and Be Agile
Writing for Forbes magazine as we entered 2018, Steve Denning declared:
“…The world is entering a new age: the age of Agile. An unstoppable revolution is now under way in our society, affecting almost everyone.”
The evidence of that revolution is everywhere. Today we expect value to be delivered via the software on our phones and across the web in a seamless, efficient, user-centric way. Whether we are summoning a Lyft or reserving an Airbnb, companies focused on agile technology development are changing the way we interact with the world.
If we apply agile principles to eLearning production, we can achieve an analogous leap forward. ADDIE has long been married to traditional waterfall project management methods. Analysis is complete prior to starting the Design phase, which is then approved prior to finally beginning Development. However, it’s possible (and arguably necessary) for the ADDIE framework to separate from last-century waterfall methods and begin anew for all the same reasons agile has been adopted by software developers. Agile allows eLearning teams to complete better, higher quality modules faster than using a waterfall methodology while still following the principles of ADDIE.
Agile works because it’s iterative.
Agile allows eLearning teams to develop modules iteratively throughout the project. When challenged with producing a suite of eLearning modules—whether 2, 20, or 200—the team rapidly moves through the analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation phases for a single module or even just part of one. Feedback from the project sponsor, subject matter experts (SMEs), and even the learner/performer can be captured and fed back into the production process. The overall creative design is refined, the approach to engaging the learner is honed, and any bugs or glitches with the LMS are resolved. All phases of ADDIE are iterated through as each module is developed, allowing for continuous improvement and no “if I’d only realized at the beginning” moments at project end.
So how can you enable your teams to develop eLearning modules using the Agile methodology? Through an analysis of agile principles in addition to some trial and error, we’ve discovered five essential tools.
1. Morning stand-up meeting.
The eLearning development team meets for 15 minutes at the start of each day. In agile this is called a stand-up meeting, because it doesn’t last long enough for anyone to sit down. This meeting allows the team to quickly resolve any “blockers,” or problems that are preventing work from getting done.
With all roles present and able to weigh in immediately, the stand-up meeting prevents productivity-sapping, reply-all email chains from distracting the team during the workday. Traditional status meetings, which often take place too infrequently to serve as a point of collaboration, are also retired. Instead, the team uses agile software tools to stay informed.
2. Agile project management platform.
When using a waterfall project management framework, teams are in a single phase of ADDIE at any given time, since each phase is completed before the next one begins. When applying agile principles to eLearning production, we work on eLearning modules that are in various phases of ADDIE at the same time. Having a tool to efficiently manage progress is crucial.
Luckily, agile collaboration and workflow software is becoming ubiquitous. From Slack to Trello, teams are leveraging various platforms to stop wasteful email thread searches and eliminate hand-offs. At TiER1, we use Atlassian’s JIRA, because we can customize it to automate our existing, proven eLearning development process. Notifications are sent when a team member is on deck or needed to answer a question. All discussion threads are captured in the tool, giving everyone a complete picture of the module’s history in a single, easily referenced location. With the use of Kanban boards, a graphical representation of every module’s status is at the team’s fingertips.
3. Dedicated project team.
Agile teams are small, cross-functional, and stable in the sense that there is continuity in the membership over time. The members get to know the work and each other as they continuously collaborate. The result is a dedicated team of experts who understand how their unique, individual contributions affect the whole. Instead of instructional designers being siloed from the creative designers, who largely operate independently of the rapid authoring developers, all roles work together at every stage, leveraging agile collaboration and workflow tools. (Check out this article to learn more about cross-functional teams.)
4. Self-organizing teams.
In addition to being dedicated and cross-functional, agile teams are self-organizing. They pull work instead of expecting project managers to assign work to them. This has several benefits over waterfall, top-down project management. Most obvious is that no one waits to be told what to do by a project manager, reducing downtime. Since team members only pull work as they have time to do it, tasks don’t pile up on overloaded team members’ plates while others have too little to do.
Beyond these obvious efficiency gains, however, there is a more profound (if less tangible) advantage of self-organizing teams: they confer autonomy and a sense of ownership. Suddenly, the project manager isn’t responsible for the ultimate success of the project, the team is. Research consistently shows that having greater control over one’s work leads to higher performance, engagement, and quality. (See Drive by Daniel H. Pink for further reading.)
5. Living quality standards.
Finally, a long-standing reason for adopting agile methods is that we rarely know at the beginning of any project exactly what we want the final product to look like. Even if we feel like we do know, over the project’s lifetime, the ultimate objectives might change due to decisions and factors outside the project team’s control.
For eLearning, we build a set of living quality standards simultaneously with module development. Taking an agile approach means developing iteratively, so we don’t have to delay starting a project while we attempt to figure out everything in advance (this issue is commonly known as “analysis paralysis”). Instead, we capture what is essential to the consistency and quality of the modules as an integral part of the iterative process. This provides everyone with a clear blueprint and way to communicate changes without making them beholden to nailed-down, set-in-stone specifications.
Agile’s role in eLearning development.
Agile is here to stay, and organizations are increasingly adopting it as they seek methods that are compatible with the rapid change in their industries and in the indispensable software tools they use. To be able to meet the continuously evolving needs of the organization, learning teams must understand how agile differs from traditional waterfall project management and how they can leverage it in producing eLearning.
The good news is that, not only can agile project teams be highly responsive and produce high-quality work faster, they can foster engagement and innovative thinking among team members, providing additional value to project sponsors and learners.