The Learning & Development Podcast: Getting Started With Agile L&D with Natal Dank

November 10, 2020

Written by Kiren Kahlon

Agile working


The Learning & Development podcast is hosted by our Chief Learning Officer David James. Featuring L&D leaders from across the globe, each conversation focuses on hot topics in the profession. This transcript is from the conversation between David and Natal Dank on getting started with Agile L&D.

Listen to episode 56 of the Learning & Development podcast here.

David James: Welcome to The Learning & Development Podcast. I’m David James from Looop and in each episode, I chat with guests about what lights them up in the world of people development. In this episode, I’m speaking with Natal Dank, who is a leading figure in Agile HR, and, of course, its applications to Learning & Development. Before we get into it, if you’re enjoying this podcast, please take the time to give us a five-star rating on your podcast app of choice. This will help others to find us and thank you if you’ve done so already. Now, let’s get into it.

Natal, welcome to The Learning & Development Podcast.

Natal Dank: Thank you for having me.

David: Now, I’ve heard from L&D leaders and podcast guests that they’ve been experimenting with Agile since lockdown. Is this something you’ve heard too?

Natal: Most definitely. I think that if we consider what’s going on, I’ve heard a common saying at the moment, which is all eyes on HR. This is because suddenly HR are at the front of leading the response to the pandemic. This is from everything to how do we care for our people? How do we make sure they’re safe? Through to how do we actually help the business start to respond to the business environment that they’re now operating in? If we also consider what Agile is, it is all about how we deal with the pandemic.

Solving a complex problem, rapidly responding to a changing environment, quickly focusing on what’s the most important thing for the business and why and doing that first, before you do the other things, pivoting and adapting our plans. I think pivot is one of the most overused words at the moment alongside the new norm. This idea of getting something to work. This MVP. How do I get something to work quickly, make sure it meets the needs or solves the problem, and then go and make it all shiny and pretty and more attractive for my people?

When I’ve been talking to teams, this is exactly what they’ve had to focus on. If you think about it, we’ve almost had to do it even in our homes. There’s this forced agility at the moment. How do we quickly adapt and start to make things work in this new way? I think a lot of the teams that were already working with Agile, even on a small scale, have been able to do this at pace. If you were already working in a more transparent way, you’ve been able to keep that going. If you’re already visualising your work and using digital tools to do that, you now have just switched into remote working, and you’re still visualising your work.

If you’re already doing regular check-ins and stand-ups, then you were able to keep those going through the pandemic. That’s meant you can just adapt to this new circumstance. Some of the examples I was thinking of when you asked me this earlier was some really good examples of just very practical, kind of, “Okay, I was working on one thing, and now the most important thing for my business is this and so now I need to shift and focus on that.” I often need to do it in a cross-functional way, in a very user-centric business focussed way. A couple of good examples include a team that was working on a big values redesign project. What are the cultural values? They’ve been submerged and they were going out and connecting people to the values.

Coronavirus came along, they realised that wasn’t the best use of their time then and there. What they did is they focused very quickly on getting a helpline up and running so people could actually ask HR questions and this included the L&D team, all hands on deck, as well as quickly getting some data tools up and running. So the leaders could make some real-time decisions about their people. Where were they? Who was most at risk? Who was in a retail situation versus working from home? All of those things. I thought that one was a really interesting one where you might have this, your pride project had to just stop for that moment in time, and you have to focus on what was most important.

Another really good one was a team that had already started an initiative around a leader playbook. This is more of a learning project around how do you develop your leaders. They realised once the pandemic hit that they should connect that to the information and skills leaders needed to deal with the pandemic. They started to do little MVPs of first releases of this Leader Handbook, which were things that were most important. How do I set up remote working? How do I help my team work transparently on a digital tool? What questions are they going to ask me? How do I take care of well being?

They, of course, got leaders in testing it then and there to demonstrate the value and then iterated, and they realised they just needed to get the most important thing out first, rather than building the whole playbook and then releasing it. It was interesting how this just forced a more iterative way of working. They also realised that they needed to go into the tools that the leaders were using. It ended up being this very Google-like product because that’s what the leaders are using. So going to the place, or the applications that people are using and doing the learning there. I thought that was a really interesting one.

Agile is a Way of Working That Has Already Been Incredibly Successful in Transforming Entire Organisations

David: Yes I think, Natal, there are going to be very few listeners for who this isn’t resonating because for all the conversations I’ve had– I spoke to Sarah Allen at AXA UK and she said that in the way that she describes the change in how she and her team have worked, she said it was agile with a small A, but it was with an Agile mindset. There doesn’t sound as if there’s too much difference between what she was describing and what you are.

