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This is the second part of a two-part series on Agile Program Development. Today we are going to dive deeper into how to do Agile Program Development and provide two examples. If you haven’t read the first post, I strongly encourage you to do so. It provides the foundation for this post as well as an overview of why I believe such a process is needed in theological education.

What is Agile Program Development?
Based on concepts similar to those that form the foundation of Agile Software Development, Agile Program Development is a method for creating new programs and initiatives within an organization. The goal is to create an iterative process which minimizes risk, maximizes value, and is able to regularly adapt to changing circumstances.

The key concepts behind Agile Program Development are:

  • Iteration
  • Responsiveness
  • Collaboration
  • Rapid Prototyping
  • Minimal Resource Utilization

(For an explanation of these concepts, read the first post.)

How to do Agile Program Development

With a strong grasp of the key concepts listed above, I believe organizations can begin implementing the Agile Program Development process. However, there are a few things I believe will enable the Agile Program Development process to flourish within an organization. Here are a few steps that can help you implement the process?

Assigned Research: Constituency Base
First and foremost, the organization must develop a process which encourages and somewhat automatically enables information gathering from the constituency base. We must listen to our constituency base throughout this process. Remember, we are not talking about a high-cost market research project. This research needs to flow naturally out of our interactions with our constituency base. Social media and the opportunity it provides to “listen” to our constituency base is very helpful. Of equal importance is a process of information sharing and gathering within the organization. It will be surprising how much you already know about your constituency base. The knowledge or information may simply be spread out across your institution. The advancement office may have some information about alums, churches, or major donors which could impact program development. Likewise, the registrar may have information from current students. I would encourage you to think about ways all of this information could be gathered and shared within the institution. If information is not currently available or staff members say they don’t have it, you may have to work with them on developing the constituency base mindset while also encouraging them to listen to versus simply conduct transactions with the constituency base. Developing a deep understanding of the needs, desires, struggles, opportunities, and triumphs within your constituency base is a key first step toward a robust Agile Program Development process.

Assigned Reading: Accreditation Standards
Yes, the accreditation standards are important. I believe they can encourage innovation and creativity. It can be very helpful for all members of your leadership team to have a deep and wide understanding of the accreditation standards. If the academic dean is the only one that understands or wrestles with them, then the APD process may become less and less agile. Part of the speed comes from a knowledge base developed by the leadership of the institution. Without that knowledge base, the process tends to slow down as more and more people need more and more time to gain an understanding of what is being discussed.

Often times we accuse accrediting bodies of restraining and discouraging innovation. We hear, “ATS is the problem because they won’t change their standards,” or “If ATS doesn’t change we can’t change our programs.” I feel it can be dangerous to blame accrediting bodies for our lack of innovation as seminaries. Shouldn’t we be looking at ourselves before pointing out the faults of someone else (Matthew 7:5?). There is an immense amount of freedom for creativity with the ATS standards. It is important for many within the organization to have a deep understanding of the standards. (This is a big topic and one about which people have many differing thoughts. Rather than continuing to dive deeper, I will simply plan another post which specifically covers accreditation and innovation).

Implement a Unified Approach
Both of the first two “assignments” require a unified approach. Given the fact that Collaboration is one of the key concepts of APD, it should come as no surprise that the implementation of a unified approach is important. APD requires an organization to think globally about the creation of new programs and initiatives. The development and implementation of a new program can require the intimate involvement of enrollment, academic, finance, advancement, student service, and communications personnel. In addition, it can be even more helpful if each of those individuals has a broad base of institutional knowledge. Programs, in the APD paradigm, are not created by the dean’s office – they are created by the institution using an iterative and collaborative process. If your organization doesn’t already function in this way, it may be necessary to create systems which encourage this approach. My post about everything being connected can be helpful for developing the mindset, but we need to ensure we are implementing an approach to program development which builds on that mindset. If the Dean comes with an idea about a new program, do we have a process which requires her to work with other departments to more fully develop it? What does that process look like? Is it truly collaborative or is it simply information sharing? Does she work with other departments throughout the process or only that times when she believes their input is needed?

Build on Your Foundation
Look at your current programs and use them as a foundation. Agile Program Development takes advantage of your current processes, systems, and programs. New “programs” are not the same as new “degree programs.” Over the past few years there has been a trend toward the use of emphases within degree programs versus the use of full degree programs. For instance, there are emphases in Pastoral Care and Counseling within the Master of Arts in Christian Ministry programs versus a Master of Arts in Pastoral Care and Counseling. New degree programs require the investment of many resources and require much more accreditation work than new emphases. New emphases do not require the hiring of new full-time faculty or any approval process related to accreditation. By using emphases we are able to develop programs more quickly, implement different iterations, and begin creating value before we have to invest a significant amount of institutional resources.

Again, it is helpful to consider your current programs as a foundation upon which new programs can be built. APD takes full advantage of this approach. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Look for ways to repurpose, re-engineer, or repackage current programs. Are their courses you could adjust so they are available in multiple delivery formats? Are there ways to slightly adjust content so that a series of courses within your MDiv could be considered a standalone certificate? Try not to assume that new programs require everything to be new. Look for ways to build on your foundation by being creative, innovative, and daring. Remember, you are not investing significant resources so don’t worry about making a mistake. Mistakes are part of the iteration process.

