Published on 2015/04/14

Achieving Agility in Higher Education: Four Critical Transformations

Co-written with Mary Nisbet | Dean of Academic Affairs, Everest College Phoenix and Stuart Vanorny | Chief Design Officer, Everest College Phoenix

The EvoLLLution | Achieving Agility in Higher Education: Four Critical Transformations
Senior leaders need to be committed to removing bureaucratic hurdles and improving institutional agility if they wish to see their colleges and universities through to long-term viability.

Agile is an adjective rarely ascribed to higher education. The halls of higher education (virtual as well as brick & mortar) are stuffed with Vice Presidents, Assistant VPs, Deans, Associate Deans, Assistant Deans, and Assistants to the Associates, many of whom are directly involved in the decision-making that impacts teaching and learning.

Those making crucial academic policies that affect students and faculty are often layers away on the organization chart. Is it any wonder that “agile” and “higher education” are rarely used in the same sentence?

Agility is not just for entrepreneurs. Higher education must become agile to innovate and execute the strategies that will improve the student experience and outcomes. The path is challenging in the world of academia accustomed to and comfortable with entrenched bureaucracy. Here are four strategies for academic leaders who are serious about pursuing agility, but these are not for the faint of heart.

1. Flatten the Organization

The more layers, the farther away that academic leaders are from the heart of the institution’s work: teaching and learning effectiveness. Examine the layers and span of control to challenge the status quo. Putting academic leaders close to the work will increase agility relative to decision-making and those decisions will be made with better understanding of the frontline work.

2. Remove the Hoops

Institutions often have so many barriers to change that the troops simply tire of jumping through the hoops required to achieve it. If a change in policy or process requires legions of committees, forms and approvals, then stagnation—rather than innovation—ensues. Map the steps required for change and take a bold step by reducing it by 50 percent to make progress and 75 percent to change culture. Agility is bogged down by the hoops that must have made sense at the time but have become barriers to strategic momentum.

3. Cultivate Anti-Bureaucracy Leaders

When was the last time that a candidate for academic leadership was asked, “Tell me how you removed bureaucracy and improved the agility of your department”? It’s the right question in an environment that values agility. Senior leaders also need to take a look at the academic team through an “anti-bureaucracy” lens. Who currently innovates and streamlines? Who is masterful at managing change? Those are the internal experts who can lead the streamlining charge. Reduced bureaucracy yields higher agility.

4. Stay Vigilant

Like the rubber band, bureaucracy will snap back unless leaders stay focused on keeping the organization lean and nimble. When new steps, hoops and approvals are proposed, make sure that the reasons to add them are well founded. Too often, these barriers are someone’s bright idea driven by a goal rather than process improvement. Challenge new steps and added bureaucracy with a simple question: Why? When leaders insist on the answer to that question, stakeholders will learn that the value of the change must be demonstrated.

It is one thing for leaders to say that they will deliver institutional agility; it is another to execute. Creating a lean, streamlined academic structure lead by leaders who loathe bureaucracy is the path to agility and institutional effectiveness.

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