Of course, what I’d like to go into, later on, are some of the disciplines that make up Agile with a capital A, because from what you’ve described, and matching that with say, Sarah and others I’ve spoken with, there doesn’t seem to be a big gap between the big pivot, may I use that word.

Natal: No, exactly, but isn’t that an interesting thing, because the big A, or the methods and the tools and techniques, I think that’s what people find intimidating sometimes when we come on to Agile. They hear about Scrum, they hear about user stories and backlogs and definitions of done, and they think, “Oh my God, there’s so much to learn.” I’ve seen people in learning sessions say, “Oh, this is much more complicated than I thought.” Actually, no, if we just go back to the core elements and the mindset you’re talking about, it is really easy to start.

Actually, it makes a lot of sense, given what’s going on in our world. Yes. That’s why Agile is here. That’s why it’s such a hot topic for quite a while now that business faces a disruptive complex world. That’s what Agile is all about. Yes.

David: I think it’s important then to acknowledge that it’s not just a buzzword in the same way as say, microlearning is. Which microlearning is a way of packaging smaller amounts of content for a reason designed by marketers, backed up by a modicum of science. What Agile is it’s a way of working that has already been successful and incredibly successful in transforming, if not just functions, then entire organisations. That’s at a higher level and I’m sure there’ll be people who may be skeptical listening to this. I’d like to ask you then, Natal, what can we hope to achieve by changing from the way that we run traditional Learning & Development to more Agile?

Natal: Yes, this is interesting, and also this touches on this concept of the operating models. There’s elements of what’s been holding us back, versus also what we now get from working in a more Agile way. First of all, I think there’s a renewed theme that the pandemic has also added to, that’s closely linked to, which is a focus on the experience of work. What is the journey that our people go through from connecting before they even join the organisation to how we develop and grow our people through to how we stay connected when they leave?

What are the moments in that journey that really matter that we can truly engage them and make sure that they can deliver the best that they can. This is a very end-to-end journey and it requires cross functional working multi skilled teams. It requires an idea of a portfolio of products and services that you’re delivering out to your people that you’re looking at, in my portfolio, what needs to be updated, what needs to be hatched? What do we need to get real because it’s not serving a purpose? What do we need to maintain? There’s an interesting way of how we need to actually deliver this out across our organisation.

Particularly, if we think about Learning & Development, and then HR more generally, this is the end of the Ulrich Model. I realised I’ve been pronouncing that wrong for my entire career the other day. If you think about the way we used to work, there was always this separation between generalists and specialists. Often I even sat in leadership teams or Learning & Development teams that were designing solutions away from the actual customer or the user itself, and then there was this whole process where you would hand over the solution and that would be rolled out by the more client-facing HR contact or HR business partner.

We also developed this way of working that is all about single point topic owners. I would look after talent development, someone else would look after leadership, someone else would look after aspects of learning. We had huge multifaceted complex problems that we were trying to solve. We would then have to constantly get everybody to be part of our projects. You just had all these projects that we are trying to get done, using everyone’s time, but owned by one single person.

This was just so slow, there was just no pace to it. We weren’t tapping into what do people really need to solve in their work? What are the problems they face and how do we help them get better?

David: It was all about, “We need you to know this”, rather than, “How can we help you with the challenges you actually face?”

Natal: Exactly, exactly. The amount– I look back at some of the leadership development programmes that I’ve done. While, yes, there were great elements of them, they were these huge, massive programmes that I would spend months designing with a team, and then we’d roll it out. It was always taking people out of what they were doing to come and attend the programme. I think in terms of the operating model, we now need to look at, okay, well, we have a complex problem that needs a multi-skilled team to solve. How do we bring that team together?

That is people from Learning & Development, other parts of HR, but also people from the business. Maybe some external specialists that we bring in for certain targeted work. These are more temporary based teams that form around particular products or problems that we need to solve. This is also how we visualise our work. To be able to get this team to self organise and rapidly decide on things and deliver solutions, we need to visualise it, we need to know how to prioritise, we need to understand what is the value that we’re delivering at any one point in time and why are we doing it.

This equals this very different way of running not only a Learning & Development team, but a HR team and I almost feel that we have to move beyond this idea of these siloed teams that we’ve always had in HR. A lot of the teams that I know that are embracing a new operating model with Agile, they’ve got whole new skills starting to develop. They’re bringing in people that have got marketing backgrounds, they’re bringing in people that have maybe done user experience and design thinking. Some of them have even gone and learned a bit of coding because digital is now such an important thing.

The kinds of skill sets that we’re looking at, in Agile we often call it a T-shaped team, it’s a different kind of entity. This is about having that breadth of experience across multiple situations, and then the ability to deep dive when you need into different specialisms. I feel like it’s the end of the operating model, as we know it, in both L&D and HR. I think that’s a great thing. I can’t wait to see what we can do as a result of not being stuck, held back by the ways that we’ve been working. 

