Agile Faculty Manifesto – Simplicity

This post is part of a summer series looking at the Agile Faculty Manifesto. Read the Manifesto in this series preview post or in Chapter 1 of the book. This post explore what it means to focus on simplicity.

Agile Faculty value simplicity over complexity whenever possible.

Higher ed, even at its best, is a complicated environment. Levels of bureaucracy at department, college, and university levels and the often-felt tension between faculty and administration can make navigating an academic career tricky business. Faculty governance can be a blessing and a curse as well; most of us have probably been in meetings that exemplify this. Juggling research, service, and teaching can be like trying to put together a puzzle when the individual pieces keep changing size.

The original Agile Manifesto is accompanied by a set of 12 principles that extend and ground the commitments stated in the Manifesto. Here is one of my favorite of these principles:

Simplicity – the art of maximizing the amount of work not done – is essential.

I think about this one frequently. What does it mean to maximize the amount of work not done? The statement does not recommend putting forth only your minimum effort or being lazy. One way to interrogate the statement is to flip it – simplicity is the art of minimizing the work done. This framing suggests we should strive to do what adds the most value and/or focus on the most important pieces of the work we value rather than overcomplicating what we do.

For example, many faculty members might feel they cannot write a good lit review for a research article unless they have read everything about it. I think of committee and department meetings when answering a question about a future action ends up requiring multiple surveys, reading every report ever written on the subject, polling folks at peer and aspirant institutions, interviewing everyone even tangentially related to the question (OK, that is an exaggeration, but perhaps not by much in some cases). I also think of some of my early assignments with their four page assignment sheets and multiple steps and requirements that confuse students as to what the point of the assignment is.

Faculty life is not simple and never boring. How can we simplify the work we (most want) to do by maximizing the work not done? One way might be to examine the way we break down big projects into smaller tasks and to assess which of those tasks are truly necessary to accomplishing the goal. Are there tasks that you are doing simply because you’ve always done it that way but that are not essential to your process anymore? Might conducting a design activity or starting with a daily Scrum  at the beginning of a committee meeting determine the most important things to discuss in that time. Are their better ways to streamline an assignment that still achieves the learning goals without the four page assignment sheet? (I’m reminded of the saying, “The more you use the reins, the less they use their brains,” which seems just as applicable to humans as to horses).

The more you use the reins, the less they use their brains.

The principle as written states that maximizing the work not done is an art. As an Aristotelian, this warms my heart. Aristotle defined “art” as techne, craft, the intellectual virtue of being able to put knowledge into practice in order to produce something. But I would argue that his third intellectual virtue, phronesis, is even more applicable here. Phronesis can be defined as practical wisdom, knowledge accrued over time from learning and interaction that can be called upon to make rational decisions about future actions (this is all in Nicomachean Ethics if you are craving some Aristotle this summer). Phronesis is required to simplify faculty work, to make good decisions about how to act on a current or future project by understanding one’s own practice and maximizing the best parts of that practice to be successful.

How can you choose simplicity over complexity? What actions or processes might you simplify? What processes do you use to maximize your time and simplify tasks?




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I teach Professional Writing and Rhetoric in the Department of English at Elon University. Specifically, I teach courses in professional communication and rhetorical theory, publishing, project management, and workplace research methods. My research interests include collaboration strategies in the classroom and workplace, written artifacts that mediate collaboration, and Agile project management strategies. @RPR_Elon on Twitter

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