Author: Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development in the workforce. One blog is about that. The other is about tennis.

Can L&D be Agile?

Last week at Learning Live, I had a lot of fun listening to a variety of speakers on some interesting topics. The first of these was from Owen Ferguson, and his colleague (whose name I’ve kind of completely forgotten). They were talking about how they have adopted using an agile methodology for project management when it comes to any work they receive. In the world of technology, this is fast becoming a way to disrupt the traditional way of producing work.

I first learned about agile as a project management methodology in a previous organisation I worked for. The majority of their work was project based, and in the main, it was delivered by using traditional project methodology known as waterfall. The waterfall method is what we know of as a typical was of working in projects. There are various models for this such as Prince2 or PMBOK.

These projects follow a set and prescribed way of working, with clearly defined roles such as Project Manager. You have a scoping phase, development phase, user testing, and implementation. In the world of work, most of us will be used to this. It involves defining clear deliverables, producing business cases for projects, having clear parameters for what work will and won’t be done, milestones, and having a critical path. You’ll likely use tools like MS Project, Gantt charts, SWOT analysis, benchmark research, and other interesting and useful tools.

Project teams normally meet their clients when they have to, when milestones are reached, and at the end of the project when they are ready to hand over and implement a project.

Procurement teams in a lot of corporates favour this as a preferred approach to delivering projects for their companies. This is mostly because of the things I’ve talked about above. It offers these departments the firm perspective that nothing could possibly go wrong, and if it does, there are severe repercussions.

Agile, then, is kind of everything the waterfall method isn’t. Here’s the set of values that agile teams ‘sign up’ to (as in they agree to these things as a way of working):

‘We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over Processes and tools
Working software over Comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over Contract negotiation
Responding to change over Following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.’

The nuts and bolts of this methodology are completely different to waterfall. The agile team works in what are called sprints. A sprint is a period of time normally between 2-3 weeks. At the end of this sprint, there is normally a product available for the client to review. On feedback, the iterative process starts again, and the team set about the next round of development, ready to complete the next sprint in the same time frame.

Instead of objectives and tasks, the team have what are called ‘stories’. These stories help the team know what they should be focused on. The stories can be codified and categorised however makes sense. The idea is that at the start of the project, you have a big list of stories. By the end, using the agile approach, you would have a few leftover which don’t matter.

The iterative and sprint approach means that the client involvement is much greater and often requires the client to be present throughout the project so that decisions can be made instantaneously. What is also means, crucially, is that you have working prototypes from the end of the first sprint. It won’t be perfect, it’ll be full of flaws, but it’ll be something to review against. By the 7th or 8th sprint, you’re either well into producing a highly usable product, or you’re ready to deliver the product because of the process you’ve just gone through.

There are, of course, challenges to this approach. It’s a bold way of working, with definables being worked out along the way. That’s scary for a lot of clients who want a clear idea of what they’re getting before the work has even started. The size of the project team can fluctuate depending on the sprint and stories that still need to be resolved. There is no need for a central project manager. It relies on the team working together and offering support to one another as appropriate, be it your speciality or not.

So, here’s the question: Can L&D work in this way? Can HR work in this way?

For a long time, L&D has always followed the waterfall method. We define a learning need, design a course, and deliver it to the business. There’s little in the way of checking in as it’s being designed. There’s little in the way of effective feedback from users. We pretty much don’t know if it works as a learning intervention until we are standing and delivering.

Those in the e-learning and online collaboration worlds may lay claim that they’ve been adopting the agile methodology more in recent years.

But what about the internal teams? The ones who are aligned to business goals and have budgets to deliver against, and have teams out there doing good facilitation? Can they work in this way?

My tuppence says that if we are to, we have to learn a lot of new skills to support this.

Being your best self at work

This is the basis of the talk I’m delivering at Learning Live on Wednesday 10 September.


Start with Phil’s blog post – It’s time to choose, right now.

