• Cosmic Centaurs

Centaur Stage - Episode 4: Agile Teaching with INSEAD’s Jose Santos

Centaur Stage is a weekly video series where we explore bold ideas about the future of work and learning. Each Thursday afternoon, on LinkedIn Live, at 2:30 PM UAE-time, Marilyn, our CEO, and founder is joined by some incredible guests to share insights, opinions, and perspectives about the future of how we work and learn.


On this episode of Centaur Stage, Marilyn and Jose (Joe) Santos discuss how he recently integrated Agile thinking into his teaching process. The conversation reveals what Joe learned, how it’s changed his approach to teaching, and his newfound perception of agile methodologies.


Watch the full episode here



About Jose Santos

Jose (Joe) is an Affiliated Professor of Practice in Global Management at INSEAD. After spending 20 years in the managerial world, Joe moved from Italy to INSEAD and devoted himself to scholarly work, a dream from his youth. Joe’s research and teaching focus on the management of multinational enterprises, particularly on the management of global integration and global innovation. In addition to his position at INSEAD, Joe has served as a visiting Scholar at MIT Sloan School of Management and as “Professor Catedratico Convidado” at UCP in Portugal. He has been teaching since 1971; he started his academic career teaching statistics and computation and has had 50 years of being a great learner and a great teacher.


Joe has been instrumental in developing the thinking around some of Cosmic Centaurs frameworks, including The Omnichannel Organization™️ , and continues to be a great advisor to the company.


What is an Agile KMC?

Joe has been teaching management at INSEAD since the first cohort of Executive MBAs. Most recently, he had to adapt his content and method to a fully virtual classroom. He was inspired by the Agile manifesto as he co-designed this new format with his students. Joe refers to this as the first INSEAD “agile” KMC ( or Key Management Challenge). Marilyn was also invited to speak at this class.


For Marilyn’s first question, she asks “what does it mean to design an agile teaching experience? Tell us how you set up the course and how it was different from the way you ran these in the past.”

Joe begins, “it is important to note that KMC is a unique kind of course at INSEAD. A Key Management Challenge is a course that is offered in the later, or final stages of the Global Executive MBA program. Participants coming into the program have 10+ years of experience in management. They learned a lot about management by ‘doing’, perhaps by studying as well. A KMC is supposed to address a challenge, question, or problem that existing theories are not able to address. My own KMC focuses on the challenge of managing the multinational enterprise. How do we get global performance out of units or individuals that are dispersed around the world? It’s not new. The multinational company, enterprise, or endeavor of human beings has always been ‘remote’. Managing people at a distance, in different contexts is what the challenge is about and suddenly, we are doing it online as a result of the pandemic.


The second wave of the pandemic made us realize that being in the classroom (as we had always been) wasn’t an option and those that wanted to take the KMC had to take it online. I have been teaching online for many years and if I know anything, it is that you cannot just do online what you have done in the classroom - it doesn't make sense. I had to come up with something new, and because I love trying new things, I decided to try the ‘method of methods’ that is expressed in the Agile Manifesto and apply it to teaching. It is called ‘agile teaching’ because I am a teacher and I used the agile ‘meta methods’ that are expressed in the manifesto that software developers wrote at the turn of the century.”

He continues, “I learned how to develop software about 50 years ago. I could still do it today if I wanted to but I would have to go back to the languages that we used in those days which are old-fashioned now. When I learned how to develop software, the stage of development of using computers was such that I ‘developed’ or ‘made’ software while I was the user of the software. I didn't make software because it was my job. I had to address problems like solving systems of partial differential equations in space-time which is impossible. I had a computer but there was no software to do that so I needed to develop it for my own purposes. The idea of being a teacher and a student at the same time, the idea of being a ‘maker’ and ‘user’ of software, the idea that knowledge is the software of our mind - that was the connection.”

Designing an Agile Teaching Experience

“Practically, what did that mean in terms of how you designed the teaching experience for those who took part in the KMC? What are some of the things you took from the meta methodology of Agile and the specific methodologies within that (e.g. SCRUM, Kanban) that you brought into the teaching environment?” asked Marilyn.

Joe shares why this experience was so ‘cool’ for him. “I could have done this before, it is really simple but it didn't come to me before. It came to me because I had to do it online. It is this serendipitous event that forced me to do it in a different way.”

“The first insight I had was if I wanted to do something online that wasn't a replica of what I did in the classroom, I need to make the KMC not about sharing knowledge as it is traditionally done: me sharing knowledge with participants, and participants sharing knowledge amongst themselves in the format of case studies, discussion, etc. Instead of sharing knowledge, we could make it a KMC about combining knowledge. Combining knowledge is a very different experience. Combining knowledge can be operationalized by producing something or a deliverable. In the case of software development, it is the combining of certain skills that allow us to come up with a piece of software, an app, a working version of an app. In the case of the KMC, we chose to create a guide. The participants in small virtual teams, myself and my teaching assistant, produced a working version of a guide on how to become a CEO in the post-pandemic emerging world. That was the first thing that makes this KMC different, it is about combining knowledge and therefore creating knowledge. It is interesting that the makers and writers of the manifesto did not say ‘this is a manifesto for agile software development' - words are very important.”

“Agile is about the process, not about the structure,” Joe continues. “Rather, it is about structuring time and the process is a structure in time, not a structure in space. Organizations cannot be agile, their performance is agile. What they do can be agile and therefore, the same applies in the classroom. As a class we were not agile but what we did was agile."

"Agile has to do with developing something," he continued. "Developing in the sense of making. Every piece of software is new, but it is made of existing software with existing languages, teams, and pieces. Similarly, every new knowledge is a combination of existing knowledge. That was the main insight that was realized by this first edition of an agile KMC.”

