"It's Really Quite Stunning" – One Company's Experience Bringing Agile to L&D

May 8, 2017

The Sky Learning and Development and Communications team is remote, but they still managed to get everyone in the photo. Tracey Waters, center, is the leader of the bunch.

It’s not as if Tracey Waters was struggling in her role this past summer.

At the time, she had spent the last eight years working at Europe’s largest entertainment company, Sky. Over those eight years, she moved up the ranks to become Head of People Development and Communications, where her performance reviews were strong and her team was meeting the traditional standards for a learning and development (L&D) department.

And yet, Tracey believed they could do better.

She believed the classic approach to L&D she had used up to that point – define, design, deliver – was too slow to implement and too top-down, instead of bottom-up. Often, she felt her L&D team was solving problems too late, in ways that were not flexible, accessible or personal enough for learners.

“We felt there was a lot of waste in traditional learning and development in time, effort and money,” Tracey said. “It wasn’t getting to people what they needed, when they needed it. We wanted to challenge ourselves to help the organization learn without resorting to traditional means, and we didn’t see digital as the whole answer.”

So she began talking with her eight-person team and seeking other ways to approach L&D at Sky. During that search, she came across a book by Jeff Sutherland entitled Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time. She read it in a weekend and began thinking Scrum – a form of Agile Project Management – was the solution she was looking for.

“Tracey and I had been exploring different options. She suggested I read the book, and it detailed a mindset and process that would solve many of the issues we were looking to solve,” Sky Digital Learning Manager James Perez, who works on Tracey’s team, said. “After further researching it and talking with our tech teams, who were also using Agile, I became more and more convinced.”

Inspired and buoyed by James’ support, Tracey brought the idea of Agile to her L&D team. While she admitted it would completely change their day-to-day lives, she promised it would be just a three-month experiment. If people wanted to go back to the way things were after those three months, they’d retire Agile and run things like they had been run, Tracey said.

Except that never happened. Now, nine months in, her team has fully adopted this new approach, they are producing learning solutions faster than ever before and are utilizing learner feedback more than ever before.

“Since we adopted Agile, all the old problems we faced – lack of metrics, addressing needs too slowly, having silos on our team, not being learner-focused enough – went away,” Tracey said. “It’s really quite stunning.”

What caused Sky’s L&D team to adopt Agile

Before August of 2016, Sky’s L&D team was structured in a traditional fashion. There were eight L&D people under Tracey each assigned to a specific tract of work – say, a person dedicated to manager development, another person dedicated to graduate development – and they operated using the classic “define, design, deliver” approach. In software development terms, they call this a waterfall approach.

So what’s so bad about that? Here were Tracey and James’s three biggest concerns with that system:

  • It took too long to release learning solutions. As a center of expertise, Sky’s L&D team was responsible for setting the focus and priorities for learning, including leadership and management development, Tracey said. And yet, using the define, develop, deliver approach, often creating a solution could take several months, as her team would try to come up with something comprehensive and slick. By then, often the problem had changed or the need wasn’t as great, and by trying to be everything for everyone, it wasn’t uncommon to find it only met part of the needs of the learners, she said.
  • Making learning solutions more learner-centric. Going along with the last point, it would take several months for a learning solution to be released. At that stage, it was more difficult and slow to incorporate feedback and make changes, as it affected almost every aspect of the solution. Tracey wanted to match organizational priorities with a more bottom-up approach where learner needs and feedback were put at a premium.
  • Her team was too siloed. In Tracey’s eight-person team, each tract of work was assigned to a person or two. There were a few problems with this. First off, the work on those assignments – say, recent graduate training – would be burdensome during some months of the year (August, September) and slow in other times (December). Second, being siloed meant a singular program was only as strong as the person assigned to it, instead of as strong as the whole team. Third, she believed it made for a less engaging team culture.

How Agile addresses those three main concerns

The reason Tracey was so excited about Agile was because it addressed the three main concerns she had with the define, design, deliver (aka ‘waterfall’) approach. Agile ensures:

  • Problems are solved as quickly as possible. The whole point of Agile is to release a prioritized solution as quickly as possible via a minimum valuable product (MVP). The point is get a solution – and sometimes just a prototype of a solution – to learners ASAP and then to gather as much data and feedback as possible from both learners and managers; and then adjust, adjust, adjust. Using Agile, Tracey’s team now releases a solution within two weeks (four weeks max).
  • Learner feedback is at a premium. Going along with the last point, Agile is a much more bottom-up (in this case, learner-focused) approach. Because solutions are released quickly and feedback is such a premium, it’s learners and managers who help shape solutions the most.
  • There are no more siloes on her team. No longer is Tracey’s team siloed. Now, for each solution, a sprint team will be assigned to it and they’ll work on it for two weeks (with eight people on her team, she has room for two sprint teams). After, she’ll work with her team, guided by the business needs, to determine the next highest priority project, and assign another sprint team to tackle it. “I can’t understate the importance of having our entire L&D team work across all solutions,” Tracey said. “We have no single points of failure and the benefit of collective experience.”