Listen to episode 56 of the Learning & Development podcast here.

Instead of Just Running Programmes, we Need to Understand the Problems We’re Trying to Solve

David: Yes, you’ve got limited resources looking after broad topics, as you said, when you’ve got one person whose responsibility is leadership development. Where on earth can they seriously be truly responsible for when it is such a– There were such a broad set of challenges facing leaders at all levels across any given organisation. No wonder it’s almost been dumbed down to delivery of programmes and provision of content.

Natal: Well, it is. What happens is we have these huge complex problems that we need to solve. A team– You’ve made me think of one where a team I worked with, wanted to do a project on growth mindset. We actually started an Agile sprint around that. Two days into the sprint, they went, “Oh, my God, what does growth mindset even mean? Oh, my–” Because they suddenly had to think about, “Well, what are we actually going to deliver at the end of this sprint?” Let alone the sprint after and the sprint after that. By trying to break it into tangible value and an actual delivery, they started to realise it was so complex, and it was wrapped up with all kinds of things from development of people through to how you recognise and reward people, the performance system, all of this.

In the past, that’s often meant that we would maybe run a programme, as you said, and then demonstrate the impact by all these people that attended the programme. We never linked it back to the problem that we were trying to solve. What is the evidence that people have a growth mindset? Why does the business need it and how is that going to solve the business problems that we face? Once you start shifting into that language and that way of working, it transforms what you’re doing. You also need to now demonstrate the data and the value of what you’ve delivered.

You suddenly can actually demonstrate the value you’re bringing to the business. I think this is the true power, isn’t it? We’re going to create solutions and products that people will actually not just need but actually use because it helps them in their job. Also L&D and HR, we’re constantly talking about, we will need a seat at the table, we want to be seen as a contributor to the business bottom line and strategy. This way we can and I think that is so powerful.

David: What you just described there, some of the key misunderstandings when you just pitch Waterfall against Agile, they’re positioned almost as competing project management philosophies but the thing is that they will get you different ends. As you’ve just described, if you’ve got a growth mindset project, and you’ve– Let’s make no bones about it, a lot of traditional Learning & Development is solutioneering before you’ve really explored the problem, and a problem is usually identified with minimal observation with some serious weighting coming from some elsewhere in an organisation, and a lot of confirmation bias.

With Waterfall, it is all about getting to a point where people have been exposed to, to some extent or another, and you can blend it, it’s very popular to blend, and especially when it is about just exposure to content and programmes. You develop a project plan that gets you to that point. Of course, Agile is very different, isn’t it? It requires a mindset shift because as you’ve just described, instead of it being an iterative, and perhaps more emergent way of delivering the programmes and content, you need to go back and determine at the outset, what is the real problem that needs to be addressed? How do you know that it’s a problem? Who do we need to involve to understand their role in that? Am I on the right lines?

Natal: Totally. What’s the evidence? What’s the return on investment of your time and effort, let alone the money you’re going to spend on going and fixing this problem? If you think about where Agile ways of working in mindset have started from, it’s this element of complexity, isn’t it? It comes a lot from complex systems and complex thinking. When you don’t know the answers, because the problem is complex, and it’s not clear and obvious to begin with, then you need more of an Agile way of working, or an emergent way of working as you talked about, because you need to go and get some data.

You need to find out some more information, you need to test something and see what happens. Then from that, you get more and more evidence of how you can act and what’s going to work. I’m the first person to actually say, I don’t pitch Waterfall and Agile necessarily against each other. I also don’t say this is not about using Waterfall anymore, because Waterfall is still relevant if a project is pretty straightforward and simple. It’s not going to change, your plan can hold for the length of the project. You don’t have too many stakeholders, there’s not too many differences of opinions, and you can just go and make it happen.

The problem is in our working world, I don’t know too many projects that look like that anymore and particularly in L&D when you’re trying to change behaviour, you’re trying to influence cultural norms and practices, that is really complex and the only way we can work in that area I think is an Agile way and is more evidence-based, which has also been a theme of HR and Learning & Development for a while if you think about what CIPD has been doing around working in a more evidence-based way. All these themes are out there and are actually all linking into how we work in a more Agile way.

That’s the danger with the topic. People see it, as you said, this buzzword or this thing over here that I can come and apply to my project, rather than actually a mindset and an actual way of being. Once you do have that realisation you put it into every part of your life but you can’t really think, “Oh my God how did I ever work differently?” Yes, so it’s that lightbulb moment of, okay, that’s what Agile is all about..

