Mike Twidale on agile research, leading from strengths, and story-telling


Mike Twidale is a professor in the School of Information Sciences at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, recipient of numerous teaching awards including Outstanding IS teacher in 2017, and more recently becoming program director for a new Masers degree. We talk about how he handled the tenure process, his teaching approaches, and his notion of agile research and what this means. We also discuss stepping up into leadership roles. Having thought he would never be any good at leadership, he has developed his own leadership style by playing to his own strengths and the complementary strengths of those around him, among other effective strategies. We also talk about the value of story-telling to make more explicit the multiple different ways and realities of how we do academia. And he talks about metrics as just being an indicator of something and looking for other complementary ways to also explore that something.

“Our job as we get more senior is to speak up for a diversity of different ways of doing scholarship.”

“If it’s really research we don’t actually know what the answer is.” 

“How do you design something so that it is easy to change rather than how do you design something so it is right so you don’t need to change it?”

“When a faculty works well it is nurturing and it’s like a family.”


04:26 How thinking about getting tenure matters

10:15 Teaching

15:05 Agile research

25:00 Stepping into a leadership role

43:05 Storytelling, self-care and metrics

And in more detail, he talks about (times approximate) …

01:40 Moving from Computer Science in the UK to a School of Information Sciences at UIUC in the US in 1997 as an adventure to “try it out”. Seeing how he could go with the teaching. The challenges of multi-disciplinarity. Learning the US academic tradition including tenure.

How thinking about getting tenure matters

04:26 Going into a tenure track position, via an exception as a Q appointment. He talks about how he approached the tenure process. Was successful but always in the back of his mind was that he could always go back to the UK. Didn’t put pressure on himself – viewing it as an adventure, had a backup of being able to find another job if needed, and realizing it is “just a set of rules rather than something that is about my identity”. Vs treating it as about identity creates pressure and leads to conformist about what will be acceptable to the tenure committee. The paradoxes. And the value of the uni documents about tenure rules creating many different opportunities for excellence.

09:05 “Our job as we get more senior is to speak up for a diversity of different ways of doing scholarship.”


10:15 Winning an excellent teaching award. How excellent mentoring helped him. A strong culture of excellent teaching in the school. Talks about the contrast of being a soft person in a computer science and then being the hard techie person in the iSchool. All relative.

11:55 The formal and informal mentoring he received – an Australian historian, Boyd Raywood, who could help translate the US academic system for him; Betsy Hearn and the power of storytelling. The teaching techniques he has developed – more hands-on activities

Agile Research

15:05 Drawing inspiration from agile software development to ask what might agile research look like and how can we speed up the iterations. Compares this to the ‘straw man’ logical waterfall method for computers but it doesn’t work as the world is a lot messier than we would like and we are fallible human beings who can’t follow rational methods. Compares this to grant and thesis proposals which look like the waterfall method but we all know that this doesn’t work like this.

19:40 Influencing funding bodies about this? So far no but he has a plan. He has just written a paper to justify agile as a reasonable research method. And talks about how it can fit into deliverables reporting requirements for funded research. Needing more honesty and transparency about the process of doing research. Not doing anyone a favour particularly our students who look at the post-hoc constructed representations of senior researchers’ work and compare it their messiness of their own. Honesty especially important given the increasing interest in reproducible research. “So long as you admit that thing you are doing is a legal fiction to save other people the time and bother and not pretend that is the thing we did.”

22:55 “If it’s really research we don’t actually know what the answer is… have some guesses… but time and again we discover something far more interesting than what we intended to look for.”

Stepping into a leadership role

25:00 Reflecting on his program director role. 5-6 years would have said he had no desire to do any academic leadership thing as didn’t think he would be good at it. No ambition. Thought he would be a bad fit as good at divergent thinking but not good at details, keeping track of things, person management. However the need and opportunity arose to be director of new masters program. Thought he would have a go. Brand new degree to be created out of nothing with help of fellow faculty. So an opportunity to build something new and interesting. That piqued his interest. He had written an article about what an agile university might look like. So given they didn’t know what should be in this program, how could he design the process to learn as they go? So coming up with structures and getting input from people and nudge it so they are not getting locked into early commitments. “How do you design something so that it is easy to change rather than how do you design something so that it is right so you don’t need to change it?”

