Agile project development methodology has become fashionable these days. Leaders watched what it did first for product development and then for software development. They soon realized the principles of cooperative development, many iterations, and short design cycles could be applied throughout business regardless of application or industry.
For leaders today, the question isn’t whether to use Agile, but which Agile method to choose.
Methods Are More Alike Than Not
All Agile methods are based on the Agile Manifesto. The Agile Manifesto specifies multiple iterations, small teams, short timelines, constant validation, and inspections before iterations. This approach can be applied to man things, from software development to learning,” points out Alex Lopes, clinical professor and director of the Technology Consulting Workshop for Operations & Decision Technologies at Indiana University.
Built-for-purpose adaptions have resulted in multiple Agile flavors. SCRUM, Kanban, Lean development, and Dynamic System Development Model (DSDM) frameworks, for example, focus on project management. The Crystal Methods framework streamlines communications within the development team, while Extreme Programming (XP) aids software development and code validation.
Of all the recognized Agile frameworks, Lopes favors SCRUM. “It’s flexible and has processes that are good for project management, but what sets SCRUM apart and makes it powerful is its supplementary approaches,” he says. SAFE, for example, is a scalable version that breaks large projects into smaller sections for development. “This method is used by Deloitte and Ernst & Young, among others,” he notes.
Scott Ambler, senior consultant for Scott Ambler + Associates, prefers Kanban because of its clear workflow visualization. “Having said that, it doesn’t really matter which version of Agile you use,” Ambler continues. “The primary concept of Agile is collaboration and incremental, evolutionary advances. Therefore, my advice is to use a blended approach that fits your situation. Strict adherence to formal frameworks works for the situations for which they were designed, but if you’re not in that situation, you need to think things through. Do what makes sense for you.”
Verizon’s Hybrid Approach
Verizon used a hybrid Agile approach to develop its OPT Groom construction maintenance training program for new workers who maintain telecommunications equipment (notably, telephone pole replacement) throughout the northeastern U.S. “We started with a blank slate and broke the project into 24 manageable chunks. One week later, the new program was ready to deploy and students arrived one month afterward,” says Michael Sunderman, executive director of Verizon Learning & Development. “Development would have taken eons using sequential methods.”
The hybrid Agile approach Sunderman and his team used combined elements from multiple Agile frameworks to develop an efficient methodology for this particular project. Basically, it included sprints from SCRUM for iterative development and workflow visualization from Kanban.
Before development started, Sunderman assembled every piece of hardware and equipment the learners would work with in the field—chainsaws, construction clamps, pole pullers, etc. This ensured course developers could see and handle the equipment themselves. Importantly, developers performed their work together, working in one 4,000-square-foot room for five consecutive days.
Next he assembled the right people. “I brought about 40 people from L&D (including video production and graphics designers), along with safety experts, outside plant operations workers and supervisors, fleet operations managers…anyone who had a say in how this was done.” The L&D experts worked in teams of two, consulting with subject matter experts (SMEs) as needed.
“After 24 hours, the teams made their initial presentations,” Sunderman says. “After 48 hours, they delivered prototypes. If their section taught people to operate a chainsaw, for example, that team would go out to see first-hand what lesson it was trying to get across and perhaps film the experience.” That hands-on experience and immediate access to SMEs helped ensure L&D team members had command of the technical terms and also enabled rapid course corrections from the other disciplines in the room.
Daily presentations enhanced continuity from module to module, too. What stood out most, Sunderman says, was the way the groups revised content based on real-world situations and feedback. “A SME might say, ‘Here’s how to do this,’ but the safety department would say, ‘No,’ and show a different method. Together, they’d develop a safe solution that worked in the real world.”
The last 30 minutes of each day was devoted to preparing for tomorrow. This involving planning for any adjustments and ensuring that each team had the time and tools it needed.
Throughout the week-long development cycle, the project manager used a Kanban board to track workflow. “That way, we knew which team would be ready next for a particular SME or for a review,” Sunderman says.
One of Sunderman’s lessons learned is to pay attention to visual consistency from day one. “If you can use a common template, you’ll save yourself work on the back end,” he says. This will help the modules flow together. He also advises considering which devices learners will use to view the content. The construction maintenance team worked from tablets in the field, so that was the technology platform the development team used.
For any Agile approach to work optimally, have the right people on site. “Some SMEs want to phone in comments. That only works if they’re ready at the moment they’re needed and have good video access,” Sunderman says. Otherwise, reviews take longer and the creative spark wanes.
In addition to SMEs and the L&D team, he also advises having a strong flow manager on site. This person’s role is to keep the development teams on track and coax the groups that want to do more—and there’s always one, he says—to share their work.
Preparing the Agile Mindset
“The biggest issue for any Agile approach is the mental preparation of the company,” Lopes says. This involves a willingness to change, and to trade a certain amount of bureaucracy for rapid, responsive development.
Transitioning from a sequential waterfall approach to Agile can be challenging, particularly for project managers, Amber adds. “They like predictability, but Agile is very flexible.” To embrace the rapid iterations such flexibility enables, they must be able to sever themselves from the overburden of bureaucracy. Some find this threatening, he says.
To help with the transition, Lopes advises defining the early requirements thoroughly while maintaining flexibility for them to evolve as the understanding of the project, market conditions, or priorities change. Developing the requirements just before each new iteration allows the project to evolve despite changing circumstances. “The main principle is to embrace change,” Lopes stresses.
Ultimately, the choice of an Agile framework is less important than the use of one. When making your selection, choose a framework that seems to fit your goals. Then modify it as needed, blending the best aspects of multiple methods, as well as best practices and your own experience. When you do this, you will have an Agile framework that’s effective and efficient for your specific needs. The key element, which all Agile frameworks boast, is that whatever method you use supports the development of multiple iterations and constant evaluations in a short timeframe.
For more information on Agile methods, read the Training Top 10 Hall of Fame white paper, “Turning on a Dime with Agile Learning Design” at: http://whitepapers.lakewoodmediagroup.net/content/turning-dime-agile-learning-design
- Choose an Agile framework that seems to fit your goals. Then modify it as needed, blending the best aspects of multiple methods, as well as best practices and your own experience.
- Use a blended approach that fits your situation. Strict adherence to formal frameworks works for the situations for which they were designed, but if you’re not in that situation, you need to think things through. Do what makes sense for you.
- Define your early requirements thoroughly while maintaining flexibility for them to evolve as the understanding of the project, market conditions, or priorities change.
- Pay attention to visual consistency from day one. If possible, use a common template.
- Keep in mind which devices learners will use to view the content.
- Have the right people on site, including subject matter experts, L&D, and a strong flow manager.
- Be willing to embrace change and trade a certain amount of bureaucracy for rapid, responsive development.