The duality of Agile

The term “Agile” means different things to different people.

To some it’s the powerhouse of efficiency and productivity; whereas to others it’s a vague label at best, or an empty buzzword at worst.

And I can see why the conflict arises: because two forms of agile exist – one with a small “a”, the other with a big “A”.

A young brown hare in a grassy field.

Small “a” agile

Small “a” agile is a 400-year old word in the English language that means to move quickly and easily. In the corporate context, it lends itself to being open to change and adapting to it, while maintaining a healthy sense of urgency and prioritising delivery over analysis paralysis.

It’s a mindset that underscores the concept of the MVP – Eric Ries’s construct of good enough – to get the product or service that your customers need into their hands as soon as possible, so they can start extracting value from it now.

Then you continuously improve your offering over time. Retain what works, and modify or cancel what doesn’t. That way you fail fast and small, while iterating your way towards perfection.

An ornage sticky note pinned to a wall.

Big “A” Agile

In comparison, big “A” Agile is a methodology to manage that way of working.

It provides tools, structures and processes – think sprints, scrums and kanbans – to pin down the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of our work, thereby maintaining clarity over what needs to be done, and baking in accountability to ensure it gets done.

Hence it may be helpful to think of small “a” agile as an adjective and big “A” Agile as a noun; bearing in mind that big “A” Agile might also be used as an adjective to describe a person, place or thing that adopts the methodology.

Regardless, some of our peers rail against Agile as a redundant neologism. As with other trends such as Design Thinking, they argue it’s merely old world practices repackaged in a new box. It’s what we’ve always done and continue to do as consummate professionals.

But I politely challenge those folks as to whether it’s something they really do, or rather it’s something they know they should do.

If a new box helps us convert best practice into action, I’m a fan.

Game changer

As a blogger, I’ve been struggling.

Historically it has been a rewarding pastime for me – both personally and career wise – but it has also been challenging. It’s time consuming, it requires large doses of vulnerability, and on occasion the reaction from my fellow “professionals” has been downright unprofessional.

Combine that with some private matters and a dwindling readership, I’ve been wondering if it’s worth it any more.

Prior to posting I don’t know earlier this year, an illustration tweeted by Harsh Darji convinced me to give it another crack; and I felt passionately enough about transforming conventional digital training into blended learning experiences to follow it up with a potential last hurrah.

Which prompted me to wonder: What do I feel passionate about?

A fuzzy heart shape labelled Over-Thinking leads to a clearly defined heart shap labelled Writing.

After ruminating over the question for a surprisingly long time, I’ve concluded that my passion is nature and its conservation.

I studied environmental biology at uni and got my first full-time job in water management, before the trajectory of my career thrusted me deep into the corporate realm. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just different.

After further pondering, I also recognised that I’m fascinated by cryptozoology. Not so much of the Bigfoot variety – although I do find that entertaining and sometimes informative, especially when the investigators employ cutting-edge technology; but rather more along the lines of whether the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) still exists on the Apple Isle or in pockets on the mainland, or whether big cats (Panthera spp.) roam the Australian countryside.

Having done a fair share of it myself, I can tell you that biological surveying is a tricky business. Traditional methods of identifying the various species that inhabit a given area – eg observation, tracking, scat analysis, cage trapping, motion-sensing photography – are a bit hit and miss, to be frank. To get a sense of the magnitude of the task, imagine trekking through the Amazon forest… you know jaguars live there, but you almost certainly won’t see one.

In that light, finding a cryptid is hard – otherwise they wouldn’t be cryptids. Even when video evidence is forthcoming, it’s infuriatingly inconclusive.

Which leads me to another interest: Environmental DNA. Abbreviated to eDNA, this term refers to the analysis of minute traces of organic matter in samples of soil, water and even air to identify the wildlife that’s present in the vicinity.

