Being agile in turbulent times

A term that I hear being used increasingly and in widening contexts is the word ‘agile’. Often used in the context of agile software development, I’m now hearing phrases like ‘agile leadership’, ‘agile workforce’, and ‘agile organisation’.


It’s not surprising that in today’s fast-changing world, being agile is becoming more important than being the best. The ability to rapidly change direction and adapt to one’s changing environment is vital. The ability to learn, unlearn and relearn are becoming increasingly important.


The trouble is, education, training and performance support solutions can take months or years to develop and launch. In a rapidly changing environment, these timescales are becoming too long: The solution that was right twelve months ago may not be right today.


Agile software development is a great place to find inspiration in how we might become more agile in the design and development of the learning solutions we create. Whether digital learning for education, corporate training, or performance support, here are a few concepts you’ll find useful to try out:


Fail fast – this involves making your mistakes as early and as cheaply as possible in the design process. Learning what doesn’t work is just as valuable as learning what does. Achieve this by talking to users and colleagues about ideas and approaches – use them as a sounding board. Learn all you can about your audience, their preferences and abilities. What has worked before for them and what hasn’t? Use this approach to discount a whole load of possible approaches at minimal cost.


Iterate – once you have a potential idea, develop a series of rapid iterations. Sketch it out quickly, try different approaches, get feedback from your audience, and modify and repeat the cycle. Each iteration will bring you nearer to the optimum solution. Here you are working on paper or in low-fidelity digital wireframes, so changes are quick and easy to make. Investing your time here will pay dividends when you come to prototype your solution.


Prototype – a prototype is typically the key part of the solution mocked-up into something functionally resembling the final product. Prototypes can be very basic, even created with paper and card. They can also be artworked digital mock-ups with interactivity, so they both look and feel like the actual end product – or anything in between. The fidelity of your prototype should be the minimum you need to test the main assumptions of your approach.


Minimum viable product (MVP) – this is exactly what it sounds like. From the proposed solution (that you verified with a prototype), what is the absolute minimum that may be developed to meet the education / training / performance need that you have? You will have to think very hard about the functionality: what is critical and what is secondary. Also, consider that it may be acceptable to create an MVP that achieves 80% of the outcome you want, but that can be deployed in 40% of the time to build the final product.


Evaluate, refine and enhance – having launched the MVP to your audience, evaluate its success. Is it achieving what you hoped? Is it making enough of a difference? If so, brilliant – don’t develop it further; move your focus to the next organisational challenge or opportunity that you want to address. If it’s not having the impact you’d like (it is, after all, a minimum viable product), how might it be improved? Of the functionality that you left out of the MVP, what would make it more effective? Answer these questions by both observing and talking to your users – and then iterate. Plan for one or two further releases to enhance the solution, increase the impact and get all the value from it you can.


What we’re describing here includes elements of ‘human-centred design’ – that is, putting the users at the heart of the design process. Too often, learning solutions are produced based on what is easy for the producers / developers to create, not what is right for the audience.


Taking this more agile approach to designing and developing digital learning solutions will mean that you’ll settle on a better solution, get a first MVP version of it released more quickly, and be able to enhance it (if needed) afterwards to maximise impact. Give it a try. Your learners will thank you for it, and so will your organisation.



Written by Rob Hubbard


Rob Hubbard will be speaking at OEB in the following session: Business EDUCA: Designing Rapid Solutions to Emerging Business Problems


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