Shifting Focus to Agile Development

The term “agility” has been increasingly tossed around as a vital competency for organizations, teams and individuals. Yet misconceptions abound about what it means.

At its broadest, agility is the ability to beresponsive to change — change in competitive environments and customer needs, as well as change in workplace learning and performance.

As an organizational capability, agility representsa virtuous cycle. It enables an organization and its workforce to be innovative, to think critically, and to continuously learn and improve. All of these elements in return reinforce an organization to be agile. In the training and development space, agility emerges through the adoption of an agile design and development approach.

The concepts of agility and agile design and development are simple to understand, but are often difficult to implement. Effectively integrating these approaches in an organization requires systemic — not localized — change.

But to better appreciate the magnitude of such a systemic change, it is important to first understand the fundamental philosophies of an agile design and development approach.

Agile Origins

Agile design originated in the software development industry. It is based on the premise that requirements and solutions to problems should evolve through collaborative, self-governing and cross-functional teams. Its concepts were laid out in what became known as the “Agile Manifesto,” written in February 2001 at a summit of 17 computer programming practitioners.

The following table captures the essence of the Agile Manifesto as well as highlight some of the key philosophical differences between agile and more traditional approaches.

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Agile-Killing Myths

As many companies can attest, there’s often a misalignment between the conceptual grasp of this new approach and the effect an organization’s behavior will have on an agile development initiative. 

An agile approach requires a fundamental change in organizational, management and team behavior. The following myths represent the visible disconnect that typically results when an organization decides to explore an agile approach without investing in and reinforcingsystemic change from traditional to the agile. This is called “following historical patterns,” said Stacia Sherman Garr, an analyst with human resources research and advisory firm Bersin by Deloitte.

Myth 1:
An agile approach can be effective without a high degree of organizational trust.

All agile training initiatives move thanks to high levels of trust. When a cross-functional team begins to collaborate on an agile initiative, they work through the process of “forming, storming, norming and performing” — elements coined by B.W. Tuckman in his landmark 1965 work published in Psychological Bulletin.Through this process, teams learn more about each other, how they solve problems and the benefits of risk taking and collaboration. In all, the experience aims to build trust, thus leading to productivity.

Trust at the organizational level is just as important as trust within the team. No matter how strong a team may be, without the support and trust of broader stakeholders the agile initiatives will most likely fail. Companies that try to implement an agile approach in the absence of a high degree of trust — companies with strong hierarchical structures and limited collaborative initiatives, for example — are not positionedto be successful.

The agile process can seem odd to those who haven’t seen it before. To the line of business, the evolutionary nature of an agile process may seem unpredictable and imperfect, perhaps even chaotic. The solutions generated may even seem foreign. For example, insights gained through rapid prototyping may be perceived as failures, rather than as a critical component of an evolutionary process.

Myth-busting considerations for talent development or management:

• Develop trust-building capabilities in your teams.

• Evolve project management to support and enable the building of trust.

• Reinforce collaborative problem-solving in your talent.

• Develop a consultative mindset toward establishing a collaborative partnership.

• Promote risk-taking as a positive behavior.

• Incorporate team-based evaluation, reward and recognition.

• Identify clearly the effort as an organizational priority.

• Cross-train team members.

• Redesign job descriptions and competencies to emphasize teamwork.

Myth 2:
An agile approach can be optimized through a transactional process.

The strength of the agile process is rooted in its responsiveness — not its speed. It is neither slower nor faster than a traditional approach; it is simply more responsive to the evolutionary understanding of the design requirements. This responsiveness is achieved through an intimate, collaborative team-based process.

The temptation is mighty for a training organization or line of business to speed up an agile process by making the teams less cross-functional, reducing the number of touch points between team members or minimizing access to members of the target learners or performers.

Unfortunately, doing so serves to erode communication and raise the risk that key concerns may not be addressed. A company might appear enthusiastic to  embrace a recommendation for a more agile, flexible approach to the development of a learning solution only to then immediately expect a fixed budget and rigid milestone-driven timeline. The greater the organizational counter pressure, the greater the need for an agile process leader who can fight for a fully supported, collaborative process. 

Myth-busting considerations for talent development or management:

• Reinforce the importance of cross-functional perspectives on teams.

• Communicate early and often about the importance of target learners and performers in rapid prototyping solutions.

• Implement agile contracts between team members and stakeholders outlining expectations for involvement and decision-making.

• Develop skills and competencies in facilitating agile teams.

