Origins of Agile Wayfinding


Planning When You Have No Future

On the last day of February 2017, the president of my university summoned her leadership team to an impromptu lunch meeting to inform us that the university was closing. After years of operating losses, our new owners had decided to pull the plug. Over the next 30 days we put together a plan for closing the university including when each of the 80 employees would be laid off. Our original plan had us ending operations in August 2019. However, in negotiations with our accreditor, we moved the target date to March 2019. As part of the transition to end of life, the president moved onto to pursue a new opportunity, while I became president to oversee the teach-out.

Most university closures are abrupt and sudden. Typically a school is in financial distress and is forced to close the doors. In our case, we had the financial resources to do an orderly shut down. However, no models existed for how one shut down a university in a calm and orderly fashion. We had to figure it our as we went along. Out of this experience of improvised planning the framework for Agile Wayfinding was born.

I have written about the story of closing a university elsewhere, and I go into much more detail about that experience and the lessons learned elsewhere. Here I am going to tell the story of how Agile Wayfinding emerged as a process for navigating for success.

Agile Wayfinding has three major pieces:

  1. Purpose: where are you going?
  2. Map-Decide-Act Loop: how are you going to get there?
  3. Destination: how do you know you have arrived?

Purpose at the End of Life

Individuals off talk about their "bucket list" of things to do before they die. As president, I developed the following the following bucket list for the university:

  • Prepare our students for life after closing either by helping them to continue their education elsewhere or by completing a degree with us.
  • Preserve the quality of the student experience throughout the teach-out both within and outside of the classroom.
  • Exercise fiscal responsibility as good stewards of financial resources during the teach-out.
  • Prepare ourselves and each other for life after closing including supporting professional development and stretch assignments to develop each employee’s marketable skills.
  • Sunset all University operations after cessation of teaching activities.

These objectives provided a purpose for our work and a frame of reference. Since we knew that we would be losing people as we went along, we had to be thoughtful about what we could do sooner rather than later when we had more hands to get things done.

The Map-Decide-Act Loop

Using these objectives as a starting point, we captured what we knew we needed to do to move forward. For students, we modeled out which students could graduate and which needed to transfer. We developed communication plans for students. Based on the results of these efforts, we adjusted our efforts as we went along. For employees, we implemented several tactics to keep employees on board until their scheduled departure. As our efforts unfolded, we had to make decisions to keep some individuals longer and let others go sooner based on skill sets and what work needed to be done.

Destination Recognition

From the start of the descent to landing, we knew we would be saying goodbye to many colleagues throughout the journey. One of the items we did not initially think about was the need for students to have one last celebration. Our of our agile process, we identified the opportunity to hold a graduation event. We knew we would not have the resources to hold a traditional graduation. We hired an event planner and support team and planned a different kind of event for students and their families. While not on our initial plans, this was an important adjustment we made. At the end, we knew we had achieved our goals when I turned the lights off in the empty building that last time. We had graduated 706 students over the 2 years of the teach-out. We left no student stranded. While 663 students withdrew to finish their degrees elsewhere, only 7 students remained enrolled at the time of closure, and 4 of those had been inactive for over six months. We tried a variety of methods to try and reach those last few, but no process is perfect. Financially, we exceeded our revenue goals and stayed below planned expenses. During the entire teach-out, I only had two employees leave us voluntarily. One had the opportunity of a dream job on the other side of the country. Looking back two years later, I am proud of the work of my team and what we accomplished.

Inspirations for Agile Wayfinding

As a university we used agile processes throughout our planning and operations before the teach-out, and this method was integral to planning the teach-out as well. An agile approach to project management was foundational to our success, and also foundational to agile wayfinding as an approach. In addition to agile, three other sources contributed to the development of agile wayfinding: OODA decision loops, navigation, and Disney's Moana.

What is agile?

Agile as a philosophy and framework for project management began in software development in 2001. I worked in information technology projects at a non-governmental organization in the early to mid 1990s, and if agile had been available then, I would have stayed in IT rather than transitioning to higher education. As an approach, it solves many of the frustrations that I encountered professionally.

The traditional process of software development project management was a structure that began with identifying user requirements then developing software to meet those requirements. After development, the software is delivered to the user. Often these projects would fail, often in a disaster. The truth is that often users do not always know what their requirements were to start with, or developers fail to understand those requirements. Often the development period is so long that requirements change.

Agile is designed to address those challenges by breaking the development process into shorter cycles. In some versions of agile, these are known as sprints. At the start of the sprint, users and developers agree on what requirements can be addressed in the timeframe of the sprint, such as two weeks. At the end of the sprint, the development team delivers the work it has done to the users. This means that if the requirements were wrong or misunderstood, the project can reorient with only a minimal amount of time lost. It also means that if new requirements emerge, the project can also adjust.

Over the last twenty years the principles of agile project management have spread beyond software development to other types of projects.

OODA Decision Loop

The decision cycle of observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) was developed by US Air Force Colonel John Boyd. Boyd originally used this model to explain his proficiency in dog fighting, and the ideas spread to other aspects of military decision making and from there to civilian applications.

The OODA cycle states that human's make decisions through a cycle of observing what is happening, making sense of what is observed based on past experiences and teachings, based on this understanding, a decision is made, and action taken. The key to success is to increase the speed of repeating that cycle, because our actions will lead to additional data to be observed, leading to more informed decisions. In a competitive environment, understanding what our opponent's OODA process is helps anticipate their actions, allowing us to select an action that will lead to a better outcome for us.

The OODA cycle was an important construct in the development of agile wayfinding as it provides an explicit structure for decision making. In agile wayfinding, I have simplified the loop to three steps: map, route decision, and action. The map step includes both observation and orientation.


My doctorate is in urban, technological, and environmental planning. While my focus was on the technology aspect, I spent three years of coursework within the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan. That experience exposed me to ideas and concepts about built environments including cities and buildings. Later when I was a professional web designer, this exposure informed my thinking about the structure and links on web sites.

In grad school, I was introduced to the work of Lucy Suchman. Suchman was writing about artificial intelligence in the early 1990s, and in her book Plans and Situated Actions, she had a description of the difference between European and South Pacific navigators. Europeans plotted a course and then spent the voyage trying to stay on course. South Pacific navigators constantly adjusted course based on what was the best way to get where they were going at a particular place and time based on currents and weather conditions.

These ideas led me to the idea of wayfinding in the physical sense. In agile wayfinding, these ideas are expressed in planning not just for a physical journey, but for the journey of a project or of one's life.


The movie Moana is an animated film from Disney released in 2016. My younger daughters were of an age that they wanted to watch the movie repeatedly. The movie tells the story of a young girl who must travel across the ocean to save her people. To accomplish this, she must learn how to become a wayfinder, navigating on the open water using the techniques of South Pacific navigators. My multiple viewings of the movie and Moana's story was an inspiration for agile wayfinding. We are all like Moana trying to navigate the world to achieve our purpose.  

Long Story Short

Agile wayfinding comes from two places.

First, my team and I were faced with the challenge of doing something where there were not established best practices or models to follow. We had to close the university, and we had to figure out how to do that while we did it.

Second, repeated viewings of Moana triggered the concepts of navigation and wayfinding and how those ideas could be integrated with agile project management to provide a process for planning that could apply to a variety of individual and group processes.

As the pace of change continues to accelerate, it is critically important that we have tools that allow us to have a structure for planning while adjusting to uncertainty.