Once You Start Using Agile, There’s a Lot of Unlearning Old Habits

David: Okay, so we’ve spoken with Tracey Waters and Nebel Crowhurst about how they’ve implemented Agile in both Sky and Roche, but it still seems unattainable for many and that’s the feedback that I’ve gained. Now, when working with, say willing, but cautious clients, how do you recommend they begin?

Natal: I just want to comment on the unattainable part of that question. Because I think it’s really interesting because I’ve heard this quite a few times. People say, “Oh, Agile is good and effective but it’s really hard, isn’t it, to do.” I think that reflects more about the assumptions that’s sitting in that. First of all, there’s an assumption that what we do now is easy and also that it works, which I actually don’t think is true when I talk to people. Secondly, it’s about the challenges that you have to overcome to fully embrace Agile. This is more the legacy of where we’ve come from. We’ve just been talking about this, the legacy of the top-down, Big Bang, or one-size-fits-all way of working in L&D and HR.

The models that we’ve had, the siloed ways of working, but also this language that’s connected to Agile. People do get intimidated by the methods that are in there, rather than the mindset. It’s good to move beyond that and one thing I would say is that once you start using Agile, there is a lot of unlearning of old habits. That’s maybe the hard part because it feels a bit uncomfortable, doesn’t it? But as we know, that’s what Learning & Development is all about.

In terms of how do you begin? Like Agile, you start small. You don’t go and try to change the world overnight. Start small, and be really realistic. Choose an important problem, one that is important for the business for you to solve, not just within your own team or Learning & Development. Also, I actually find that often it could be a problem that you’ve been working on for a while in a more traditional way, and you haven’t got anywhere with it. Now let’s bring in this new lens and way of working. You want to break it down. You want to think about let’s just go for the first part of this problem. What’s the first element, and perhaps maybe we just need to go and discover, as you said, what the problem is.

I actually find that discovery piece is a really nice way to start using some Agile techniques. What I have found is a great way to introduce a team is something like a design sprint. You can do this in a fairly short period of time, you could do it in a couple of days or even over a week. You start with, okay, what’s the business challenge? What does career development mean, at our organisation? Or we’ve got a problem with our onboarding, what are we going to do about it? We need to develop leaders of the future for roles we don’t know about, what does this mean?

Then go and actually apply some design thinking. What’s going on with the user, some user research, categorise, what’s the moments that matter or the problems that we need to solve? Define it, ideate, prototype, test. You can do that in a fairly rapid sequence and it’s so powerful to bring out all the elements. I’ve seen this done very well, often in very traditional organisations. What we’ve often done is also invited stakeholders in as people that we then present the outcome to, or use to test the prototype. I’ve seen in a really traditional organisation, them inviting their board of directors in by the end of the design sprint, and they did a roleplay in front of the directors of what the prototype was.

Listen to episode 56 of the Learning & Development podcast here.

This is the problem. This is the prototype. This was on a huge organisational change project, so it was really quite complex. The directors went, “Oh, okay, this is new, this is different. Also, you have just done six months work in one week.” Unfortunately, they then thought that’s what Agile was, getting people to go and do work together to accelerate projects. I would definitely encourage people to tap into the design element or design thinking element of Agile as a nice, easy access point. In L&D, I find people love that, but I might mention that one blocker about that a little bit later.

I also want to mention some practical things. Agile isn’t an add on. You commit to that period of time that you’re going to be applying Agile, you clear your diary. You need practical things like you need a space to collaborate. This actually sounds obvious, but it’s not. You need some more space, or now that we’re digital, you need some good digital tools to support you. You need to– If you’re only going to be using a percentage of your time on that project that’s Agile, then when is that percentage of time? What day do you meet? When do you meet? What’s your need for some key ceremonies that you’re going to commit to, so when do we have a stand-up if we’re going to have stand-ups?

When do we do some planning sessions? When do we have a review with our stakeholders and when do we do a retrospective and this is really important cadence. Finally, what is the cadence? Agile is about breaking work down into smaller chunks, so iterations cycles of work sprints, whatever word you want to use. We then focus on delivering slices of value. What is a– This is not just, “I’m going to do the documentation of my project first”, and then the next stage no, this is a whole piece of the solution that may be in a small scale to begin with.

Really thinking about what that cadence is, is it going to be two weeks? Am I going to invite certain stakeholders each two weeks to give me feedback? Who would they be? What does that look like? Let’s have time in the diary. Really thinking about that cadence, I think is very important. A lot of that you can even do without mentioning the word Agile. Use language that resonates with your organisation and your team, so it’s not scary, and it’s more about how do we do this, solve this problem or do this project in a better way?