Myth 3:
Organizational decision-making behaviors have little effect on agile development teams.

An agile design and development approach will be challenging in an organization that is not comfortable providing and receiving feedback at all levels. A lack of transparency in decision-making boundaries can also be a barrier to success.

Consider an example. A high-ranking sponsor has empowered a cross-functional team to design a new onboarding program for the company. The team is composed of a range of stakeholders, including the line of business, subject matter experts, human resources, the development team and recent new hires. One key stakeholder is too busy to be part of the process.

Flash-forward several months, and the team has cycled through a series of rapid, incremental prototypes resulting in a strong, aligned solution to the problem. Then, when the solution is shared, it is killed by the “sniper stakeholder” — the one who was too busy to be part of the process — thereby eroding the trust of the team in its leadership.

An agile process requires ownership and active participation of key stakeholders from start to finish through all the iterations of design and development.

Myth-busting considerations for talent development or management:

• Promote transparency in decision-making.

• Empower agile teams to make decisions.

• Commit to problem-solving.

• Discourage sniper stakeholder behavior by setting clear expectations for the availability and engagement of the stakeholders. 

• Communicate early and often the importance of participation and engagement.

Myth 4:
Budgeting processes have little effect on agile development.

Because of the evolutionary nature of the approach, agile initiatives require flexibility in estimating budgets. An agile team must feel confident that the budget can adapt to its evolving understanding of the project needs or it will cease to adapt. Instead of requiring a fixed cost estimate, an organization could shift to incremental funding. Another approach is to tie estimates or funding to the level of effort expended during the process, rather than to pre-set milestones.

Myth-busting considerations for talent development or management:

• Incorporate budgeting and finance stakeholders into the process early.

• Reinforce the expectation that an agile process will require flexibility in key business processes such as setting timelines, budgets and measuring progress.

• Place a greater focus on value than on cost.

• Educate stakeholders and team members on the importance of prioritizing requirements.

Myth 5:
An agile approach works for everything.

Given the recent buzz around agile design and development, some organizations might feel pressured into shifting much of what they do to an agile approach. But in reality, an organization can benefit from both traditional and agile approaches. In a growing number of projects, some are even incorporating a hybrid approach, soliciting frequent feedback on incomplete prototypes to refine an appropriate learning solution.

In simple terms, if the desired solutions cannot be easily articulated or have a great deal of unknowns, then an agile, iterative approach might be a powerful tool. For example, if you are designing a learning solution for an evolving business process, an agile approach would be appropriate. However, if you are designing a linear Web-based course on an approved policy or procedure using an established template, a traditional approach would be more efficient.

In either case, talent managers should be prepared to present a business case to support the chosen approach (Figure 2).

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An agile approach is appropriate when one or more of the following three conditions exists:

1. A high degree of uncertainty: The content is not stable or documented. The performance context is not well-defined. The initiative’s goals, budget and timeline are evolving. Stakeholders are unsure of or cannot agree on the requirements of the final product.

2. A high degree of complexity: The content and performance context is complex and challenging to learn. There are a large number of subject-matter experts and stakeholders, requiring an evolutionary feedback process.

3. Uniqueness or novelty: The solution is unique and includes new learning technology, emerging content or new performance content.

Myth-busting considerations for talent development or management:

• Establish selection criteria for agile training and development projects.

• Embrace a hybrid approach to development.

• Include a devil’s advocate in the decision-making process.

Agile Team Skills

Of course, a certain amount of talent is necessary for successfully agile teams, but there are specific skills that team members should have developed:

• Strong process leadership to shape a vision and deliver an optimal solution.

• Ability to identify the real stakeholders and their critical success factors — cost, quality, time.

• Problem-solving mentality to manage the various dimensions of an issue.

• Ability to work comfortably with ambiguity.

• Progressively build confidence and remove doubt or mistrust, which establishes commitment.

• Provide attention to both the client relationship and the technical process and deliverable.

• Consistently clarify expectations and probe for underlying concerns.

• Assertively express team needs and deal with resistance.

• Authentically ask for and provide feedback.

• Ability to communicate effectively and efficiently.

Above all, an agile approach requires commitment on the part of an organization to shift established norms and teams of people with particular skills who are ready to take ownership of a project from start to finish. Using an agile approach should also be considered on a project-to-project basis, rather than a rejection of traditional approach altogether — keeping in mind that it may be best for a project to have aspects of both agile and traditional approaches.