Can everyone with a smartphone have it on and connected to the wifi, we’re about to crash the system.

Go to YouTube and search for Chicken chicken chicken.

Apart from being an amusing video, with valuable insights into chickens, this is what’s happening daily in organisations across the world. And L&D are doing little to stop peddling this way of raising the game.

With all the talk of Chief Learning Officers, Business Partners and our activities being linked to business objectives, we’ve lost sight of what we do best. We help others be their best self.

I want to question why our focus is where it is. I want to invite you all to put those big brains together and have some hardcore dialogue. I have no answers, I just have a lot of observations. One of my biggest observations is that we are so lost in making whizz bangy learning programmes that we’ve lost the art of being in L&D.

We get lost in designing and creating weird and wonderful programmes of activity that are not guaranteed to do do anything other than impress ourselves with the level of sophistication of the programme. We get lost in rights and wrongs at works. We get lost in absolutes and stakes in the ground. We get lost in prescribing actions and mandating actions. We are so lost we fool ourselves into thinking a strategy will rectify the haze we’ve created.

You know who has the least clue of what’s going to happen next? People in power. You know who else has no clue of what’s going to happen next? People not in power. Yet we fool ourselves into thinking that control and direction are the answer. They are an answer. But not the answer.

Control and direction only matter when you’re clear about your purpose. And if our purpose is to help others be awesome, that’s what I’m aiming for.

Maslow had it wrong. It’s not that our basic needs must be met before we can self-actuslise. It’s that we’re not focused on self-actualisation enough because we think we need basic needs.

Helping people be their best self at work is about helping people do stuff better. My kids are awesome because they find ways to be awesome all on their own, with some guidance and prompting from me.

That’s where we’re falling down in L&D. We still think we have to give our learners the answer to all of their problems. We don’t. What we have to do is help them learn how to get their themselves.

It’s easy designing a course following a set curriculum. It’s even easier delivering that training. What’s hard is just providing people with resources and asking them to get on with it.

It’s easy to get lost in the idea of social learning and 70-20-10 as a methodology for delivery. Let’s explore what that all means.

Think about e-learning Design. What one thing do you do really well?

Find someone who you want to learn from on a topic on the wall and talk to them about what they do. What techniques do they use? Why those? Why are they effective? How did they learn them?

Communities of practise at work.

What one thing do you want to learn more about?

Find someone in the group who can help you. How can they help? What will you be able to do differently?

Peer based coaching and learning at work.

Mindfulness in learning

Carry out a 4 minute mindfulness session.

What are you now focused on doing?

Is that how you’ve practised mindfulness before? What was your experience? No right or wrong answer. It’s about better understanding and practise. It’s about focus of thought. How do we encourage focus of thought instead of juggling of balls?

If embedding of learning takes anything from 5 days to 120 days, what exactly are we reporting on in our MI? How does bums on seats help us show the efficacy of learning?

Outcomes are hard to define. Performance is hard to attribute to learning.

You know what the biggest fib L&D tell ourselves and the business? That performance improved because of the L&D intervention.

The greatest trick the devil pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. That’s what L&D do. We convince the business world that L&D directly affected performance. Poppy cock – and we all know it too. I’ve peddled that lie many a time.

Performance at work is attributable to so many things, L&D being just one of them.

People are amazing when you give them the opportunity to do so. And we try our damndest to attribute everything as a learning intervention.

Once you tell someone they’re awesome, that’s a pact made in gold. You can’t renege on that. But it’s such a pact, we keep those comments reserved for the few. For the talented. For the ones who will drive the business forward. Because that’s the way the world works.

What are the outcomes we can report on? How do we focus on those outcomes as a way of reporting?

No one wants to suck at work. People don’t come to work thinking they’re going to do a bad job.

Building self-belief into learning design. Resilience is the ultimate goal.

