University sprints: a lecture from the tech industry

Digital transformation driven by customer needs is the theme defining business strategy and management thinking today.

Living in an app-based society has given all of us high expectations of service delivery and user experience, and these expectations are as true for higher education (HE) as any other sector or digital sphere.

The pandemic shocked many HE institutions into delivering learning online, even if at first it was an emergency response, rather than a sustainable long-term solution. A growing number of universities recognise that today’s students expect the standard of digital learning and wider campus services to complement experiences delivered face-to-face.

Our latest report, The Higher Education Digital Experience Report 2022, highlighted student expectations of digital delivery and the urgency for HE institutions to embrace strategic digital transformation. 91% of the students surveyed stated that they expect a university’s digital experience to at least be as strong as its face-to-face offering.

But many Higher Education Institutions (HEI’s) have not been able to initiate strategic thinking about digital services at the pace they need to – digital service transformation and service capability building runs horizontally across organisations, but HEI’s historically are vertically siloed and focussed on academic excellence and research within departments, often within a culturally conservative context.

One way for HE management teams to tackle the problem is to adopt problem identifying and solving approaches borrowed from the tech industry, the one we're focusing on is called a ‘strategic sprint’. A sprint is a short cycle process designed to frame and answer critical business questions. This might be done through designing, prototyping and testing ideas with real customers and typically lasts for around a week. A structured sprint with a group of people can be used to generate creative solutions to problems and are great for aligning disparate stakeholders with different viewpoints to a common strategic aim – it can unlock multiple value streams from one single engagement.

Mixing minds

New insights to old problems are at the very core of what a sprint is aiming to achieve. It’s about pushing management and senior management teams to have a completely fresh way of looking at an existing problem, transforming mindsets and culture from the ground up by instilling a ‘can-do’ attitude to meeting strategic objectives.

A typical sprint day is often spent turning over the problem and looking at it from the point of view of the people who actually experience it as a problem. To create the best output from this exercise, the right people need to be in the room, and this should always include those who can speak to some aspect of the problem. Getting the balance of people involved right is critical.

Participants often find they value spending time with colleagues they don’t normally get to spend time with – resulting in a secondary benefit of improved group cohesion. A particular strategic challenge is addressed, and fresh ideas and solutions are discussed within a pool of people who often do not collaborate, drawing out ways of thinking that a select group of people who spend a lot of time together might not generate on their own.

Externality and impartiality are imperatives

Many universities and other organisations work on a capability model where they bring specialist expertise in house. Doing so is fully understandable as it gives them the ability to deploy resources as they wish to help to deliver their strategy. However, over time, natural bias and institutionalism can lead to siloed thinking.

Internalised views about services and technology solutions can slow momentum towards innovation and the organisational transformation universities seek to achieve. Unless external, objective, neutral and wider experience is introduced into the sprint process, it is incredibly difficult to solve challenges in an objective manner without conscious or unconscious bias skewing the outcome. This can ultimately lead to very costly mistakes.

One of the roles that Great State plays in these design sprints is to be a change accelerator, helping frame the right questions and facilitating the process of reaching the answers.

Involving the customers

Often the themes discussed within sprints come back to designing modules and experiences in a collaborative manner, which crucially, includes co-designing with students.

Despite this being a recurring theme, students are often left out of the participant list. Universities need to recognise the ‘gap in the room’ with regards to student voice – students are expected to represent an entire student body of thousands. If sprints are limited to only stakeholders and senior leadership, universities will only provide an introspective staff view, therefore missing out the end user perspective and ultimately risk designing a product or service that doesn’t actually meet the needs of the student.

A sprint is not the solution

Although organising an effective sprint can ignite ideas and team energy – the sprint itself is not the solution to the bigger problem. Running strategic sprints to explore a challenge without thinking about translating ideas into action defeats the objective in the first place therefore support, investment and resource is needed to ensure the sprint is successful beyond the few days spent in a room together.

It’s important to acknowledge the distinction between outputs and outcomes – an output is something that is telling you whether an action is leading you towards a desired outcome. Check out this blog on measuring access to read more about it.  

As a starting point, knowing who you are as an organisation and what your values are can be used as a way of choosing the challenges to address and what needs hard strategic thought. Sprints should amplify the essence of an organisation and address its objectives, not try to create a new ethos or direction.

If you're interested to find out more about how sprint methodologies could help your university - get in touch.

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