How long does it take an institution to develop and implement a new program? Program development within seminaries and much of higher education often takes a lot of time. For instance, I know of one school that was planning to take three or more years to develop a new doctoral program. While such a process may, at times, allow for a thorough review of a new program, I would argue that such a lengthy review reduces the overall value of a program.

The rate of change in today’s world is dramatically increasing. It is becoming less and less possible to create strategic plans which are even three years long, let alone five. What is true now will not be true two years from now. Often, what is true now won’t even be true one year from now. As we develop new programs and new initiatives at our institutions, I believe we need to understand and embrace this reality. We need to be very agile in the way we develop programs so that we can create value more quickly and then enhance that value through an iterative process.

This is the first of two posts on this topic. Today we will focus on why I believe there is a need for Agile Program Development in theological education. The next post will dive into the process and how to do it. Below, I will begin with a quick overview of what I am calling Agile Program Development and then address why I believe there is a need. The need for such a process is mainly connected to value and resource management. I will not claim that I have fully developed this concept. What I have written below and will write in the next post are thoughts I have developed over time based on experience, research, and interaction with peers. This process has many facets so it will take time for it to be completely developed. It will also be fun! Let us begin with a quick overview of Agile Program Development.

What is Agile Program Development?

I am defining Agile Program Development as a method for creating new programs and initiatives within an organization. It is based on similar concepts which form the foundation of Agile Software Development. In Agile Software Development, value is placed on:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

The goal is create an iterative process which minimizes risk and is able to regularly adapt to changing circumstances.

If we take these concepts and adjust them to fit within the world of program development in theological education, I believe we end up with Agile Program Development. Our aim is to create a program development process that is:
Iterative – We don’t expect to build a perfect program by taking a year to fully develop it. We work to create iterations of it which can be launched, tested, and learned from so that the next iteration can be launched with improvements.
Responsive – The process welcomes and responds positively to change, even in the late stages of development. Because it encourages agility, change is welcome. A three-year strategic plan is less valuable than an innate ability to recognize and respond to changes in the market, “customer” demands, resource availability, and much more.
Collaborative – No single person, department, or institution develops programs individually. Collaboration is not only encouraged, but also required. Using the concepts of the Dynamic Triangle, we use teams which are cross-functional, cross-thinktional, and cross-knowledgeable to develop programs. We also involve our constituency base in the process by soliciting feedback and creating ways for feedback to happen naturally during the process. Collaboration, therefore, helps to create internal connection points as well as a valuable feedback loop.
Focused on Rapid Prototyping – We do not take large amounts of time to develop the program. Instead, we rapidly create a prototype which can be tested. We test the content, the payment structures, the marketing, the institutional gains, and everything else that can be tested so that we can build another prototype. Rapid prototyping is measured in days or weeks – not months or years. Prototyping supports the fact that it is an iterative process. Iterations are commercially available versions of the program while prototypes are built for internal testing (Prototype 1, 2, and 3 exist before Iteration 1.0. Prototype 4, 5, and 6 exist before Iteration 2.0).
Able to Launch Programs Using Minimal Resource Investment – It does not require large amounts of institutional resources thereby allowing for an iterative process. We do not spend large amounts of resources to develop the perfect program that will be launched in two years. We iterate using minimal resources as we build a valuable program.

The Need

The world of theological is in need of innovation. Many schools are seeking to solve this problem and their work is commendable. However, I do not think we have been nearly as innovative as we could be. Agile Program Development principles will help us overcome a few hurdles. First, most schools do not have a budget for Research and Development. We can’t spend thousands on market research, focus groups, large-scale testing, or comprehensive strategic plans for our programs. We need strategic thinking Therefore, I believe we need a process which maximizes the value an educational program can produce and minimizes the resources needed to make something happen.

Value of an Educational Program

I believe the value of an educational program can be divided into two overarching categories – the experience it provides for the student and the impact it has on the institution. The value then accumulates overtime. Let’s expound on this concept.