I consider eDNA a game changer, not only for cryptozoology but also for mainstream ecology. A case in point is the University of Otago’s search for the Loch Ness Monster. While this foray failed to find the fabled plesiosaur, it did showcase a novel approach to biological surveying that found evidence of a whopping 3,000 species in the water. Not only aquatic animals such as salmon, pike and eel, but also terrestrial animals such as rabbit, badger and vole (presumably because of rain washing detritus into the lake from the surrounding catchment).

I’m so enamoured by eDNA that I urge the scientific community to give it a proper go before we “resurrect” the Tasmanian Tiger via Jurassic Park-style genetic engineering.

A tweet by Ryan Tracey stating: Before we resurrect the Tasmanian Tiger, can we please give eDNA a proper go? It can be done with air samples now.

I’d also be delighted to see it used in the hunt for big cats down under, if not to prove they exist, then to prove that they don’t.

Having said that, I realise eDNA is no magic bullet. Firstly, it’s a snapshot: for example, the University of Otago’s survey failed to identify animals such as seals and otters which are known to visit the loch. Then of course you have the politics of science to contend with: fuelled by anecdotes such as the one about the leopard scat sampled from a local zoo being identified as “dog” by a wary lab.

Despite its limitations, however, I contend that eDNA will revolutionise our study of biodiversity.

DNA strands.

Lest I stray too far off topic, I’ll conclude by reaffirming what we already know about Learning & Development: we also benefit from the advancement of technology.

Amid the rise of virtual reality, artificial intelligence and the metaverse, what do you consider to be our game changer?

Supercharge your digital training

We’ve all been there.

The organisation invests an obscene amount of money in a course library, and after much fanfare and an initial spike of excitement, activity steadily dwindles until the platform resembles a ghost town vacated by all but the most enthusiastic of fans.

Similar problems with learner engagement beset other forms of digital training too; whether it’s the famously low completions rates of MOOCs, or the constant chasing up of laggards who are yet to complete their compliance modules.

So when David Swaddle called out for tips to help fight what he described as “zombie digital learning”, I was all too willing to share the Top 3 pieces of advice that I’ve formulated on my quest to transform conventional digital training into blended learning experiences.

Here they are…

Rusty old car in front of a deserted shack.

1. Make time

Everyone’s too busy and they don’t have enough time to devote to their own learning and development. This has been the case ever since I started my career in this field and probably will remain so long after I retire.

So make time.

Add reminders into your participants’ calendars; schedule learning blocks; benchmark progress by declaring where they should be up by now; and host a complementary social networking group to keep the flame alive.

2. Provide context

Digital content can be generic by design, because it’s intended to scale up far and wide. However our audience may struggle to join the dots between what they see on screen and what they do on the job.

By supplementing the generic content with customised content, we can explain the implications of the former in the organisational context.

And by facilitating live interactive sessions that explore that context further, we reinforce it.

3. Assess application

Whether it’s a fair reputation or not, digital training is notorious for being a tick & flick exercise that fails to change behaviour in the real world.

So we need to ensure that the knowledge and skills that are developed via the learning experience are transferred by the employee to their day-to-day role.

By weaving an application activity into the instructional design – and by assessing the evidence of that application – we make it happen.

Electric sports car recharging

These are by no means the only ways to evolve your digital training.

However I hope that by implementing my three tips, you’ll supercharge it.

I don’t know

Despite its honesty, the humble phrase “I don’t know” is widely feared.

From the fake-it-til-you-make-it mindset of consultants to the face-saving responses of executives, we puny humans are psychologically conditioned to have all the answers – or at least be seen to.

Of course, demanding all the answers is the premise of summative assessment, especially when it’s in the form of the much maligned multiple-choice quiz. And our test takers respond in kind – whether it’s via “when in doubt, pick C” or by madly selecting the remaining options in a quasi zig-zag pattern as they run out of time.

But that’s precisely the kind of behaviour we don’t want to see on the job! Imagine your doctor wondering if a symptom pertains to the heart, kidney, liver or gall bladder, and feeling content to prescribe you medication for the third one. Or any random one in the 15th minute.

