For a Successful Agile Adoption, Put Education First

Education is a vital ingredient in transformations, and it should be one of the first steps you take in moving to agile. Regardless of anyone’s level of agile experience, everyone should go through the same training because the real value of training isn't the lesson plan; it's the shared experience. Everyone across teams having the same foundation is essential.

Having a plan for your agile transformation is important. In this regard, there is no difference between traditional product development and agile product development—planning is everything. It is after the planning that things differ.

One of the valuable lessons in agile is being flexible enough to move things around, to challenge your own timing and preconceptions. This was never truer than in how my approach to education changed during the last agile transformation I worked on.

I was initially working with an organization of twelve to fourteen agile teams using Scrum and kanban. After an initial period of getting to know all the teams and the organization, I followed the conventional agile coaching wisdom and focused on just four teams. I would help a small handful of teams to excel, then move on to new teams and do it again.

The four teams were very receptive, and thanks to building trust early, we worked well together. They understood the principles, asked questions, and wanted to improve. The problem was that every time they started to move forward, something would come along to blindside them, throwing them off their cadence and out of the mindset. Sprint interruptions were one of the most common derailments, with the product owner, management, or the business completely changing the team’s backlog from one week to the next. The basic understanding that letting a team focus would get all the work done sooner just wasn’t there.

No matter how much I worked with the teams, they were not able to take their learning and grow with it, because the rest of the organization was still operating on a different set of values, goals, and objectives.

As a good coach should, I started asking questions across the organization. I found a wide variation in the amount of agile understanding, training, and acceptance. Even among those who had been formally trained in agile, there were large differences in understanding.

Education has always been an important component of my agile transformation plan. In the past, education was part of my one-on-one engagement with individual teams. In a large transformation, this could mean a team continued to operate in the old development model—or, even worse, in the new agile system—and not be trained for months or longer.

What I learned with this large-scale transformation was that when something is taught and who is taught is as important as, if not more important than, what is taught. Education is a vital ingredient in transformations, and it should be one of the first steps you take in moving to agile.

Start Everyone on the Same Page

In this specific case, we had a large organization that was made up of a half-dozen smaller companies, all of which had been doing some kind of agile—with wildly variable levels of understanding and adoption. To move forward, we needed some consistency.

Training shouldn't exclude or include based on background. For me, there are three key guidelines for an agile education:

  1. Create a common vocabulary: I learned this well before agile. If everyone is using the same definitions, it's harder to get confused.
  2. Come up with a consistent set of "agile basics": While every team will have different estimates, if they all learned the same way to estimate from the start, they will at least have the same common ground to work from. There are so many ways to do "agile" that having common training to call on will help prevent confusion as teams start to work together more.
  3. Team-building, small and large, is important: Breaking a team out of its day-to-day push for hands-on, focused training gives members a chance to relax and jell as a team. At a larger scale, in a class of twenty, for example, you can easily have four different teams attending. This chance to work with other teams forms stronger bonds that carry over into work on real projects.

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