Why your Agile training doesn’t work
For most people, when they think Agile Training, they once thought Scrum training. Today, they might think SAFe Training. Both are common. But, they both follow similar formats for the majority of people. The typical setup is 1, 2 or more consecutive days of training in a classroom. The delegates are then let back into their workplace. In many cases, the new learners go back to work and are then supported by a coach. It is the optimal model for ease of training, cost-effectiveness and, in many cases, testing and certification. It is not optimal for learning or transformation and leads to poor results.
Here’s why your agile training doesn’t work.
The Power of Forgetting
Your memory is a wonderful thing. But it’s fragile, and many people don’t know how it works. Some people are blessed with great memories. Others aren’t quite so good. But, everyone can train to be better.
In many introductions to agile, the Agile Manifesto is described in detail; 4 Value Statements and 12 Principles that describe what agile means. Over the last ten years, I’ve been running studies on how well people remember the manifesto. Bear in mind many of the people I talk with are already interested in agile. You’d think the manifesto that started everything off would be a key thing to remember. However, and it doesn’t matter which group I work with, most people don’t remember more than 3–5 of the Principles. Most people can remember portions of the Values, but they come off confused. Unfortunately, our brains aren’t designed to remember these things. Remember, these are people who are interested. Imagine, if there are people in your organization who don’t care what agile is — what’s the likelihood they’ll remember any of them. The agile manifesto has been a beacon of change in the software industry it’s hard to criticise, but if there was one downfall, it’s that it is hard to remember. Luckily it was written down so we can all go and refresh ourselves from time-to-time!
Now, given most of us can’t remember the four value statements and twelve principles with any clarity, what’s the likelihood we’re also going to remember all of the different aspects of Scrum (or SAFe which has even more content!)? The answer is not much. One month after learning something new, the amount of knowledge retained is around 25%. Even an hour after leaving the room the amount will be about 50%. This study has been repeated many times, but the original data was collected by Hermann Ebbinghaus who painstakingly captured the data.
I can hear people now saying to themselves ‘well, that’s why we have a coach so they can remind us’. I’ll come to that a bit later — it’s perhaps not the best solution.
Your work environment has a lot of impact on what you might remember. If you head straight back to the office, and there is no opportunity to practice, or you don’t have a coach to remind you, then the likelihood of any retention of knowledge is very low. If, however, you are fortunate to go back to a team who is working in a new way then things will indeed be better. There is a danger though. You go back and fall into your existing role. Most people stick to a single position for some time. And team composition can stay static over long periods of time. There is a benefit for this, but it doesn’t necessarily aide learning.
If you go to the same office every day and everyone sticks to their job after a while what you will remember is what you have done, not what you were taught. But you might not know the difference. You are shaped by your environment. The best way to combat this problem is to go into different contexts. Think about what you’ve learned in different areas. Go to various offices. Observe other teams. Apply some of the ideas to things outside your day-to-day job. You strengthen learning when you experience the same content in different contexts. And as many different contexts as possible are helpful. For instance, change team roles and composition. Change locations. Change work patterns. Each time you alter a piece of the context, learning is improved.
One of the most significant problems with the standard two-day training course is that there isn’t time to consolidate learning. When learning anything new, there are two main aspects to consider. The first is the storage strength. The second is the retrieval strength. A neat trick of our brains is that we don’t forget anything. That is, once you’ve seen it or heard it; it’s in — 100%. Storage strength never diminishes. But, the problem isn’t storage. It’s retrieval strength that’s the problem. And this is where memories can become confused. They can be altered without us knowing. And there are times when we can’t even bring to mind key pieces of information. Retrieval is the thing that needs constant work. Our brains filter out things that aren’t important. That doesn’t mean we ‘lose’ the memory; it just means our brains don’t work out a way to retrieve it. Now, here’s another freaky fact about our brains. We tend to remember things that we have once learned and then forgotten. So, to better learn something for the long term we need to learn it, forget it and re-learn it. And this improves further if we go back to the same material on a regular basis. It allows us to keep forgetting and re-strengthen our ability to retrieve the memory.
Given the need to forget and re-learn to solidify new concepts better, going back into an environment that provides a full-time coach can be less than optimal from a learning experience. Assuming that coming out of the initial training the delegate goes straight into a situation of being coached then the likelihood of forgetting diminishes. Everything learned in the training course gets strengthened in memory. But, it’s the second part, retrieval strength, that is key. If new concepts aren’t retrieved on a regular basis, they will diminish, and the investment in training is wasted. As soon as the coach leaves, the ability for the team to continue wanes.