Embrace the System
Along those same lines, try not to limit yourself to what you can do internally. Embrace the system of theological education and take advantage of it. Look for ways to build programs on top of and around what others are already doing. It can be a mistake to assume that we, as seminaries, can provide the best education related to every topic. Where is God moving and how can you come alongside God’s work? By looking to partner with others inside the system of theological education we can rapidly develop programs which build on content already proven to be effective or in demand. We will dramatically increase our agility if we are willing to work collaboratively and build on what others are already doing. This concept is similar to one found in Jugaad Innovation.

Create a Feedback Loop
Finally, Agile Program Development requires an intentional feedback loop. Similar to the constituency base point above, this step requires us to listen. As we implement iterations of the programs we are developing, we need to ensure we have created ways to gather and act upon feedback from the participants. “Participants” includes students, staff, ministry partners, and anyone else connected to the program. How effective is the registration process from the perspective of the student and the support staff? Are there things that could be changed or improved? How good is the content in the program? Could it be enhanced or delivered in a different way in order to have greater impact? The feedback loop is the key step toward creating an iterative process capable of rapid prototyping.

Practical Examples

So let me try to provide two examples of how the Agile Program Development process has worked at Northern Seminary (my place of service). For each example, I will try to show how different concepts/steps of APD were exhibited. Each example below occurred after our institution had already achieved steps 1 through 3 listed above. Steps 4 through 6 are an ongoing process.

Doctor of Ministry: Congregational Leadership
In the fall of 2009, we launched a doctor of ministry program which had an emphasis in congregational leadership.

Collaboration/Embrace the System: The program was developed through a collaborative process which included the entire executive team, the faculty, and Green Lake Conference Center. Green Lake Conference Center had an educational program we believed provided value. We looked for ways we could partner with them and enhance the value of the program through the addition of a doctor of ministry emphasis.

Rapid Prototyping: The first iteration of the program was launched two weeks from the initial prototype. We developed three prototypes and launched the first iteration within two weeks.

Minimal Resource Utilization: We did not invest significant financial or human resources in the development of the program. Instead we sought to launch the first iteration, gather feedback, and then make decisions about programmatic adjustments and resource investment.

Feedback: We worked closely with Green Lake Conference Center, applicants, students, staff, and faculty to gather feedback quickly. Within the first month we had released a new iteration of the program based on feedback. The iteration did not change the core of the program, but it did allow for improvements related to content, price, admissions processes, and planning.

Mistake: While we did many things correctly, we did make one large mistake which enabled us to refine our process for the future. We developed syllabi for each of the five elective courses in the emphasis prior to the time the first course was offered. Looking back, this went against the concept of minimal resource utilization. We used a lot of resources to develop those syllabi. Instead, we should have defined outcomes and an assessment process and then developed syllabi as we went. We ended up having to redesign each syllabus based on feedback and information gathered as the program progressed. We should have planned to develop them as we went. By designing the syllabi as we go, we are now able to make adjustments based on feedback and invest resources “just in time” rather than up front.

Doctor of Ministry and Master’s Specialization: Spiritual Transformation
In the summer of 2011, we launched a new program in Spiritual Transformation which was offered as an emphasis at the Doctoral and Master’s level as well as a standalone Master’s Specialization (what other schools call a graduate certificate).

Collaboration/Embrace the System: The program was developed through a collaborative process which included the entire executive team, the faculty, and The Transforming Center. We looked for ways we could partner with them and enhance the value of the program through the addition of our coursework.

Iteration: The program was launched in late July and its second iteration was released in October based on feedback from students. A third iteration has also been released and it takes advantage of new processes. In addition, the syllabus for the first course went through three iterations. Yes, each iteration was released to students. However, because they knew they were part of the feedback loop, they welcomed changes.

Responsiveness: This is only possible because of a commitment to responsiveness. We gathered feedback and responded to changing requirements even late in the process. In addition, we only developed one syllabus rather than all syllabi for the program. That syllabus was revamped a few times based on changing requirements.


Why do I think Agile Program Development is important? Why is it important to use a unified approach when developing programs? It enables an institution to maximize value, develop momentum without utilizing significant amounts of resources, and minimize risk. We have grown our doctoral program by 10 times in under three years. You read that correctly. We have 10 times more doctoral students now than we did in 2009. At the same time we have dramatically increased our net tuition ratios connected to the doctoral program because we are able to minimize resource utilization. The APD process has been a significant step toward achieving these positive results.

A New System

While we have operated in this way for a number of years, I am just now putting the process down in writing and giving it a structure. As I said in the first post, what I have written here are thoughts I have developed over time based on experience, meeting notes, research, and interaction with peers. This concept has many facets so it will take time for it to be completely developed. It will also be fun! Please let me know your thoughts. What isn’t clear? What would you challenge? What would you support? Let’s make this great.

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