agile strategy

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Go Slow to Go Fast?

Apparently this saying comes from martial arts (I’d wondered). Maybe it works in that context – but when it comes to strategies for transforming engineering education, I have an amendment to put forward.

I’m always interested in the issue of “pace” in conversations with schools thinking about transformation in engineering education. On one hand, schools that are already considering change have – at a certain level – already made a decision and just want to get on with it. They’re also usually veterans (or victims) of a strategic planning process that seemed both interminable and ineffectual.

On the other hand, the nature of academia – and perhaps STEM fields in particular – is that some of the best results need a long time to develop. Many people in the corporate world would argue that the institution of tenure also contributes to a culture in which the expectation of quick results is very low. As a former colleague of mine – who had previously worked in a very fast-paced New York media organization – once said, “The only time we would have ever had a meeting this long was if we were shutting the whole place down!”

“Agile strategy” announces its difference right up front – it’s quick, both to implement and adapt. This causes a certain cognitive dissonance for many academics. Here are some of the questions I’ve heard more than once in guiding the Pathways teams using strategic doing as a specific methodology for agile strategy:

  • “How do we know we’re considering all the options?”
  • “How do we know we’ve picked the very best place to start?”
  • “Don’t we have to get all the stakeholders on board first?”

My answers – “you don’t,” “it doesn’t matter as much as you think,” and, well, “no” – aren’t particularly comforting. But, when a team finds the courage to pick a tiny corner of their world to start working on, one that they don’t need permission to address, and begins doing the work, something extraordinary often happens. They (usually) get a taste of success that keeps them motivated. They gain confidence in their ability to identify the options and pick the right one(s). And people watching them – and there are always people watching, if they make “sharing small successes” part of their plan – are drawn to the chance to make something happen. Soon their small success is multiplied and turns into much more significant change.

If their first effort isn’t successful (which is sometimes the case for a variety of reasons), it’s critical for teams to quickly rebound – or as the disciples of agile put it, to pivot. Good teams will immediately debrief, extract lessons and then pick a new tack and get moving again. What they don’t do is to blame the approach – “if we hadn’t moved so quickly, we wouldn’t have failed.” Failure sometimes happens – but an agile approach will help ensure that failures are small, early, and don’t call the entire endeavor into question.

Go small – not slow –  to go fast. That’s my new motto.