. Lacking clear direction, the default was to rely on short-term fixes to get out of the immediate bind.

However, the current higher education landscape is one of transition and profound change. Reliance on short-term fixes prevents the deeper and broader shifts that are needed by an organization to successfully navigate the transformation. Leaders who focus on fixing immediate problems while failing to prevent future problems from occurring often find themselves with strategic deficiencies as they move forward.

As articulated by Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky, today's leaders foster adaptation. They ensure that they are developing the "next practices" while executing today's best practices. Key to the success of adaptive leaders is their ability to generate leadership. The strongest adaptability in an organization most likely comes from the microadaptations accumulated throughout the organization, not through sweeping mandates from on high. This involves replacing hierarchy and formal authority with organizational bandwidth.

These microadaptations arise through distributed leadership and an empowered staff. By pushing the responsibility of adapting the work down through the hierarchy, leaders then have space to think, probe, and identify the next challenges on the horizon. By coincidence, as both of us felt the need to change the methods used to approach our work, we were drawn independently to agile development and design thinking and have been using these methodologies with our teams. We are seeing success not only with the outcomes of the problems tackled through these approaches but more broadly in terms of the team culture that has evolved alongside.


Agile methodologies are commonly associated with the software development community. However, these methodologies are quite flexible and offer many advantages when used to manage work in other domains. One key advantage of an agile approach is the enhanced communication it provides, not only within a department but across the organization. Each task is defined with clear expectations — there is transparency about what is being worked on and when it will be completed. Additionally, over time, the team is better able to measure level of effort and anticipate resource and time commitments that are needed across a variety of projects. Agile development can be managed either through scrum sprints or Kanban boards.

With scrums, teams identify the work that can be done during a timeboxed sprint, typically two weeks. They meet daily for a short period (10–15 minutes) to review progress and identify any impediments within the team's work. All team members attend the daily standup, but after that, they are off and running in their sprint work. These standups ensure that work can proceed without barriers and that if or when barriers are encountered, adjustments can be made while the "blockers" are addressed. This methodology allows you to pinpoint solution barriers at the point they are encountered, tapping into talent that can help you find a solution quickly. With a focus on just-in-time project needs, this approach can draw in experts as needed for ad hoc consultations, without having to commit these high-value resources to the full development cycle. The sprint work, captured in stories, is delivered in a formal demo at the end of the sprint time period. Shortly thereafter, the team also holds a retrospective to discuss what worked or could be improved in the sprint.

The Kanban flavor of agile uses a board with columns indicating the current stage of development for each story. This approach doesn't involve a timeboxed sprint, nor does it necessarily involve daily standup meetings. Once work gets to the "Done" state, it can be released and used.

These are the two main flavors of agile development, but teams tend to mix and match and use the practices and rituals that best meet their needs. Over time, regardless of method, agile development teams regularly find that they become more productive. Teams find that they are able to increase the number of stories they complete. Some productivity increases are quite impressive, upwards of 300%.

We've been using agile sprints for web interface development work and are heavily dependent on Kanban boards for our course development work. Both agile approaches are building stronger teams and giving us more transparency into the work while it is in development.

Design Thinking

Like agile development, design thinking is geared toward continuous innovation and iterative problem solving. It is ideal for product design, but not many of us in higher education are involved in product design, per se. Beyond that, design thinking works well when there is a need to align a diverse set of stakeholders and ensure that there is a mutually agreed vision or goals. Design thinking provides a rich set of tools to support highly collaborative work. It also provides a good set of strategies for situations with ill-defined requirements and unsolved problems. Its strengths in collaborative work and creative projects provide a successful action-oriented approach as a counterpoint to traditional brainstorming methods. The benefits multiply in that staff are more engaged and gain an emotional connection to their work from their involvement in tangible outcomes.