Student Experience
The value of an educational program can first and foremost be measured by the value it creates for the student – the student experience. It is why we do what we do. We are seeking to provide an opportunity for students to be engaged in a process which edifies, educates, equips, and encourages them. The educational process impacts those to whom the student ministers and ultimately the work of the Church. In addition, the student’s experience related to student services has an impact on value. If the student truly appreciates the content of the educational experience but is constantly frustrated by a lack of service or a confusing design, the value of the program is diminished. We cannot separate content from support systems. The value of an educational program is deeply impacted by both. Ultimately, we can measure the value derived from the student experience by gauging its impact on the Church (Are the program’s participants serving effectively in ministry?), and the word of mouth marketing produced by students (Did they truly have a good overall experience about which they share freely?).

Institutional Gain
A program should also create value for the institution. I would argue that if we are creating value for students we will create value for the institution. However, both the student experience and the institutional gains should be considered when measuring the value of a program. Institutional gains can be related to net tuition (not tuition revenue), marketing impact, and resource development. The program should produce the required amount of net tuition. This amount will vary by institution, but we must consider it when creating programs. The financial model should be as much a part of the program development process as the educational content or syllabus creation. In addition, value is created by any impact the program has on the marketing of the institution. If the program enables the school to increase its awareness or develop stories which can be used in marketing/communications then it has provided institutional gains. Finally, the institution can gain from a program which requires the development of new resources. For instance, if the program requires new technology which can benefit the institution as a whole then it has provided institutional gain.

Value Over Time
Obviously, the value of a program accumulates over time as more students enroll. It is for this reason that I believe Agile Program Development creates more value than long drawn out processes of program development. By using Agile Program Development methods we are able to create programs more quickly and begin creating value more quickly. Value can begin accumulating weeks or months after the initial idea is developed rather than a year. Student’s can begin experiencing the program, providing feedback, and sharing their experience with others while the institution fine tunes the program over time. If we spend a year or two or three developing a program, we run the risk of the program having no value when it is finally launched. The value that could have been created in the year the idea was initially formed may disappear given how quickly things change. By launching the program more quickly we are able to take full advantage of current trends, current technology, and current market demands – all of which will change in one year (especially three).

Resource Management

Let’s face it. Most institutions do not have lots and lots of spare financial or human resources to throw at the program development process. Instead, it is something we do in addition to everything else we do. Research and development in the world of theological education tends to be nonexistent due to a lack of resources. Therefore, resource management becomes an important task for many of us. We do not have the luxury of utilizing large amounts of resources for one program that takes a year or more to develop. Traditional approaches to program development often require committees, bureaucratic processes, hours and hours of meetings, and much more. All of these things utilize large amounts of resources. The worst part is that the resources are utilized before any value is created or real-time feedback is gathered.

Agile Program Development can help us overcome this barrier to innovation by providing a way in which we can develop new initiatives and programs without investing large amounts of resources up front. Instead, resources are utilized through a “just-in-time” approach fueled by feedback received through the iterative process. The goal is to get a product out the door as fast as possible, receive feedback, and then create another iteration based on that feedback. As I write this, I hear many people asking, “How does this utilize fewer resources when it sounds like resources are used to rebuild and then rebuild and then rebuild the same program?” Agile Program Development enables us to use resources as they are needed rather than investing large amounts of resources in a program before we know if it has any value. Investing resources before we can judge true value is dangerous when we have a limited amount. We run the risk of over-investing, investing in the wrong things, and wasting resources on something that may have no value by the time we complete it. Instead, we manage our resources in such a way that they create immediate value which validates the use of more resources. If no value is created then we know we shouldn’t invest more resources.

We cannot see what will happen even one year from now. As we push that time out to three or five years, things get even muddier. We often manage resources and the program development process as if we have a crystal ball which tells the future. We don’t.

Big Topic

This is a big topic which is why I have split it into two posts. The next post will focus on how I believe we can approach and create an Agile Program Development process. There are a few examples I believe will illustrate the process and its value. We can build programs incrementally based on defined outcome goals, build on the work of others within the system of theological education, and much more.

In addition, I am sure there are people who agree or disagree with this concept. Honestly, I am just beginning to work it out so I would truly appreciate your feedback. Maybe we can have a conversation about it. What would you change? What do you think works well? Is there another category of value? Share your thoughts with me as we work to create a process which encourages innovation, better utilizes institutional resources, and involves our constituency base.