What Agile/Scrum Can Teach Learning

I was recently immersed in the world of Agile/Scrum during the development process for an online course. Scrum is basically an agile framework to help complete complex projects. Originally formulated as a development tool for software projects, it works well for most projects that are potentially innovative, and it has some interesting implications for learning executives. The deployment of the knowhow is an interesting case study in learning vs teaching.

In many ways Agile/Scrum is a study in the learning process itself. Consider its original application for technology, software, specifically. Traditionally software has been developed under a methodology called “waterfall.” The important elements for the discussion here are how the waterfall method addresses complex development projects. The essence of the method involves detailed planning at the outset with extensive effort placed on the deliverables at completion. Increasingly this complex, comprehensive approach has come under scrutiny as the world becomes ever more dynamic, and rapid change becomes the norm rather than the exception.

So, the central question here is: How does Agile/Scrum address the challenges organizations are facing not only in software development but with change in general? Though those who create the tools likely would never directly call the learning a methodology, I will make the presumption that yes, at its heart, the tool is a practical learning methodology that reaches far beyond the scope of a planning and control tool.

During Agile/Scrum implementation there are three people who play major roles in the process: team members, Scrum master and product owner. Every morning at a scheduled time the team meets in a face to face Scrum for a maximum of 15 minutes. At that daily Scrum each team member shares what they did yesterday, since the last Scrum meeting, what they will do today and what may be impeding or blocking their progress.

In addition to the daily Scrum, the team breaks its tasks down into modules called stories. Breaking down the complete project into modular stories is critically important to the learning activity because chunks are easier for learners to digest. The team is challenged to show development to the product owner to get feedback and suggestions — teams are always self-organizing and autonomous, controlling how they get work down and the attendant results. So, unlike classical quality control where error correction is the primary goal, regular comments from the product owner operate as a feedback loop to guide future activities and priorities. The feedback becomes a kind of disciplined and digestible learning exercise that allows for rapid mid-course correction during the project rather than after the total project is complete.

The learning elements of the methodology are very informative. Known for “head down” working practices, software developers interact person to person during the daily Scrum. This develops valuable interpersonal skills. Rather than being allowed to bury themselves in lines of code, team members are required to accomplish a very desirable set of personal skills such as become good problem solvers.

Looking at and communicating various impediments forces team members to think critically about how to reach a goal. The fact that such impediments often involve other members of the team requires communications skills and further hones collaboration and facilitation skills. The Scrum meeting becomes a daily learning exercise on steroids, a vehicle for cultural change as well as problem resolution mechanism.

So, while my first introduction to Agile/Scrum was in the context of software development where it is widely used, my perspective on it has broadened considerably. In the world of left brained, logical software development the methodology is most often referred to as a planning tool. But my interest here as a learning executive is focused on the communication skill development, problem solving and team building. These are all outcomes a learning leader would be proud to engage in.

If the critical elements work for the highly structured software development environment, I would suggest the learning available there is a good framework for organizational change in any realm where real-time collaboration and project management are factors. Never omit good learning because it comes in an unfamiliar package or industry.

AUTHOR: Michael E. Echols is principal and founder of Human Capital LLC and author of “Your Future Is Calling.”

Reprinted from Chief Learning Officer magazine



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