Hey Businesses! Those Agile Courses Are Not Training!

Here’s a scenario:

Your business is “going agile” and you have a bunch of new roles appear.  

Suddenly you need to find people from within the company who will soon have a title with the word “owner” in it and they will need to look after a backlog. You need to find people who can be “masters” or “coaches” and they are going to be in charge of your teams, but not “be in charge of your teams” and you don’t call them teams anymore; they are “squads”. Also, you’ll need people to become a “Lead”. You need a lot of “Leads”.

So, you look at who’s available. First in line are the roles that are being phased out to make room for these exciting and strange new positions. You look towards your business analysts, your project managers - actually, all your managers. Surely, they can learn to be these new roles… but how?

You put this question out into the ether and someone answers. Maybe it’s an agile coach that was just hired, maybe it’s a consultant that is helping the business through this change, maybe it’s an employee that’s always wanted to be an “owner” that looks after a backlog, and they have a friend that offers training.

You investigate. There is so much training to choose from! Better yet, the people offering it are happy to come to you and start giving it today! This could solve all your problems. There is a training path for every new role you have. One supplier even organised the options to look like an attractive peacock bloom. How cool is that!?

It is expensive, but you could attain all these roles right NOW. You’ll be able to hit your change targets and get all these new roles trained up and working in no time. The new economy is amazing, it’s almost too good to be true… because it is.

At best, your people come back invigorated, saying they learned a lot and have lots of ideas to try. A few may give it a go with some success, but in a few months' time you are not seeing the performance gains you were expecting. They may even be more stressed now than before they went.

People are still confused about roles and responsibilities. Some of the new roles are frustrated because they have to do double the work now; first they do it the way they were taught in the agile course, then they must reformat their work to be recognisable to other parts of the business.

So why didn’t the training work? Was the information bad? Is there something wrong with your people? Did you waste your money and time?

I’ll go over each of these questions, but the short answer is this:

The training didn’t work because it’s NOT training.

There are three words that often get confused with each other when talking about upskilling.

These three words are Learning, Education, and Training. In everyday life they may be used interchangeably without much consequence. When you begin using these words in terms of a solution for a problem, it can easily create a divide of expectations between people and unintended consequences.

For the sake of this article, I’ll define them by how I use them as a solution.

Learning: for when someone needs information.

Education: for when someone needs to understand and retain information.

Training: for when someone is expected to understand, retain, and apply information and/or skill.

Each of these words have implied obligations from the person delivering the Learning, Education, or Training.

Learning: the person giving the information is obligated to make sure the information is in context to what the receiver needs/wants.

Education: the person giving the information is obligated to test whether the person receiving the information is retaining it and understands it to the level required.

Training: the person giving the information (and/or experience) is obligated to validate whether the person can retain, understand, use, and apply the new skill after.

Many of the major certifications out there for agile are at the Learning level.  

They share a broad spectrum of topics, have some conversations, might play a game to illustrate a point or two, but they often do not test at the end. The instructors can deny certification if they don’t feel the person participated but there is little to no quantitative assessment.  

Some of the Scrum options have tests, and when you get to a higher level you get peer reviewed, and SAFe has a training program built into its implementation, but those options take time and more money than the agile certification courses offered.

Is the information bad?

No. The information is often great. It also tends to be a lot.  

The approach of these course tends to be to be scattershot. A lot of information is shared (sometimes up to 20+ learning objectives ~note not training objectives~ in 2 days) so the student can recognise which is applicable to them, use it and continue learning from there.  

The reality is that the people in these courses can suffer from information overload and have no idea about how to apply it in their immediate job. I’ve seen some instructors address this by making time at the end of their classes help the students plan to apply these skills when they go back to the workplace. It’s a good intention, but often leads to the result discussed in the above scenario (for reasons we will discuss soon).

I’m being very critical of agile courses in the context of being used for training, but I still think they are fantastic in a different context.

I’ve designed and taught a myriad of general agile courses, some certified, some not. I have seen the content of courses lead people to exciting new career paths.  

In most of those circumstances, these people ended up leaving their current business because the course helped them realise their workplace would not support the new role they just learned about. Which leads us to the next question:

Is there something wrong with your people?

In my experience, no.  

In the scenario above, your eager and intelligent employees were told they were going to be the pioneers of these new roles. You told them you were sending them for training so they could come back and show the business how these new roles work. What you failed to do was give them support to make those changes nor did you train the business on how to receive these new roles.

Roles rarely exist in a vacuum. They are part of an ecosystem of responsibilities, relationships, and expectations.  

When you are training a role that is new in a business, it pays to look at who the stakeholders and partners will be interacting with and depending on that role. You’ll need to give these people guidance on what that role is there for, what will change about their way of working because of this role, and what they can expect to rely on in the new role.

If partners or stakeholders are not given guidance on how to support the role change, their expectations will still be rooted in the previous way of working.  

For instance, if a role demonstrates a new skill that makes backlog prioritisation more collaborative and the stakeholder wonders why she must take so much time to work together, when before she used to just tell people what to do… you can expect feedback in the form of frustration instead of being supportive.  

Even if a partner or stakeholder starts open minded to changing their expectations, when the pressure turns up it’s hard to trust new ways of working when you’ve had years of perceived success another way. The need help changing too.

Good general rule: If you’re planning to train a new role, plan to train the role’s ecosystem.

Did you waste your money and time?

Maybe a little, but probably not completely.

In the scenario, you thought your new roles would come back trained and ready to use their new skills in their new roles. You hoped it would answer so many questions, but it has just led to more questions than you had before. In that sense it may have helped you along your path. The different expectations that exist in your business will make themselves heard so they are easier to identify and address. But you have to address them.

I’ve heard it suggested that system/change/integration thinking can be placed around certified or general agile courses to make them training. I half agree. It would certainly help if when you train a new role or skill to consider the change management needed to integrate that role or skill into the business.  

To train a new role or skill to be sustainable, it’s more effective to teach something a person can use right away and get feedback on versus giving them more information than they can apply. It also makes it easier for the supporting roles around it to recognise the new skill being used.  

To do that with a certified agile course you’d have to split it into modules, and it could take months to reach one certification. It’s not the worst idea, but you may have to cover material not relevant to the role to get the certification. If your focus is training, then you’d be better off defining what you need the role to do, and start with a relevant, general agile course to cut up into modules suitable to your working place.

In closing, I have a trick you can apply next time someone suggested certified or general agile courses as a solution.

Ask yourself:

Are you are paying for the agile course because you are investing to attain:

Learning,

Education,

Or,

Training?

If it’s Learning, you are sweet.  

If it’s Education, you may need to add a quantitative test of some sort.  

If it’s Training, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

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