March  03,  2021

Agile principles can improve your training.

Agile is not just a software development methodology, but a mindset. One that can transform any kind of work, including learning program development.

What is Agile? Well, what it’s not is “waterfall”—the traditional development approach rooted in the industrial economy. Waterfall projects plan everything at once, then move on to design everything at once, then develop, and so on. Some of the benefits of a waterfall approach are consistency and accuracy—the team has a set of standards and it takes great pains to maintain them, across the initiative. That’s good, but it can take a very long time. And, by the time the end user sees anything useful, they have lost months (or years!) of benefit, and the landscape has probably changed.

Agile, as you might get from its name, is all about speed and flexibility. It reserves the right to be smarter today than yesterday. It’s about failing fast, adjusting course, and trying again. It’s about getting better and better, while effecting real-world change.

Here are a few ways to use Agile principles in learning programs.

Size. Here we’re talking about size of scope, size of teams, and size of the “batches” of work. Often, our teams are responsible for an entire curriculum. Subject matter and technical experts are available to the entire team. Once an instructional designer completes design of one module, they move on to the next one. When design is done, they start developing courses. The entire curriculum reaches each milestone together.

Instead, try micro. Build a team of one instructional designer, one SME, and one technical expert. Focus them on one course, to deliver one tight set of learning objectives to one set of learners. And then let them run; Agile teams call it a sprint. They should design, develop, pilot, and launch the training as fast as they can.

Worried your courses will be “all over the place?” First of all, they might, and that’s ok. Second, all consistency is not lost. As you gather feedback on course drafts and tests, craft a prototype module. This will be your gold standard – all great, client-vetted and universal design ideas go here.

Agile will deliver skills to your learners, fast. And the team will learn a lot; they aggregate lessons learned so all can benefit in the next sprint.

Focus. Learning team members often serve many masters: learning executives, business function leaders, technical team leads, project sponsors… Each entity wants oversight, to ensure consistent quality, style, format, and learner experience. Reviews ripple through the curriculum as it’s being designed and developed, requiring revisions and new standards. Subject matter experts might have to swallow changes that have nothing to do with their learners, but serve the program as a whole or please a particular executive.

Agile is all about the customer, and no one else. One of its lessons is “Be willing to disappoint.” That is, disappoint anyone but the customer. Using an Agile mindset, the learner is king. The SME represents the learner on the micro-team for the course. So if the SME believes a piece of content, a delivery method, or a particular style works for the learners of the course, you use it.

To sharpen your focus, create a “learner persona.”

Work with your SME to build a profile of the learner for this course. The learner’s responsibilities, location, technical acumen, etc. help you choose the right stories, metaphors, interactions, and delivery modalities.

And Agile would say let the learner tweak your product. So if you get quickly to a pilot test and then a launch of your course, let learners into the process. Ask them how to make it better; go beyond the “smile sheet” and let them be designers for a day. Then build their best ideas into the next version of your course and share it with the other teams, so they can benefit as they sprint.

Mindset. Does this all sound messy? It is. That’s why everyone involved must understand and adopt the Agile mindset if this is going to work.

It’s easy to frame Agile in a positive light. Chaos breeds creativity. Get comfortable with uncertainty. It’s an opportunity, not an obstacle.

But we have to accept that it’s a big change. Agile requires people to give up traditional control, watch as things fail and get better, tolerate inconsistency, and be part of a process that feels chaotic at times. How can you get everyone on board with Agile?

Here’s where we bring out our change management tools. Once you have the main decision-makers on board with this shift, make it familiar, controlled, and successful.

  • Our brains see anything new as dangerous. To dampen fear, make this change feel familiar. Compare the new approach to other innovations that brought great things to your organization. Don’t dwell on the old learning development approach; frame the new Agile learning approach as another big success story—whatever success story resonates with them. That makes this change feel familiar and safe.
  • People crave predictability and control. So give them something solid to grab on to. Roll out the shift to Agile using a timeline, and let them know what’s happening as you hit each milestone. And give people choices whenever possible. For example, you might ask for volunteers to try the Agile approach first. Any “early adopters” in your group will make the next steps feel doable for the rest.
  • Winning feels good. So engineer success into the transition. Call out and celebrate your first Agile course achievements. And remember to reward the new mindset—we embrace failing fast, right? So, when you find problems in the first pilots or conducts, congratulate those teams for their boldness, courage, and valuable lessons learned.

Remember: Familiar, Controlled, Successful

Agile is a big change, with big benefits. Our software brethren have gone there, but why should they have all the fun? Learning teams who use Agile principles can deliver big benefits, fast.