29:08 Setting it up to enable learning from the start. Helped by colleagues working with him and delegating things to people who were really good at doing things that he was bad at doing. A struggle at times as can egocentrically think that if I hate doing it others do too. [30:34] Learning what it is that plays to other people’s strengths – so getting to know people, reading from their body language that this is something they like. Meg Edwards is very good at systematizing things. Having someone who has complementary skills but also not embarrassed about raising things that really need to be done. An important culture thing (mid-western nice, being polite, not wanting to offend – so have to move it along to see if people actually agree or disagree and what do we disagree about)

32:41 The important role of the leader in setting the culture. The importance of having lots of very small meetings including one-on-ones. Lots of little conversations more productive. And if it goes wrong it’s my fault, my job.

33:51 The people he learnt his leadership skills from – actual and implicit mentors. Discusses Doug Shepherd, Ian Sommerville disagreeing; Doug Shepherd – managing by walking around; Alan Dix - playfulness; Tom Rodden – sharing and including people;

38:35 The value of managing by walking around, understanding needs. Staying curious. Bringing research interests to management/leadership, figuring out strengths and what other things are needed, who can do those. “If you play to your strengths you are going more with the grain as opposed to against the grain.”

41:50 Role of systematization, structuring, as program matures and as you get bigger. Breaking into small teams work because of way humans work.

Storytelling, self-care and metrics

43:05 Role of story-telling. For example telling graduate students how to get a job – collections of stories that reveals getting jobs in different ways.

45:20 Story-telling in the faculty as well? Some happens already. Easier when smaller faculty and now needs more effort.  Stories – for new professors and doctoral students who want an academic career – stories of struggling around and how people overcame adversity, or even admitting not knowing and then things clicking into place. Those stories revealing the processes. Also stories of people who are successful and how much appears to be luck, seizing opportunity – “the factor of luck, happenstance, we often don’t want to tell because it doesn’t fit the heroic story but it is still an issue of seizing that, but helping people to realise, don’t be dispirited if one doesn’t work out, these things happen.”

48:25 We’d like to believe the world is rational. Same in the hiring process. But it’s not. Discussion of trying to be fair in hiring, to see the whole person, being open to different research approaches. Still times when you are not sure. Incredibly difficult issue.

51:05 Story of Leigh Estabrook who recruited him – one of her famous phrases was no grant proposal is ever wasted. You will be benefitting from that in the future in a way you don’t know about. “When a faculty works well it is nurturing and it’s like a family, that recognises that each individual in the family is different and unique.”. Other practices building a nurturing culture – always there, sustaining it via eg faculty retreats, sharing ideas, sharing stories. Key is inviting more than one story. Hallway conversations. Collaborations around teaching. Also need to recognize it can be intimidating for new people and need to be welcoming. The problems of comparing yourself to many others and thinking you need to be the union set of all those people.

55:55 Self-care – needing to do more on this. Commute time of 12 mins on average. Always temptation to do more and more work. Tries to make time for himself at the weekends. Travels a lot and tacks on an extra day of sightseeing. Sets a puzzle in his head and leaves his subconscious to chew over it but this needs time and relaxation and can’t force it. 

58:15 Talks about listening to podcast with Tom Rodden – do good work and other things will flow. Problems with metrics. Interested in looking at metrics as part of a socio-technical system, the doing of science. Have to remember is it the proxy and not the think itself. The challenge is to allow the telling of other stories. What you lose by turning it into a number. Getting qualitative and quantitative data working together. Numbers can help us when we want to be fair. But numbers are not unbiased. And what’s that something else we are actually looking for and how can we look for that. Eg looking for potential. What are some indicators of potential? Different people show potential in different ways. “Reminding ourselves it [metric number] is just a proxy and what are wanting it to be a proxy for may help.”

01:03:20 The challenge of academics being encouraged to be individualist. But you don’t have to do it all on your own.

01:05:13 End

Related Links

Boyd Rayward - https://ischool.illinois.edu/people/w-boyd-rayward

Betsy Hearne - https://ischool.illinois.edu/people/betsy-hearne

Meg Edwards - https://ischool.illinois.edu/people/meg-edwards

Leigh Estabrook - http://cirss.ischool.illinois.edu/person.php?id=69

Twidale & Nichols, ‘Agile Methods for Agile Universities’ - https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/129936578.pdf

Kjeld Schmidt – ‘The trouble with “tacit knowledge”’, Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW): The Journal of Collaborative Computing and Work Practices, vol. 21, no. 2-3, June 2012, pp. 163-225.

Tom Rodden podcast - http://www.changingacademiclife.com/blog/2016/11/2/tom-rodden