The foolishness of fluency
The other problem with coaching is the danger of fluency. It’s linked to the point above about having time to forget. If we try to learn by rote, it can feel like we remember it. The question is how long was it before the first learning session and the next one. If there was an hour, then the retrieval effort isn’t great. If it’s only a day, then it still might not be that great. You’re not genuinely flexing the muscle. And then, it’s easy to fool ourselves into believing we know the answers and we won’t forget it. If you have full-time support out of the gate, it’s really easy to assume we know everything there is to know. But, it leads to a state of being closed-minded to new learning. Everything seems to fit into our brains easily. This is something that requires vigilance and an openness to keep testing ourselves as to whether we truly understand a topic. One way is to immediately start the process of trying to teach others the concepts you’ve learned. As the saying goes, if you really want to understand a topic, try to teach it! Don’t forget to get feedback from people you know to be experts. Staying humble and open is good.
Mixing things up
A big problem with nearly all agile training is that it is single methodology focused. There have been studies done on why some people test well and why others don’t. There have also been studies on how quickly a new skill can be learned and then how effectively that ability can be applied in a final test or over a longer-term. What’s interesting is that there is a similar problem in both sets of studies. It would be intuitive to believe that focusing on a single concept over and over will lead to the fast learning outcome. In one way that is true, however, when people interleave many different ideas into single study sessions, each of the concepts become better understood. Most importantly though, in test scenarios interleaved learning outperforms serial, single topic learning in a big way. The reason? Part of learning a broad subject is to determine which strategy to employ in different situations.
For instance, imagine you’re learning maths — you are learning about quadratic equations. For a single session, all you do is learn about quadratic equations. So, every question that you come across you know it’s a quadratic equation. You don’t need to think about it. Now imagine you’re interleaving quadratic equations, simultaneous equations, and surds into a single session. For each question, the first thing you have to do is determine which type of problem it is. That muscle is something that doesn’t get exercised in single-topic sessions. Now, place yourself in an exam — the first question comes up. Is it a question about quadratics or surds? How do you identify it? That’s why single topic studies give the illusion of fast learning, but can lead to more mediocre test results and performance of skill in the future. The most effective learning happens when topics are interleaved.
For people learning the piano, the same problem and solution exist — practicing scales and playing in one key leads to worse results. Create sessions where you move from one key to another, and your skill level will improve. It even exists in physical sports and activities. For instance playing badminton and figuring out which serve to use and accurately executing it. In the book, How We Learn, Benedict Carey covers these examples, plus others with all of the studies and data points. The most important thing for you to take away is — Single topic learning is NOT the most efficient way of learning a new topic.
Many people who study Scrum as their first interaction with Agile struggle to fit it into a corporate context. Those who go onto looking at Kanban tend to prefer the experience. It’s designed to be more contextual sensitive. That’s not to say Scrum isn’t great. It is. But only once it’s used in the right context. When considering your Agile training, find a course that covers multiple methods and a way of discerning context!
A big problem
When you’re learning a new methodology or framework, the goal usually is to learn the practices and techniques. But, it’s much more powerful to have a big problem to work through. Something that can occupy your mind for more extended periods. We are designed to hunt out answers and forage for information when we have a goal or problem to solve. It’s great if you know how to run a stand-up, do sprint planning or even do cost of delay calculations and big room planning sessions. But, to what end? What’s the big problem you’re trying to solve? What’s the best way to deliver your work? Do the techniques help, hinder or is there no difference? Most of the training courses I’ve seen focus on the mechanics and not the outcomes — what’s your goal? As you learn new tips, tricks and techniques with a focus on a big problem, your brain can work on things even when you’re not thinking about it. It’s part of the value of having spaced learning. Your brain loves working on tough, wicked problems and you’ll learn much more to make a difference. It even works when you’re not directly thinking about it. It’s great to think you’re learning without even trying.
Why is all this important?
A lot of money is spent on education and training every year. But, there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the skills and capability inside our organizations — recently it was stated that over $50bn was spent per year on leadership training, but only 15% of enterprises said they were satisfied with the strength of their leadership bench. There is also a general belief that talent coming out of schools isn’t of the right standard to be useful inside our businesses at the start. The problem is that much of the education and learning approaches aren’t actually designed to develop skills and capability — it’s intended to pass exams, gain certificates or implement a specific method. In Agile training today, there is a lot of good feeling about the ‘teaching from the back of the room’ concept. This is for a good reason — self-directed, self-paced learning is incredibly valuable. But we need to consider what happens once learners leave the classroom. It might be the most amazing two days of your life, but if it doesn’t solve the problems described above in a structured way, it will not be the most effective use of money.
Work-based, context learning is the way forward. They should be spread out over time with activities that are designed to adapt to different contexts. If they cover multiple methods and frameworks and allow people time to consolidate learning by focusing and solving more significant problems then it will lead to a better outcome and will be ‘stickier.’ These don’t have to be more expensive than the stack ’em high bulk classroom training. The internet, distance learning, and technology allows us to do that at a reasonable cost.
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