There was also another byproduct of this approach – more data. Because feedback and data is so rigorously collected from both learners, their managers and learners’ performance, Tracey and the team have a much clearer view of how effective her solutions are.

“My old weekly reports to my boss, they were very narrative-based,” Tracey said. “It almost felt like I had to justify my existence."

“Now, I find myself having to take data out of my reports because there is just so much to report and the story is so compelling,” Tracey continued. “Using data, we can provide much sharper insights into exactly how well our solutions are performing.”

What Agile looks like for L&D

So what does Agile in L&D mean, exactly? Let’s use a simple real-life example of a project Tracey’s  team took on: improve the development program for recent graduates new to Sky.

There’s some basic tools that the Sky team use as they’re remote: Google hangouts, Trello and Slack. Otherwise, a simple whiteboard is enough if the team is co-located. Additionally, 15-minute daily stand-up meetings are required, so the team stays on top of progress and issues. But let’s jump into the example with Sky.

For the program for recent graduates, a four-person sprint team was assigned to complete it over a two-week period. It started with the L&D team realizing it needed to do some intensive research to better understand the project scope and what exactly were the biggest concerns recent graduates faced.

To master this, the sprint team talked with the new graduates themselves, people who went to last year’s more traditional graduate programs, the managers of new graduates and the graduate experience manager. From that, they had some understanding of the biggest concerns they needed to address with the development solution.

Next, they planned a list of ‘tasks’ (as they are known in the team) that needed to be completed to make the solution a reality. Tasks aren’t assigned in a self-organizing team. Instead, sprinters pick any task they like and complete it, then pick another. It just all needs to be done by the sprint deadline, which takes lots of team collaboration.

A week later, the tasks were completed and the beginnings of an MVP – minimum valuable product – was born. In this case, the team used an app to deliver digital content to the desktop and phones of the graduates before, during, and after a group session. The face-to-face one-day session involved a challenging business experience, which required them to test their skills and gain new ones. The output of that experience was quickly made visible to other graduates for feedback.

During this sprint, the product owner is involved throughout, so they have influence over all aspects of the solution – and aren’t surprised by the outcome. Using Agile ways of working, in two weeks a new graduate development solution was born.

After, the team held a ‘retrospective’ meeting at the end, which is essentially a review-and-reflection conversation. Here, the team discussed what went well and what could have made the sprint even better. The team then agrees on what to try differently in the next sprint to either amplify or change, in an effort to always be improving.

The next big step was monitoring feedback and learner data from that solution. While Tracey’s sprint teams are working on other projects, feedback is rigorously collected from learners and their managers on the effectiveness of the new graduate solution. When a sprint team focuses again on graduate development, that feedback will be incorporated to further improve it.

What adopting Agile means to you

Tracey and James fully admit Agile is a massive change from what most L&D teams are used to. And it also requires giving up a lot of the things L&D teams like to do: namely big-bang, comprehensive programs with multiple components, and instead making the learning as flexible, accessible and personal to the learner as possible.

“You almost have to stop being L&D,” Tracey said. “It’s like a complete career change. One day you’re working in HR and the next in the tech department. It’s a completely different mindset and approach.”

James added, “You shouldn’t dip your toe into Agile, or else you’ll likely fall back into the old way of doing things. If you are going to try Agile for L&D, embrace it fully for a few months to see if it’ll work for you.”

Using Agile, Tracey’s team has found agile-designed learning experiences utilizing more practical, conversation-based sessions and more digital tools like LinkedIn Learning have proven to be a more effective (and more cost efficient) learning solution.

“We know it’s early days, but the way we work as a whole team and the focus on learner experience and data is transformational,” Tracey said.

But, even beyond results, it’s worth noticing the concept behind Agile. Really, it’s this idea of “always be learning”, to come up with something based off initial findings and then continuing to improve that solution through feedback. It also emphasizes collaboration, where the entire team gets smarter over time, instead of a reliance on individual experts.

That’s the exact mindset most L&D teams want their employees to adopt. What better way to reinforce that behavior than to model it yourself?

*Image of Tracey Waters and James Perez (center, sitting) with the rest of the partially remote Sky People Development and Communications team.

You can read more about Sky’s agile L&D team efforts here