A Crash Course in Design Thinking

Given design thinking's use in product design, its phases naturally align with an iterative design model. The design thinking process starts with developing empathy for the end user. User personas are discovered through interviews, observation, and experience. From these discovery efforts, a persona map is developed that lists what the persona says and does (explicit information) and thinks and feels (implicit information). The key during this phase is to identify implicit information through the discovery efforts — typically we say we want something, but our behavior exposes that our needs are quite different.

The second stage of design thinking is to define the design challenge. The point of view (PoV) is defined by the personas, their needs, and insights. The key in this stage is to switch from problem-solving to need-finding.

The third stage is to ideate by diverging (create choices) and converging (make choices). The brainstorming activity that we are all familiar with is a divergent activity, resulting in a rich collection of options. Paired with that during the ideate phase is a convergence effort that results in a set of choices that move forward to the next stage.

The fourth stage is prototyping. This involves inspiring (what could the design challenge be?), evolving (what should it be?), and validating (what will it be?).

The last stage in the traditional product design application of design thinking is testing, which involves real users. The PoV may be modified, based on the results of the testing. This approach also ensures that fast failure is possible. For the teams involved it allows for a tangible product arising out of their efforts, creating a feedback loop that reinforces the goals of the solution.

Design Thinking beyond Products

Within our organization, we have been using design thinking to discover the problem to be solved in a number of situations, often resulting in a revised problem statement that truly gets to the heart of the issue at hand. Additionally, we've used the framework to work through sticky problems and come to a set of options to test and investigate more quickly than our typical pace. We are capturing student personas and have used journey maps to visualize a planned learning experience and a student process. In both cases, the journey map became a powerful communication tool within the project, driving conversations and design as we developed our initial prototype.

A key feature of design thinking is the timeboxed nature of the work. Imposing a time boundary enhances the creativity of those involved and results in a more efficient process. It sounds too good to be true, but time and again, new participants come out of design thinking sessions surprised at how fun the activities were and how much good work got done.

What isn't good for design thinking? Optimization of known processes and other well-defined work. For these area, traditional project management succeeds well in providing the frameworks needed to be successful. Additionally, design thinking needs to be applied in a rightsized fashion; it won't be a good fit for a problem that is known a priori to be too broad in scope or too complex.

Cultural Impact

With design thinking, participants may approach the activity concerned that this is another in a string of continuous improvement fads that won't be worth their time and effort. Across the board, however, they report how fun they found the activities to be and, more important, how productive they were. Design thinking sessions that focus on gaining mutual agreement across a diverse team around a thorny topic consistently move the ball forward. The methods involved in design thinking activities ensure that all voices are heard and participants have space to ideate independently and share their thoughts. The design thinking activities coupled with good facilitation result in strong work products. We also found that staff who participate in these activities are more willing to put forth solutions to other problems and to actively engage in ideas to create a better work environment for their department.

As the use of agile methodologies spreads in our organization, staff who are new to the sprint process have said that although they are still learning the ropes, they already find the team-oriented approach to be refreshing. They also see that the iterative nature of agile development results in a stronger end product and appreciate the regular opportunities through the sprint cycles to reprioritize the work.

Staff involved in design thinking activities find that they are more empathetic, toward their colleagues and our clients — the learners and faculty. Having empathy front and center has strengthened the relationships within the cross-functional development teams. This has the potential to impact the silo mentality of higher education, breaking down barriers and providing channels to work together collaboratively with equal voice to find solutions to problems.

Across the board, staff involved in these methodologies report that they believe they have more impact on how our units operate than before. Each individual sees ways that these approaches have relevance and is incorporating these techniques in their day-to-day work. They are finding their work to be more meaningful and are developing as leaders.

If you too are looking for ways to shift away from endless fire suppression activities, take a fresh look at the power of teamwork and collaboration by adopting agile methodologies and design thinking, not only to tackle problems more quickly but also to foster cultural change and increased staff engagement.

Sharon Goodall is Director, Innovation, Design & Analysis at University of Maryland University College.

Joellen Shendy is Associate Vice Provost and Registrar, at University of Maryland University College.

© 2017 Sharon Goodall and Joellen Shendy. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 license.