One of the ways in which we can build resilience is by focusing on inclusion. I don’t just mean completing your E&D annual training. I mean actively and repeatedly looking at how inclusive you’re being for your organisation. In your comms, in your activities, in your language, are you being inclusive? When you spot bad behaviour, when you hear unsavoury comments, when you witness something bad, are you acting inclusively to help and support? In yourself, in your actions, in your judgements, are you challenging your own self to be more inclusive?

The question is how do we build resilience? The answer is it depends. It depends on your organisational context. If you’re in the police it’s about your personal resilience in dealing with anything from a domestic dispute, to abuse to drunk behaviour to death. If you’re a firefighter it’s anything from fighting a fire to cutting a roof of a car to filing a report. If you’re a data analyst it could be anything from a personal dispute with a colleague, to a heavy workload to Excel not playing ball. If you’re a coffee shop barrista it could be anything from irate customers to a broken machine to a kid puking on the floor.

When we can help people learn about themselves in those situations – that’s when things become special. When you are mindful of what you’re experiencing, as you’re experiencing it, that’s when people perform at their best.

Compliance training, statutory training, mandatory training, collaborative learning, social learning, informal learning, professional qualifications, personal development and management development, all have a place in supporting a person’s development and resilience building. But until they need to know a critical fact or learn about others experiences, or have a moment to practise what they’re learning, they won’t be their best self.

I hope this gives you more to think about than it does answers questions. I’m not in the game of providing answers. I’m in the game of facilitating and provoking thought. I’m in the game of helping people be their best self at work.

What are you focused on?

What does Disney’s Frozen tell us about business?

Nothing. It’s a film made for entertainment and for continuing the Disney franchise of films.

The blog post title is a cheap shot at attracting blog hits.

While we’re out here in the good old US of A, and taking in all that Disney has to offer, I’m enjoying what is there, and at the same time acutely aware of just how much this is about good business.

The Walt Disney World experience has been going on for nearly 40 years. They’ve gone international, they’ve gone to cruise ships and they’re steadily taking over the creative world. With powerhouse names like Pixar, Lucasfilms and Marvel Comics in their arsenal, there is no doubt that these guys are in for the long game. I’m not even touching their multimedia channels, numerous TV and entertainment channels, and overall behemothness (totally a word I just made up).

But damn do they do things well. You pay a premium for their parks and their package deals and the food and drinks served on their property. And you’re not just happy to do so, you keep doing it, because it’s all about the experience. The staff are trained to within an inch of their lives to make this a magical experience. There have been moments of sheer annoyance at the Disney experience, and they seriously don’t want an unhappy customer – especially with kids.

If you take the movie, Frozen, it’s essentially the same format they’ve done for years. What they have shown with it is that all you need is a great story. Once you have that, everything else comes naturally. Sales, customer details, upsell opportunities, cross-sell opportunities, multi-park (multi-site) experience, spin offs, and more.

What came first, the marketing or the creative?

All their great movies have had crackerjack story lines that have endeared and stayed with us. The Creative behind them has been nothing short of Academy Award status. That’s some pressure to perform up to time and again.

What came first, the marketing or the creative?

At their main park, Magic Kingdom, they’ve added more to one part of the park called Fantasyland. They’ve added a roller coaster ride based on the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It’s not their best ride, but it’s new and all kinds of happy. Kids won’t know the film unless they’ve been made to watch it by their parents, and parents love it for the nostalgia. Surrounding it are the merchandise shops, and other related experiences which will have the kids (and adults) positively clamouring to buy merchandise to solidify the experience.

What came first, the creative or the marketing?

Disney are a marketing machine. They have it oiled and running so smoothly it’s a wonder just to see it in action.

Disney are also a creative marvel. The attention to detail, superb branding, and solid production are a just a delight to be around.

Behind the scenes, who knows what recruitment problems, employee relations issues, trade union relations, leadership challenges, management problems, employee engagement challenges, inter-departmental problems, performance management, collaboration or Gen Y problems they face. When you’re a customer, all you want is the product. And if Disney do one thing incredibly well, they sell you a product.

The tools, they are downed, for now

Michael Carty recently published a piece where he was ruminating about how we switch off from the world via our devices. I responded by saying I don’t think the devices are the issue at hand. He asked me why, and I’ve been thinking on it.

And I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

I’m on leave for a couple of weeks now. I’m ready for this break. I’ve been ready to down my tools for a while now. But I’ve been wondering what I need a break from?

I find it easy to switch off from my work as soon as I walk out of the building. I find it easy to fall asleep at night. I eat well. I exercise well. I don’t have any compunctions about thinking about work when I’m not there. I enjoy discussing my profession and interests in my spare time.

But, this post from Julie Drybrough got me on the path. I have a sharp saw, but have I taken the time to sharpen it?

See, I’m fortunate.

By virtue of a raft of enormously generous, clever and wonderful people, I’ve been sharpening my saw regularly. More than that though, I have people who help me to flex different muscles, and who I appreciate in different ways. I value those relationships deeply for they keep me on the good and the true.

At the weekends and evenings, I try to keep myself free of distractions. It’s not easy, and being disciplined to be with the family is a quality I will always believe I can and should do better. But I don’t switch off from the tech around me. I just use it differently to when I’m at work.

It grates on me when people say you need to switch off from your devices. That mindfulness is about not being connected to tech. That’s all baloney.

I get serious itchiness when I feel like I haven’t tweeted or checked Twitter for the latets hottest news. But I also recognise that if I don’t, then life will just carry on. It’ll be ready for me regardless if I choose to be an active member or not. So I let things slide by and I am me.

I have no sage wisdom to deliver here. How we down tools is a deeply personal affair. Their are no absolutes in life, just lots of grey. We don’t need absolutes to live well. Neil Denny described it best when he said it’s about the delicious discomfort of not knowing. I’m deeply comfortable with that as an affair. I don’t need to be in control. I know that when I exercise control, things will happen. When I don’t, things will still happen.

See, I have carefully being putting into practise all the things I write about when I talk about positive psychology and the techniques related to it. I practise #3goodthings daily even though I don’t always share it. I have tried to create as much flow in my life as I can. That is, I arrange to do different activities to help me look after myself and help me be my best self. I accept that sometimes reality hits home and things aren’t always superfabulousamazeballssplendiferous. I share what I know freely to help others.

This has been crafted over a number of years. I’m not done. This isn’t me being perfect. This is me understanding myself very well. Today is a blessing. Tomorrow is an unknown but at least I’ve created things that can happen tomorrow well. If it goes awry, and life often does, then I regroup and carry on.

I also fully recognise that a break is much needed for me. People tend to say “back to reality” when they’re back from holiday. I’ve always tended to believe that your reality is always with you. I’m going to spend time in a reality with people I value and love. I find that to be true at work, with friends, with family, and with myself.

Thinking about collaboration

Today I was asked by Bev Holden to be part of the series she’s been doing on Google+ Hangouts called Collaborate Live. It was a fab 25 mins, and I am surprised how quick the time went.

Anyway, head over to the Google+ page to have a gander and let me know what you thought resonated for you, what didn’t, and what you’d like to hear more about.

Or you can watch it here, and do the same in the comments below.

Does ROI come during or after leadership development?

For all I rail against ROI and the measurements we provide as internal L&Ders, I’m not immune to it. I still have to report back to the board what the outputs are from internal initiatives and solutions I provide. I still have to report back about bums on seats, number of learning sessions, number of hours invested, costs, and whatever else.

I am part of the machine, as much I am trying to adapt the machine.

I’m in the midst of developing our senior management development programme. It’s going to be awesome. I’m swallowing my own medicine. Like the hype I’m building around it? In truth, I thoroughly enjoyed the delivery of our management development programme to our front line managers, as I wrote about last week.

So what’s different here?