If you focus on that kind of outcome, I think people let go of, “Oh, this is a new method” and focus on, “All right, let’s solve this problem.” People get really excited about that. It’s such an energising way of working. 

David: Yes, it makes sense. I completely agree with you. Natal, I do need to call out here that both with the language that you’re using, the new terms, and you’ve all mentioned ceremonies, 

Natal: I’m doing it. Yes.

Start With Learning More About Agile Ways of Working

David: My next question is, what kind of development is required on the part of the L&D team to be able to run a small experiment with a view to building on that?

Natal: Yes. Look, this is where I would say that– I know you’re speaking to Tracey at Sky, and their approach was a really nice one. I definitely agree that first of all, it’s about seeing it as an experiment. You don’t have to have all the answers. You give yourself a break. So many teams I’ve worked with, they think they need to be masters of Agile by the end of the first week. They think they need to remember all the terms to actually be able to do it. That’s definitely not the case. It’s also that you need to very quickly start doing when it comes to Agile.

I would encourage people to get to know the concepts. Go and learn a bit more about Agile, watch some videos, go to some meetups, I think meetups are a really great way of accessing the topic. A lot of them are online now. Read articles, talk to people. Most organisations now have a part of the business that is trying some Agile ways of working, often in tech, go and visit them, see what’s happening, talk to them, just immerse yourself in the topic. It is good to go and do a learning programme, but I would say that if you’re doing any kind of learning programme, make sure you’re going to be applying the skills.

Either applying it in the programme, or if it’s linked to going back to the workplace and actually doing something different. Because I think no more than anything I’ve ever come across, I didn’t really get it until I actually tried it. Something like a sprint or this idea of cadence, you get it once you actually sit down and go, “All right, well, okay, so do we think we should do two weeks or one week? What does that mean? What does that look like? When would we come together with our stakeholders and show them what we’ve produced? Oh, what does that even look like?”

Actually applying the words that we’re talking about is the key difference. This is often what gets lost when organisations go Agile, so Agile transformation. They roll out these big learning programmes. “Okay, this is what Agile is, this is how you do Scrum.” But then they’re not actually helping people just get on and actually start using the skills. Often, leaders are not even necessarily involved. They might be involved in the initial programme, or with telling people why we should go Agile, but they’re not actually involved in the actual doing of the work. It’s the doing of the work in Agile, that’s what it’s all about.

The core framework of Scrum, for example, has a development team, a Scrum master, and a product owner, and they’re the only roles that they say need to exist. That’s really interesting just in itself, isn’t it? Yes. Learn by doing.

David: Representing the listener here, because anybody who’s listened to this and thinking, that sounds great, I’d love to give it a go, is likely to imagine the reluctance of stakeholders to jump on board. Seeing them as a potential blocker from experimenting this. One of the reasons is because– and I mention this on the podcast, L&D is a dance that everybody thinks they know, where stakeholders ask for training and then by the time they’ve asked for training, they’ve already sold training to their team as well. The people who expect to come on the training, they know what this involves, and they usually consider it a bit of a day off. They might feel silly during the day and nothing might not change as a result, but everybody gets it. The other side of the dance, the person leaving that conga is the L&D person who knows– Because oh, yes, everybody just jumps on. We know what we’re doing here.

The problem is as soon as you start introducing a concept such as performance consulting, in which you are looking to get under the bonnet of what is it that you really want to see its difference. Especially with Agile where there may not even be a course at the end of it. You’ve got to take a step back to understand what the real problem is, how do you bring stakeholders along with you? How do you build on the expectation for them to be involved at the stage where they perhaps expected that they would just be attending at the end?

Natal: I think it’s a really good question. We don’t always do this in the right way, I think, when we do embrace Agile ways of working in our teams. I think first and foremost, you’ve got to take them on the journey, as they say. You, quite early, talk about what you’re trying to achieve. There’s no use embracing Agile unless you know the problem you’re trying to solve. It’s quite a common quote around it. If you engage your stakeholders on that problem, that’s a very interesting conversation just to start with. Why is this a problem? What’s going on for you? Let’s get some data about what’s happening.

Then if you also start to speak more their language with the problem. Rather than creating a solution that is full of words that doesn’t connect to their space, but is actually using the words they’re using, then they actually start to connect and resonate. The other one is co-creation. This was my introduction to Agile many years ago and it’s the reason why I’ve never looked back.

If you invite stakeholders and users in to be part of the solution, they actually do want to be there. Yes, they might say, “When do I actually give you my time? What does that look like in my diary?” But they want to be part of the solution to the problem because this is holding them back. This is blocking them. If you say, “Okay, what do we need to do to fix this problem? Can I either invite you in to actually even be part of this team that’s going to create it? Can I invite you in to test small solutions or prototypes before we go and roll this out to make sure this is going to work for you?”

