How do we learn? This is one of the seemingly simple but important questions you and your team members need to ask yourselves and think through. We are professionals—obviously, we know why we learn and what to learn. However, many of us seldom think enough about how we learn.
Listen to Yourself
This is not a question that comes to you from an external source, such as one of your team members or someone who is authorized to assess your performance. You should be asking yourself this question. Most of us are good at writing a bulleted list of three to five items to help, such as reading, attending training programs, discussing with team members, problem solving, and watching videos. When we do this it is imperative to go further and ask, “Did I do any of these during the recent six or twelve months? Or is this just a wish list or something that happened a long ago?” It is imperative because it helps you validate and revise the items in your list. Try this in your next team meeting or coaching session.
Learning is a lifelong process. We put ourselves on the path to success when we know our primary and secondary modes of learning and use those again and again to better ourselves. This holds good for all of those who are involved in agile projects, but especially for team members.
According to management consultant Peter Drucker, self-knowledge enables you to understand your way of learning. Some of us learn by reading, participating in discussions, attending training programs, watching and observing the happenings around us, exploring and experimenting, practicing, or on-the-job experience. According to the 70/20/10 formula, which is a concept developed by Morgan McCall, Robert W. Eichinger, and Michael M. Lombardo at the Center for Creative Leadership, 70 percent of learning happens through practice, hands-on experience, or problem solving; 20 percent of learning happens when we work with experts or coaches, observe them, and listen to their feedback; and 10 percent of learning comes from formal training.
An Opportunity to Learn
We are no longer part of a traditional waterfall world where we wait until the end of every project to reflect and learn something. We are in an iterative and incremental world with an abundance of opportunity to learn, apply what we learn, improve, and ensure that we’re putting the lessons learned into practice in order to deliver meaningful solutions to our customers. This is an opportunity we had never chosen to leverage systematically in the past.
We now can learn from day-to-day work experience, team retrospectives, and customer feedback. We can gain maximum benefits from this opportunity when each of us answers the question ‘How do I learn?’ with conviction.
Walking the Talk
Whether you and the rest of your agile team are “walking the talk” is determined by how all of you learn what you learn and apply those lessons learned at regular intervals.
Agile methods nurture perpetual learning and sharing among team members. This is a step above self-learning because it requires open communication, trust, collaboration, and sharing. This happens inside your team.
An agile effort requires adequate comfort and courage in order to ask questions, share ideas, and understand various points of view from all team members. It does not encourage or provide long bouts of solitude. It is rooted in teamwork and collaboration.
Perpetual learning in a group setting is a necessary factor for the progress of agile teams. Group learning and collaborative learning are among the effective ways agile teams learn. Action orientation is what maximizes learning and transforms knowledge into action.
The first step is to learn from your daily experience, team interaction, and retrospectives. The next step is to apply what you learned as early as you can. This is what helps you improve. This requires collective decision making and action orientation, which is just getting things done. This is, again, a collaborative team activity. A fine balance between people orientation and task orientation is what enables agile teams to put into practice what they learn from iteration to iteration. It is easier said than done. It requires a lot of teamwork and collaborative spirit. A good source about how to turn team retrospectives into meaningful actions is the book Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. Action orientation and timely course correction ensure positive reinforcement in agile teams. Positive reinforcement enhances team satisfaction and reflects in throughput and quality. This leads to customer satisfaction.
When learning is ineffective or action orientation is absent, agile teams find it unfulfilling or demotivating moving from iteration to iteration. That is not a good sign. It causes diminishing results. Without effective retrospectives, agile teams have trouble maintaining their agility.
Delivering Working Software
Delivering working software in short iterations again and again at a sustainable pace is very challenging in your first one or two projects because it’s unfamiliar territory for you and your team members or your business users. Let me tell you a story. Several years ago, one of my project teams chose to deliver in short iterations. We took on more than we could deliver to demonstrate our good intentions. We accommodated changes generously any time and every time. I hear you saying, “That’s crazy! That’s not agile!” Our product owner had a bad case of “feature-itis.” We wanted to prove ourselves by making our PO happy. We feared saying no. We never paused to reflect. We never followed through to get feedback from business users. You can guess what happened next.
Of course, our team members experienced a lot of stress and burned out. It was a clear sign of an unsustainable pace . Cutting the long story short, our approach did not consider learning and the ability to “inspect and adapt.” We had to pause and reflect. We planned for a one-day team meeting offsite to visualize the future of our project. We had to do a major course correction or an overhaul to improve our approach. That is when we realized the power of perpetual team learning, team retrospectives, and learning from customer feedback.
Agile teams have to be disciplined in order to deliver in short iterations and ensure positive reinforcement as they move forward. This is possible when iteration activities happen meticulously. For example, iteration planning—which includes understanding user stories, estimation, creating a work breakdown structure, identifying dependencies, making a commitment according to the team’s capacity, and many other activities—lays a good foundation for the rest of the iteration. Also, the effectiveness of iteration end activities, such as review, demo, and retrospective, enable continual improvement in upcoming iterations.
Learn, Apply, and Improve
These days I start my coaching sessions with the simple question posed earlier: “How do we learn?” I don’t just ask this question. I ask the team members to ask themselves. I encourage team members to spend some time in self-inquiry and find answers. This is done in a group setting. When I initiate this exercise, the participants open up slowly, share their answers, and start conversing. That helps them realize how they learn as individuals and understand the commonalities to maximize team learning. I think this is where agility starts.
You have to go through this “learn-apply-improve” cycle in your team. You learn from two primary sources: team retrospective and feedback from the business user. Collective decisions and action items based on what you learned help your team improve, and that results in positive reinforcement. This is because you went through the learning experience and made a collective decision about what to do next. No one else external to your team came in and told you what to do. Isn’t it such a simple thing to begin with?