Of course my comparison is extreme for effect, and it may very well be inauthentic; after all, the learned doctor would almost certainly look it up. But I’d like to reiterate that in a typical organisational setting, having all the information we need at our fingertips is a myth.

Moreover, as Schema Theory maintains, an efficient and effective worker quickly retrieves the knowledge they need on a daily basis from the network they’ve embedded in their longterm memory. We can’t have our contact centre staff putting our customers on hold every 5 seconds while they ask their team leader yet another question, or our plumber shrugging his shoulders at every tap or toilet he claps his eyes on until he reads a manual. Of course, these recourses are totally acceptable… if they’re the exception rather than the rule.

And notwithstanding being a notch or two less serious than the life and death scenarios with which doctors deal, it wouldn’t be much fun if your loan or lavatory were the subject of a blind guess.

So yes, we humans can never know it all. And what we don’t know, we can find out. But the more we do know, the better we perform.

Two dice showing double sixes

Thus we don’t want our colleagues gaming their assessments. Randomly guessing a correct answer falsely indicates knowledge they don’t really have, and hence the gap won’t be remediated.

So I propose we normalise “I don’t know” as an answer option.

Particularly if a recursive feedback approach were to be adopted, a candid admission of ignorance motivated by a growth mindset would be much more meaningful than a lucky roll of the dice.

I don’t mean to underestimate the shift in culture that would be necessary to effect such a change, but I contend the benefits would be worth it – both to the organisation and to the individual.

In time, maybe identifying your own knowledge gaps with a view to continuously improving your performance will displace getting it right in the test and wrong on the job.

Approaching perfection

I’ve never understood the rationale of the 80% pass mark.

Which 20% of our work are we prepared to do wrongly?

It might explain the universally poor state of CX that companies are evidently willing to wear, but it’s arguably more serious when we consider the acronym-laden topics that are typically rolled out via e-learning, such as OHS and CTF. Which 20% of safety are we willing to risk? Which 20% of terrorism are we willing to fund?

There has to be a better way.

I’ve previously contended that an assessment first philosophy renders the concept of a pass mark obsolete, but went on to state that such a radical idea is a story for another day. Well my friends, that day has arrived.

An arrow pointing from Diagnose to Remediate then back to Diagnose.

Recursive feedback

Back in 2016, the University of Illinois’ excellent mooc e-Learning Ecologies: Innovative Approaches to Teaching and Learning for the Digital Age piqued my interest in the affordance of “recursive feedback” – defined by the instructor as rapid and repeatable cycles of feedback or formative assessment, designed to continually diagnose and remediate knowledge gaps.

I propose we adopt a similar approach in the corporate sector. Drop the arbitrary pass mark, while still recording the score and completion status in the LMS. But don’t stop there. Follow it up with cycles of targeted intervention to close the gaps, coupled with re-assessment to refresh the employee’s capability profile.

Depending on the domain, our people may never reach a score of 100%. Or if they do, they might not maintain it over time. After all, we’re human.

However the recursive approach isn’t about achieving perfection. It’s about continuous improvement approaching perfection.

One arrow with a single red dot; another arrow with a wavy green line.

Way of working

While the mooc instructor’s notion of recursive feedback aligns to formative assessment, my proposal aligns it to summative assessment. And that’s OK. His primary focus is on learning. Mine is on performance. We occupy two sides of the same coin.

To push the contrarianism even further, I’m also comfortable with the large-scale distribution of an e-learning module. However, where such an approach has notoriously been treated as a tick & flick, I consider it a phase in a longer term strategy.

Post-remediation efforts, I see no sense in retaking the e-learning module. Rather, a micro-assessment approach promotes operational efficiency – not to mention employee sanity – without sacrificing pedagogical effectiveness.

In this way, recursive feedback becomes a way of working.

And the L&D department’s “big bang” initiatives can be saved for the needs that demand them.