University agile transformation - Case study
In the summer of 2021, I was asked to help a university department run more efficiently. They had heard about agile and wanted to introduce it into their daily work, but they didn't know how to do that.
The initial problem was that a university department was working on several market and academic projects, usually several years in length, but with relatively few tangible results, i.e. publications, at the end of the work. Knowledge was accumulated but not manifested.
At the end of our first conversation, I asked them what they had in common that made them a team, not just scientists enjoying each other's company; what made them work in concert. Suddenly, the room was so quiet you could hear the curtains sliding, and I left them thinking that nothing was going to come of it. But two weeks later, they called me back: they wanted me to help them as a consultant to get them on the road to efficiency and effectiveness.
The first steps in the university agile transformation
In the first meeting together, the head of the department outlined the group's vision, mission and goals, and why they would be a team that all participants could relate to. Then we discussed about these topics:
We have gathered information about who can devote time to departmental work, who will/can work on the same projects, where students can help, and who can help students with research, competition preparation, theses.
We determined which days they would like to synchronize, as daily standup is not reasonable for such a diverse group. We agreed that every three weeks they would present their progress to each other and look back on their work together and plan again depending on progress and variables.
The process of agile transformation in universities
After the first round of sprints, the associate professor in the role of PO became aware of how much administration was involved in being transparent. As a consultant AC, I neither had access to their systems nor wanted to add tasks to anyone's planner, so they hired a "Scrum Master" to do the administration. He had no agile knowledge, he was really helping the researchers with departmental administration and task follow-up.
The team and I began to introduce agile elements organically, learning from previous sprints at a pace tailored to their needs. First, we started using story scoring to assess complexity and uncertainty. One of the researchers, who had worked as a software developer, told the manager about the story points, and the hourly planning did not prove to be reliable either, they could not predict well how many tasks they could complete in the next sprint.
So I talked over the essence and method of story pointing with the PO in the half hour before the round, he wrote the Fibonacci numbers on the board and explained it to the team during the planning, who used the relative estimation almost correctly already for the first time.
On the other hand, we started to introduce acceptance criteria at the request of students, so that it is clear to everyone how far they have to go in the next sprint. In a university project, should this be conceived as e.g. just sending the draft of the TDK paper to the topic leader, or should the answer/comments be included in the next period? For an experiment, is it enough to run the analysis once, or does it also need to be documented, or does someone also need to test that it works reliably?
In this university agile transformation, everyone's voice counted equally in every ceremony, from the youngest student to the head of the department. There were master's and PhD students, adjunct and associate professors, and maybe even a professor. At one of the retreats, it was suggested that a lab booking system should be introduced. This was the task of the scrum master. At the request of the students, noise-cancelling headphones and larger monitors were purchased. As it turned out, the head of the department was already open to improvements, but they had not dared to ask him or did not have the platform. Now, every 3 weeks, they brainstorm together on how to work more efficiently. Agility provided a great platform.
Result of transformation
This agile transformation of the university has produced spectacular and tangible results in a very short time. Equipment to make work easier and safer has been purchased and implemented, a transparent lab occupancy system has been introduced, and a system known in the business as the 'four-eyes' principle has been implemented so that there is always a teacher in the lab with the student, and someone to help if they get electrocuted. In fact, they have long been stressed by the "teacher shortage" in the lab, but thanks to the agile approach and ceremonies, they dare to ask for help and ask questions. As it turns out, the head of the department is one of the biggest names in the business, and it would mean a lot to the students if he could read over their papers, coursework or check their experiments. He was an absolute partner in this, and even had spare capacity, it just wasn't talked about until now. Since the start of the agile transformation, everyone knows about each other's work and can help each other out if needed. They are no longer just physicists interested in the same field of science, but a team, supporting each other, working towards common goals in a focused, coordinated way, and of course still in good spirits.
What was the main lesson for me? Agility can be effective in any field if you have internally motivated people who want to work together more effectively and efficiently towards common goals, who are brave enough to ask for help, learn new things and change the way they work.
I am extremely grateful for the insight into the daily life and challenges of such a highly qualified and intelligent company.
And what is always a source of pride and joy for an agile coach is to see that after a while he is no longer needed and the team recognises when it can solve its own problems on its own.