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Where Is the Learning in Agile?

In a recent conversation at a conference lunch, I asked my peers what one word they would use to describe Agile. There were a few suggestions such as "flexible," "disciplined," and "responsive." When someone pointed the question at me, my answer was, "Learning." By that I mean, "continuous learning."

Have we lost sight of this? Is an adherence to the "practices" of Agile getting in our way of learning? Is the Agile community learning and evolving?

Without a culture of learning, processes take over that allow us to wriggle out of responsibility — a mindset encapsulated in the phrase: "I didn't fail. The Agile methods don't work." I have heard variations of this many times. However, if a specific process doesn't work, the Agile team must learn what needs to be changed to succeed and possess the collective ownership to make the change.

Let's go back to what we are really trying to do with Agile Development: delight our customers and provide business value. Mary Poppendieck, of lean-development fame,  offers many keys to accomplishing this through the removal of waste. We learn what waste is in our internal processes and remove it. We learn that the sooner we look for defects, the cheaper they are to fix. Sometimes people say, "We get to done, done, done and then we do a system test." Have they learned the value of getting to done, done, done? In starting to use Agile methods, one leader's teams complained that they could not get to done, done, done in just two weeks. Her reply? "Then let's figure out how to do it in one week." And they learned how to do just that.

And here, leadership is key. I have been in the Agile community a long time. With self-organizing teams, agilistas sometimes feel leaders are not needed. I have learned this is not the case. We need leaders to help create a culture of learning, trust, and ownership. Agile relies on learning from failures, taking risks to delight customers, and understanding the value of the software to the customers and to the business.

We have learned that we don't know what we don't know. We have a 5% chance of getting it right in the beginning. Can we hope to rely on rigid processes that go on for years with no learning and without adapting? Such an approach will likely miss the goal. How can we function in this rapidly changing world? Uncertainty is the new normal as are all the risks that come with it. We have learned it is difficult to commit to anything until we have our risks in an acceptable range. We can adapt to change by learning — continuous learning. And we can lead change by going out to our customers and the marketplace and learning what needs to change.

Are the consultants we use helping us to learn? Or just teaching us how to follow a practice or process?

Consultants do have a useful purpose. They help teams jumpstart their exposure to Agile methods. But coaches should also help teams become self-sufficient by teaching them how to learn and adapt.  

Learning is the Agile mindset, it is the core of Agile culture and it drives clear focus on delivering value to our customers and to our business. You can "do Agile," but if you don't learn from your customers, you will fail at delighting them. A practice of Agile has been to prioritize based on business value. But when I ask teams today how many know the business value of what they are building, very few hands are raised. So, how do they know which stories will increase marketshare and differentiate their product in the marketplace, and which must be built to hold marketshare and parity with competitors? How can teams know what is needed to be just like their competition and nothing more, and what needs an innovative and creative solution? Have we learned and adjusted our processes to account for these needs?

How do you teach people to learn in an Agile context? The answer is straightforward: Really listen to what the customers say, not what you want to hear. Learn what "value" means to customers. Understand what will make them successful. Prioritize and reprioritize based on what you have learned because what "value" is tends to change as time goes by. If a competitor delivers your differentiator to the market before you do, then your previous differentiator is now parity. Don't over-engineer parity features. Don't build it better than your competitors, build it as good. Learn from your market. Learn and adapt.

Is it not time to view continuous learning as the central mantra in all things Agile?

Pollyanna Pixtona is the cofounder of the Agile Leadership Network. She chairs several agile leadership summits a year. Pixton developed models for Collaboration and Collaborative Leadership through 35 years inside and consulting with corporations and organizations.

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