That, I find, is a great start already but also, I think it’s about helping them to be curious about what you’re doing. If you like the design sprint example I talked about earlier, or there’s another team who have evolved their ways of working to the point where they now work as this collaborative people experience team rather than just, again, single points of contact in the business that was looking after everything from L&D to performance.

They set out their store, they said we want to help you fix the most important things that are slowing you down, or creating blockers to your business. This means we might not actually do some of the other things that come into that list straight away. Now let’s have a conversation on what is the most valuable thing to work on first and why? This is really interesting.

In Agile, you start to look at what are some value drivers? What is the impact versus effort of where we are going to spend our time? What’s the metrics that we need to use or the data to demonstrate why we should spend our time here and what we need to track? If you start talking in that language, which is business language, I find that stakeholders actually connect straight away. I think it’s the way that you’re presenting it. You don’t say, “Oh, we’re going to work Agile.” you talk about what you’re trying to do with it. If you talk in that way, that’s business language. I actually think Agile gives L&D people a way to talk business that they maybe haven’t had before, because business talks about problems and how to solve them. If we talk that way, we can actually take them on the journey quite easily, I think.

Agile is Intimately Linked With Digitalisation

David: One of the first things you said at the top of the conversation was, if you experiment with Agile, make sure it’s a real problem. Sometimes the stuff that comes to L&D from stakeholders isn’t actually a real problem. To get under the hood and to ask, “What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?” It can be answered very easily with, “I just want my team to have a day’s training.” I’m not going to fight this battle. Sometimes you just won’t, but at least we know where we stand.

Having spoken with Tracey at Sky and knowing her team, I know that they lead with digital resources which are surfaced at the moment of need. What role do you see digital playing in Agile L&D?

Natal: It’s, can I say a no brainer? Or is that– I think there’s a couple of things we need to consider. First, Agile is intimately linked with digitalisation, isn’t it? If we think about where Agile has come from, it comes from software development. It comes from creating apps on our phone and just accelerating so much of the digital products that we have in our lives.

I don’t think you can separate Agile and digital because of that. Often, businesses are embracing Agile transformation because they’re trying to digitalise in some way. Often it’s the tech teams that are already using Agile because it goes hand in hand with being digital. I think that’s the no brainer part of it. This is what’s so insightful, I think, for Learning & Development. Why is digital transforming what we’re doing in the consumer space? Because it goes to the point of need. Someone picks up their phone and they can make a purchase decision then and there. Wow, if we could do that with learning, how amazing is that?

I’ve even seen it in the programmes that I have run myself. I tried to fill the whole topic of Agile into two days where I would take people out of their work situations to come and attend a programme. They would all talk about how their mind was blown by the end, particularly if they didn’t know anything about Agile at the start. Then I would send them off with this, right, you’d go and do a project or do one thing differently and that’s your start. This is all about taking people away from the point of need, or I think what you’ve turned, the point of work, in your recent eBook, which is really good.

Digital means you actually can tap into the actual systems that people are using. I also think it’s quite interesting because I was reflecting on this with where we’re at and how we’re working now with the pandemic. We’ve got a lot of debates around remote working, the new hybrid model, when should you be in the office, when shouldn’t you. Some people don’t really want to be ever again, others want to be in there tomorrow. What does this look like?

I was speaking to someone the other day who runs her team in a very Agile way. She said, “What I’m looking at is how do we make sure that the times we come together is the most useful way of spending our time?” If you think about learning, spending two days going through all this theory around leadership, and then having some peer-to-peer discussions about it, that’s not the best use of our time, is it? What about a digital way of accessing that theory and the concepts and maybe trying a few things, and then when you do bring them together, for some kind of face-to-face, let’s make it targeted. Let’s make it important and let’s make it really, really useful.

Could we apply the skills then and there? Could we solve a problem? Could we run a project? Could we hackathon a solution? I think this is also how not only do you integrate it into the way of working, so people don’t see learning as an add on, which they always used to, but also, how do you use any time that we come together, which used to be this sort of face-to-face solution as actually accelerating the results or applying skills?

For me, the blend of the two is just so powerful. I will just say, my own learning around digital learning is, no pun intended, is that you can spread it out. What I’ve discovered is that you can create what I call a learning sprint. You can give pieces, slices of the information, so learn this first. Now we’ll come together, let’s have a virtual session around it. Let’s deepen our understanding. Now go off and try some things supported with digital resources. Now come back, let’s see how that went. Let’s have a retrospective. Let’s think about and reflect on our learning. Now go back again and do it, and so you can spread it out over a period of time, which as we know, is the way to learn, bit by bit, behavioural change by behavioural change. I just think the opportunities of what we can now do with connecting learning in digital space is so amazing.