On Agile Methodologies

“You and I had a few conversations about agile methodologies", said Marilyn. “What surprised you when you delved deeper into the Agile manifesto and methodology? What surprised you about how the students engaged with this methodology and its spirit?”

“Agile is one of those words that arise, become fashionable and suddenly mean everything and nothing. Even today, most people confuse ‘agile’ with’ fast’. Agility and speed are not the same things. One is about second derivatives, the other is about first derivatives. So you are confusing acceleration with speed which is not a good thing to do. I try to avoid these fads and I had initially avoided it because it seemed a load of crap. However, when you [Marilyn] came in and you showed me what agile was through your end of year project, it piqued my interest. That is how I started to really look into it and when I did, I found a number of things:

First, I could understand it easily because I had made software and had been engaged with it. My first formal title in a company was ‘informatics manager’, so I understood what they were talking about because I did what they were talking about. The other thing that surprised me was the rigor of their language.

Another surprising element to Joe was “how they spoke about customer collaboration which comes from being a ‘maker’ and a ‘user’ of software. Collaboration can happen inside you as it did with me but it can't be in one individual only, you need to bring it to the team. You can still build software on your own but that is not the point. As software became more and more complex it required too much knowledge for just one person to hold given our bounded rationality. If you dig deep into the manifesto, its values and principles are talking about teamwork which is a fascinating mode of production.


True teamwork is what is outlined in the Agile Manifesto. Teamwork is 1+1=3 as we often say whereas group work is about 1+1=2.1. While 2.1 is better than 2, 3 is much better and much harder to achieve.

Suddenly I asked myself, does this work virtually? Can a virtual team produce this? It became a piece of research for me and my motivation was to give a different experience to participants to afford them the possibility of combining knowledge. The students, or 'makers', combined the knowledge of guest speakers and my brief lectures which were the ‘user’ interactions, and then they used the remaining time to come up with this guide, this piece of software in a series of ‘sprints’ (to use a word from the agile methodology)."


The Student Experience

Sharing what surprises participants, Jose adds: “What surprised participants and what delighted me was that they were able to produce this guide to becoming a global executive which is a role, a path to learning. They were able to produce remarkable work. Each virtual team of students produced their own guide. These four guides are still a work in progress but now there is a process to developing them. We are now trying to integrate the four guides together to come up with one guide and like many things in agile, these are working versions and there will never be a complete version. There will never be a complete version of knowing, particularly when it comes to managing multinational companies.

Taking a question from the audience, Marilyn asked, “Did you find students' motivation and engagement was different? Were people more present? Did more people understand the concepts more thoroughly because they were making them and not just listening to them? How did it change participation?”

Joe, who was particularly delighted about the performance of the participants responded by saying, “I am very happy with the outcome. My only interactions are with people who know how to manage already and I ask myself, what can I teach someone that already knows how to do something? My main aim is for participants to learn how to view the world, including how to view management. It is very powerful when you achieve that or when a good proportion of the students achieve that. By looking at the outcome of their work, because they have to do a paper at the end, I can see the evolution of these individuals from the initial interactions we had in the co-design phase to the final reflection paper. First, they understand Agile, this was an outcome I didn't intend to teach but they got it anyway. It will be remarkable in the application because they will teach those who use them to be more rigorous. Second, they were able to understand that you can indeed have an experience in small, virtual teams and that it is possible to create something new, something remarkably new that was unexpected to them. That is the point of teamwork.


When do we know that something was real teamwork and we were part of it? When the outcome surprises us.

Group work is work patched together smartly. But teamwork surprises us all the time and I was delighted because I was surprised. As a realist, I tend to expect that things will not work well the first time, I believe in increments.

I was trained in the scientific method. There is a lot of similarity in the values and justifications of the Agile Method that are parallel to the scientific method. That is another thing I discovered, Agile is an application of the scientific method and very adequate for a higher-end institution like INSEAD where we like to think that we create new knowledge. The KMCs are a display of that frontier because we go into the classroom with smart, experienced, able participants arguing about things people don't know how to solve. But now, we don't just discuss or share views, we make something of it. "

One last question

As with all participants, Marilyn asked Joe to complete a sentence. In this case, Marilyn asked Joe to tell our audience about the future of teaching.


“The future of teaching is... teaching, I cannot imagine a world without teachers. There will always be teachers, students, masters, apprentices. It has hundreds of years of history. Teaching will be very different in the future but it will always be teaching.

I hope we will do more teaching by making combinations of what the students know as opposed to just sharing what we [as teachers] know. Or even making sure that there is an environment to share what they know. I think we need to go from ‘sharing’ to ‘creating’”


He continues, “In a way, I was taught this way. If I reflect and think about the very classic professor that taught me and made me create things, they made me combine what they knew and what I knew. A great teacher makes us do that combination inside of ourselves, but why not do it together? That is what didn’t happen before.“


Other episodes of Centaur Stage:

Episode 1: Watch Marilyn's debate with Iulia Istrate on corporate culture in distributed settings, or read the key insights here.

Episode 2: Watch or read the key insights from Marilyn's discussion with Ziyad Rahhal exploring what it means to lead in today’s world, how his approach to leadership has evolved, and why empathy is not the same as compassion. The conversation also shed light on LinkedIn’s bold mission, how it's growing its products to create more value for its users and why the term ‘customer-centricity’ has new meaning for sales and marketing professionals.


Episode 3: Watch or read the insights from Marilyn's discussion with Dr. Myriam Hadnes about the art of virtual facilitation, how to make workshops work, and her recent ‘Never Done Before’ Festival.

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