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Implementing Agile on a Learning and Development Team

This blog was originally published in 2019 and has been updated.

When you think about implementing Agile methodologies, do you think of IT teams? If so, you are not alone. In practice, Agile methodologies such as Scrum and Kanban have been predominately adopted by IT teams due to the type of work these teams release, but using Agile in learning and development (L&D) can take your team to new heights.

Agile Project Management for L&D Teams

Non-IT teams may struggle with breaking down their work into smaller pieces to deliver within a shorter timeframe and therefore may be hesitant to adopt Agile. As an instructional designer, I was used to the traditional waterfall approach; I could plan for all my deliverables up front and choose a designated time when they were all due, which was typically several months down the line.

Instructors often cope with factors that can influence the development timeframe for any training document. Example obstacles include a change of scope, the system not being ready, undefined processes, key decisions not yet made, role changes being in process, the unavailability of the subject matter expert, etc. It just did not seem possible to complete any substantial asset in a short timeframe—until I saw Agile in action.

I worked on a L&D Scrum team with three other instructional designers to develop learner-to-performer journeys and training materials for a client whose IT organization was going through an Agile transformation. What better way to design and develop training for newly forming Agile teams than to work and progress as an Agile team ourselves?

Benefits of Implementing Agile in Learning and Development 

Our team of designers acted as the traditional development team in the Scrum model. Our team had a Scrum master who ensured the team followed Scrum practices, removed obstacles, managed risks, and provided an environment for continuous improvement.

Instead of the traditional product owner, who owns the vision and requirements for the work (we did a lot of this as instructional designers), we had what we call a backlog manager. This role managed the intake of our work from the business and helped us track and prioritize what we worked on. On many projects, the Scrum master and product owner split the work of a typical project manager.

Agile Techniques for Learning and Development

Though we had our challenges while adjusting to a new way of working, we became a high-performing Scrum team, releasing deliverables every three weeks. In order to reach this point of success, however, our team needed to have the following criteria in place.

Remove Barriers

Have a scrum master who removes barriers. Momentum can significantly slow if the team is not able to adapt and push through development blocks. Having a scrum master who is highly engaged, is willing to find answers, and knows how to help the team shift priorities allows the designers to continuously stay productive throughout each sprint.

Set Clear Priorities

Having clear priorities filter down from project leadership was also critical for our team to manage the intake requests received from numerous business stakeholders. On our team, the backlog manager and Scrum master attended weekly priority meetings to provide and receive updates on work for our team. This helped us plan faster and more effectively for each sprint and provided the business with deliverables that added the most value for them as quickly as possible.

Align with Business Needs

Lastly, the notion of being pulled to the work was critical for our team to maintain momentum. This meant that we only worked on assets that aligned with current business needs so that our subject matter experts were engaged to support.  As many instructional designers experience, we were asked to develop certain assets, but because the business did not have an urgent need for those assets, when we found gaps or had questions on the content we were provided, we struggled to get support as our subject matter experts were being pulled into higher priority tasks. This slowed down design and development significantly.

We solved for this through the stories we tracked on our Scrum board each sprint. We created a story solely for content review and curation, and if sufficient content had not been provided, that was separated from design and development to ensure the designer had all that they needed when it was time to develop. This not only put more ownership on the business to provide the needed material before development started, but it also helped limit rework for the designer if development started too early.

How Agile Training Development Can Improve Your L&D Strategy 

Using Agile methodology in L&D was effective for our team to continually have a steady stream of work throughout the project. It also helped us manage scope and deadlines when we planned the work, and we completed each sprint ahead of time, with stretch goals to take on more work if time allowed.

This helped ensure the team did not get overloaded but still challenged us to complete more within the sprint. Using the Agile approach gave our team the ability to release training content quicker so our end users could start using the content when they needed it. Agile also allowed us to receive feedback early so we could iterate on it and apply that feedback to future assets we developed.

The Benefits of Implementing Agile Training Development for Your Team 

Agile is not just for IT developers. If implemented effectively, being Agile is a fast and efficient way to produce on-demand training for our clients. Even if your team is not set up with a Scrum master and product owner, your project manager can fill this role by helping the team plan and prioritize work to focus on and complete within shorter timeframes.

Even if your deadlines are months down the line, working in sprints can help ensure steady progress is made, and daily standup meetings allow all team members to stay informed of progress and any barriers that arise. At the end of each sprint, team members reflect on what went well and what did not, which helps the team to continuously improve the processes going forward.

There are many benefits to working this way for both the project team as well as for the client. Give Agile a try and see how you like it!

Discover more tips for using Agile techniques for your L&D team and learn how you can transform your workforce with agile learning.

About the Authors

Michelle Crowe
Michelle is a Business Consultant at GP Strategies who brings meaningful strategies and solutions to companies undergoing a transformational change. She works with enterprise leaders and managers to help drive, support, and sustain a change to lead to successful adoption within the organization.

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