David: Yes. To build on that as well, it seems as if you’re saying to me that the key to doing this is doing it with Agile, but providing the guidance and support that offers you the comfort and the confidence to do this stuff, to get a modicum, a little bit of know-how, give it a go, go back, find out how did that get on, broaden your knowledge base to give it a go.

It’s all around, you will only know, as you’ve said, with your two-day programme, whether they’re overwhelmed or not. The only way that they’re really going to learn and to develop those skills is by doing it. By providing them with an infrastructure around them to help with those moments of need and those moments of apply, as Gottfredson and Mosher would describe, is a way that we can support them.

Listen to episode 56 of the Learning & Development podcast here.

I want to go back to measurement. This seems– Anybody, who’s listening to this and who’s got it is going to think this is a ridiculous question to ask, and this is a sledgehammer to crack a walnut because I feel as if this whole conversation has been riddled with it. There might be one or two people listening or thinking, “Yes, but how do you know that it works?” Measurement. Successful Agile solutions aren’t nearly as elusive as evaluation of traditional learning solutions, are they?

Natal: No. They’re not. Exactly. Because it has so many parts, doesn’t it? It’s all about data. It is about working in an evidence-based way. I call it thinking like a scientist. It’s also about how you break down your project and your whole plan of work. This is where I will get into some other aspects of how you apply Agile.

You, first of all, start with this backlog of all the things that you could possibly ever do for this project. Some of it will be really clear and obvious, others, oh maybe it’s a bit vague, but you put it all in this backlog. Then you say, “Okay, given our first cycle, iteration, sprint, whatever you want to call it, what do we need to work on first, and why? What’s the evidence that we have that that is the place to start? Also, what are we going to produce?”

The idea of Agile is that after your first iteration or cycle, you have to have something of value that you could even possibly release. You might not release it because you might be still at the development stage or testing, or experimentation, but you need something of value because the idea you need to take that to at least one user, ideally a few, some stakeholders and get feedback. Does this work for you? What does this look like?

This concept of incremental development is, I think, probably the most far-reaching change for Learning & Development and HR. The idea that you release value early and often and you demonstrate it by the data that you’re collecting each time. The data is not just a few stakeholders sitting in a room going, “Oh, yes, I like that. That’s really good.” It’s, “Who’s using it, and why? How are they using it? What does it look like?” Then once you’ve got it out in the business, maybe for a period of time, “Our behaviour is changing. What’s happening as a result? Have you saved costs? What’s the NPS look like? What is the bottom line result that we’re starting to achieve from this product or service that we’re delivering?”

For me, again, this is how we become this value-driven department, function, profession, whatever you want to call it, rather than this transactional service or the service providers, I think I’ve heard you say before. We don’t just provide services, we actually add value to the business and we have data to show it.

You get comfortable with what’s the more immediate data, how you collect that data, and how you demonstrate it. But you also don’t have to go and rethink all the data or do this big data cleanup or project to start with, just go and start with what you’re already collecting, you’ve probably already got it. Just by setting it up in those short cycles, where you have to go and track and get evidence and demonstrate value before you move on to the next stage of your project, before you head back to that backlog and go, “All right, what’s the next thing I need to work on, and why?” You have to be evidence-based by making those decisions. It just forces that way of working it. It’s great.

David: It is. From the very first conversation, if you’re asking the stakeholder, “What’s the problem that you’re trying to solve?” And they frame it. If you just followed up with, “How do you know that it’s a problem?” You’re going into data because as soon as they’ve responded to that, then you can ask them or you can explore yourself to what extent that that is a problem, who’s involved, and to what extent it’s critical enough that people will want to change? Because again, this is why it’s so different from training delivery. Your attendance on a programme means absolutely nothing. It’s not going to help you to get your results in an Agile project.

Natal: No.

David: The only way is, is those people that are tasked with doing those things and getting those results have to buy in, all the way through your stages, and know that they are involved enough to do that thing differently. What you’re doing is you’re equipping them and enabling them, rather than doing this for them. There’s no expectation, there’s no one sitting in the back of the class thinking, “This is a wonderful day off.”

This is a commitment to doing stuff differently.

Natal: I know. I’d just add to that. I think when you talked earlier about how do you convince our stakeholders to come on the journey, that ROI at the start, I think, is really important because if you, again, turn around to the leader and say, “I want to make sure that if we do this training, there’s a return on investment for you, so I want to make sure there’s some data so we can demonstrate impact.” That’s a very different conversation to, “Oh, okay, what do you need to learn in the training? Who’s coming?” If you talk like that, then yes, they have to say, “Oh, I just want a day off, can we just do a team-build.” versus, “Oh, this is the problem, and this is what I’m trying to do. It’s connected to the client, or it’s connected to the product we’re trying to sell. These are the problems that we actually need to solve.” It’s just, again, it’s this business language that we bring into how we’re operating, and which is really powerful. 

