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12 / 2019 article

Transforming Our Culture in an Agile Way

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When we decided to rethink the vision of the company to be an education technology services company and introduce Zovio as our new name and brand, one thing leaders took very seriously was the future culture of the organization. We wanted to move away from traditional, top-down hierarchical decision-making to a more employee-centric iterative process, much like that found within technology-driven companies.

At a strategy offsite in October 2018, our executive leadership team discussed the Agile methodology, which is often used by software developers to keep pace with the quickly changing demands of business and to significantly reduce lag time between developing and deploying a new product.

The leadership team decided to embrace the spirit of Agile methodologies and in November 2018 formed a series of three cross-functional teams of high-performing, high potential employees from different levels and functions within the company. Employees met regularly, often in stand-up meetings. From the outset, the leadership team empowered the participants, making it clear that they owned their projects and their recommendations would be accepted and implemented. 

The first team developed the blueprint for “what” the new company culture could be. Team members wanted Zovio to embrace a culture we all could feel. The team shared its progress with the executive team every week for three weeks, receiving feedback and adjusting its course along the way. Team members worked in sprints and check-ins, enabling them to deliver a desirable result much faster than with traditional methods. Ultimately, Team 1 set the foundational values for Zovio’s new culture in the following statement: 

We are ambitious individuals coming together to create bold solutions for a brighter future. We put our people first and value different ways of thinking.

To breathe life into the statement, the team bolstered it with three pillars:

Passion—Bring it.     Innovation—Ignite bold ideas.     Teamwork—Our teams work.

The first team recommended members for the second team, who were asked to determine “how” we would build this new culture. Team 2 members came up with quite a few ideas to roll out the new cultural direction. Among them were intentionally establishing the culture at the upcoming Zovio launch event, changing the dress code, adjusting the work environment, and writing a new employee handbook. 

Team 3 focused on “the way we work.” Team members took the ideas from Team 2 and brought them to life. They advocated for modifications in the employee handbook (which eventually was entirely rewritten), a relaxed dress code, and expanded alternative work schedules with more employees having the flexibility to work remotely. They also called for a more transparent communication environment with a greater flow of information down to middle management, and the roll out of Microsoft Teams, a communication platform that supports team collaboration. 

Team 3 also recommended the company emphasize a culture of celebration. Team members wanted to continue past traditions of company celebrations and suggested adding celebrations for losses and project failures, arguing that we could still acknowledge the lessons learned and comradery built. 

Only six months after the culture teams were formed, the new cultural direction was ready to share. In April 2019, CEO Andrew Clark unveiled to everyone our new company name and logo, and more casual and comfortable dress code, which we quickly embraced up to our hats and down to our flip-flops. At the launch, Andrew described the open workspaces planned for Zovio sites to foster greater collaboration, including the Hub in Chandler, with its stadium seating for events. Then the celebration moved outdoors for treats and plenty of Zovio swag, including logoed hoodies and lightweight laptop backpacks. 

Impressed with the success of the first three teams, Zovio executives formed three new teams in summer 2019. These teams explored and recommended how to evolve the employee recognition program leveraging technology and inclusiveness, how to build a more comprehensive onboarding process for new employees, and how to best use various technologies to support a distributed workforce, including hybrid work-from-home and remote employees. 

Zovio has benefitted from its Agile-like team efforts in many ways. Our culture is evolving to become less bureaucratic and more collaborative. Employees from the culture teams are serving as examples and ambassadors of our exciting new culture and have enjoyed a developmental experience with greater exposure to company executives. The first team even presented to the Zovio Board of Directors. In turn, executives have become more familiar with some of the talented employees in the company and are seeing positive results as the culture evolves to align with our new company vision.

 

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Written by Marc Brown, Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer &
Mark Putrus, Vice President, Total Rewards and Talent Management

Marc Brown

Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer