Graham School News

Learning to Think with Agile: Embracing Change in Project Management and Product Development

Philip Baker

As a specialist in organizational coaching, training, and change management, Doug Rose, who will teach the first of two two-day seminars in the University of Chicago’s new specialization track in agile this spring, has worked for over 20 years transforming organizations. With extensive experience using the agile mindset to optimize business processes and improve productivity and delivery, he has authored four books—including Leading Agile Teams

Having started his career during the 1990s dotcom boom as a computer specialist working as a networking consultant, he moved on before the 2001 crash to get a law degree in technology commercialization law. Startled by patent law’s lack of stimulation, he completed his master’s in information management alongside his legal coursework, setting the stage for some of his first ventures using agile.

Doug Rose, Project Management instructor
Doug Rose

“I started my own business rolling out technology projects after graduating and one fortunate contract I landed was with a large urban school district,” says Rose. “Even if it didn’t pay exceptionally well, I was given the opportunity to manage a lot of interesting projects in a way that let me use slightly more experimental methods. In the end, I used an Agile approach to develop a large software project.”

In 2003, when Rose worked on the project, agile’s widespread acceptance as an approach to getting work done was still nearly a half-decade away. As a method initiated by software developers seeking more streamlined ways to complete complex data projects, the agile philosophy and its various methods have evolved in recent years into a general approach to product delivery favoring short-term, highly iterative planning with a focus on client interaction and feedback.

“Because an agile approach doesn’t follow an overarching project plan laid out at the project’s beginning, which everyone then goes off on their own to carry out, people often have the idea that Agile is a loose, laid-back approach,” Rose says. “That’s not true at all. The agile process is very structured and, even if there aren’t many rules, they have to be followed.”


“Because an agile approach doesn’t follow an overarching project plan laid out at the project’s beginning, which everyone then goes off on their own to carry out, people often have the idea that Agile is a loose, laid-back approach. That’s not true at all. The agile process is very structured and, even if there aren’t many rules, they have to be followed.”


As Rose will elaborate over the two days of Enhance Innovation and Value with Agile Teams, an agile approach ensures that value is optimized throughout development by adhering to an organic approach capable of responding to unpredictability and unanticipated customer demands. What is more, rather than aiming to develop bloated products that do everything, an agile team works with the customer to zero in on the areas of most importance and highest value.

As an example of the approach in practice, he points to the agile idea of timeboxing and how it applies to meetings. Compared to a more traditional meeting approach, which often runs overtime even while revolving around a vaguely defined topic, a timeboxed meeting has a clear task and a pre-defined time period. Once the time is done, the meeting is over.

“Certainly, agile doesn’t apply to every product,” Rose notes. “That’s why I’m a big believer in learning about agile through immersion rather than in the abstract. Agile is a mindset and a new way to think about work, which means getting hands-on experience is crucial when it comes to seeing where and how it fits in and improves processes. In class, we immediately get involved in product delivery using LEGOs.”


"Agile is a mindset and a new way to think about work, which means getting hands-on experience is crucial when it comes to seeing where and how it fits in and improves processes. In class, we immediately get involved in product delivery using LEGOs.”


While an agile approach can exist at a variety of levels across an organization, from getting disseminated by leadership to thriving in particular pockets best-suited to its strengths, Rose anticipates that students, after taking the class, will discover practical ways to use these new tools no matter where they work. He notes how agile, with its focus on processes, grants practitioners new ways of seeing how longstanding practices may not be the most efficient.

“Often, in organizations, processes have been around for so long and they’ve become so hardwired that they’re in essence no longer seen as processes at all but simply the only way a thing gets done,” Rose says. “The notion that decisions were made at one point in time to do it this way gets completely forgotten. An agile mindset gives workers the ability to look at processes anew and see the choices that went into creating them.”