 In Agile You Say, “Stop Starting and Start Finishing”

David: Natal, as we look to wrap up, if our listeners are intrigued and wish to explore with Agile, you’ve talked thoroughly throughout about what it is that they can do. What do you recommend that they do first, in terms of perhaps, actions, development, or support?

Natal: What you can do is you can do a personal Kanban. I don’t know if you’ve ever done this yourself. It’s actually a really, really good way of thinking about how do you prioritise work and focus on the most important thing at one time, and get stuff done. In Agile, you say, “Stop starting and start finishing.”

I also read this great article by a guy called Oliver Burkeman recently, and he talks a lot about philosophy and psychology. We are overwhelmed with what we have to get done at the moment, I think the pandemic has heightened this. This idea that there’s so much to do, and given the nature of the world, the capitalist system we operate in, and just human ambition, we are never going to get everything done, particularly all the things that we would like to do, let alone the things we need to do. This is very much the same in work as in life.

The personal Kanban is a really nice technique to learn. This will teach you all about visualising your work, using colours. The simple one is you have your Backlog, which is all the things coming in, then you have your To-do, which is the things that you’re deciding on next because you’ve really thought about it, and you know what is involved, then you have your Doing, and then you have your Done.

Your personal Kanban, I would encourage people to do a work-in-progress-limit. It is really interesting. I just had mine going. I thought there were, at least, a few tasks that I could get done yesterday. I got one of them done because it was a lot more complex than I thought. It really helps you understand. People might say, “Oh, that’s like a to-do list, isn’t it?” No, no, no, this is a really interesting way of then going back to that Kanban and going, “All right, well, I’ve only been able to do this one task because it was very complex. Now tomorrow, do I really do this next one listed here or is it more important to do something else?” You’re constantly rearranging your prioritisation and you’re thinking about the value that you’re delivering.

By using this technique, there are so many things that, not only do I feel better because I put them on the list, and they’re there, so I know that they exist, but I never get to them, and it just shows that I’m never going to get it done. I actually think personal Kanban is the way to go as a nice little entry point. 

David: Are we talking Trello? I think Microsoft have got an app.

Natal: You can use Trello, you can use Teams, I even use one that I’ve created in Evernote. I created it years ago, so I’ve just kept with that system. I’m a believer of using the tools that people can easily access. If you’re in your office and you have Teams or there is Trello, you go and use those. There’s actually an online Kanban system. There’s quite a few around, yes.

David: Wonderful. Natal, if people wish to connect with you or follow your work, how best can they do so?

Natal: They can always come and have a chat, is where I’m at, and I think I’m the only Natal Dank that I know of on LinkedIn and Twitter, so I’m quite easy to find. Please connect and I’m really happy to chat about it. I do a lot of meetups and videos on the topic. You can come along and just get a lot of free resources and learning on the website.

David: Fabulous. We’ll put some links in the show notes as well.

Natal: Cool.

David: Natal, all that’s left to say is thank you very much for being a guest on The Learning & Development Podcast.

Natal: Thank you very much for having me. It was wonderful.

David: We can be under no illusion that expectations of Learning & Development are changing. If we’re to offer something that at least matches those expectations, then we should look no further than Agile. Agile enables us as we’ve heard to work collaboratively with those we seek to influence, to experiment in making the required difference and being able to show that difference, and also leverage smart technology that makes this transition to Agile, even easier.

If you’d like to get in touch with me, perhaps to suggest topics you’d like to hear/discuss, you can tweet me @DavidInLearning connect on LinkedIn or Facebook for which you’ll find the links in the show notes. Goodbye for now.

Listen to episode 56 of the Learning & Development podcast here or book a free demo to find out more about getting started with Agile.

About Natal Dank

Following over a decade working in senior HR, Talent and Organisational Development roles, Natal Dank is now a leading figure in Agile HR and People Experience.

Natal heads up learning, coaching, and community at PXO Culture and is seen as a pioneer in the Agile HR movement. In 2016 Natal hosted the first Agile HR Meetup in London with the aim of building a community of like-minded disrupters, which has since grown into a regular event held across the world from Sydney to Paris and online. A year later she co-founded the Agile HR Community and has recently published the book, Agile HR. Now, through PXO Culture, Natal is focused on defining modern HR for the 21st Century.  

Connect with Natal on Twitter and LinkedIn

Connect with David on LinkedIn and Twitter

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