Firstly, there’s a smaller group. That helps a lot as it means less large scale co-ordination and more room for personalised agendas. I’m totally flowing with that as a thing and we’re arranging that the programme will be flexible enough to fit around people’s diaries where possible, instead of mandated course dates.

The bit I’m particularly interested to watch unfold is the take up of content. We will have some core modules, which most people will be asked to attend. We are also providing a range of 7 optional modules, and suggesting that people select a minimum of two, with the option of attending all if that fits with their development needs.

Now, one of the pieces which I’m still grappling with is the inclusion of a project as a method of collaboration and delivery of organisational objectives.

In a discussion with one of the directors, we were talking about how we would know if a programme like this were successful at all. What would we actually notice/observe/feel?

We discussed the usual suspects. Better decision making. Improved engagement of teams. Yada yada yada. We got onto the bit about the projects, and the impact of the projects, and this was where things got interesting.

It was suggested that it probably makes more sense that the project happens after the development is done, as this would be a directly correlatable (totally a word I just made up) to the programme. This made me stop and think quite carefully about what that means. I’m sure we’re not the first to have thought an approach like this might work, and I know I’ve tried to do the project thing in mid-programme previously. So, the question is, is that correlation possible?

As with most things in life, the answer is, possibly.

What I don’t have the luxury of is a control group to make that assertion with confidence. I am not of the mind that I don’t want to put a group through development, give them the same projects, and then evaluate the solutions to see who produced better results. Although quasi-scientific, it’s not fair, and certainly morally very shaky.

I am intrigued by the face value of it though. By developing the skills, knowledge and attitude of our senior managers, we are equipping them to be their best self at work. Once the programme is complete, they then are given a project to work on collaboratively, with clear parameters and brief, and expected to deliver a solution as part of the project. What that solution looks like, and the delivery of it, would be a reflection on the development programme.

So there’s a level of pressure I wasn’t expecting to be attached to the programme!

What do you think?

Experiments in Social Facilitation

A while ago, I wrote about how we could use social technologies as a live facilitation tool. Eager to walk the walk and not just spout thoughts, I’ve been playing with this where I can and where it made sense and want to share my learnings from doing so.

What I’ve been experimenting with is inviting people in learning sessions to use their smartphones to find out something about the topic we’re covering and then we have a discussion about it.

I first tried it in a session I did with a group who were training to be internal facilitators. We were talking about icebreakers and energisers. I asked them to get involved by searching businessballs for information on either. This ended up proving quite the challenge as businessballs doesn’t really provide clear navigation and it’s hard to know if something is useful or not if you’re new to facilitation and training like this group were.

My main, and obvious, lesson here was to do it myself in advance so I know what I’m asking the group to look for and that they can find it. My assumption was two fold. My first was that because I have used the site for information gathering, it would have relevance to the group. My second was that they would know what to look for.

What was useful about trying this, though, was that the group were not against trying. What they needed were better instruction from me on what I was asking them to do. Facilitation skills 101.

My second experiment was when facilitating a group learning about coaching skills. Here, I was more purposeful and had planned a bit better what I was asking the group to do. I asked them to go on to the Mindtools website, in the search box type GROW model, click on the first result and read the description. Once they’d read the article, we had a good old bit of discussion about what they thought was important about the model, and how they thought it could help frame their questions when coaching.

I got a bit bolder with the success of that, and directed the same group to Google ‘active listening’ and we repeated the same.

I learned here that again the group were very open to using their smartphones, and pretty much everyone had one accessible to them. Some people needed a bit better support in terms of going to specific URLs and how to enlarge text on a small screen, but nothing that couldn’t be managed easily enough.

Also, it reinforced for me that the need for workbooks in learning sessions is fast becoming obsolete. As much as I enjoy writing workbooks and showing how much I know about topics, it’s just not a great use of time. Using smartphones in this way enables me to just point people in the right direction in a learning session and they’re doing exactly the same task. The difference here is that I’m introducing them to websites where they can find useful information on a range of topics, they’re navigating the website in the session so will be familiar with it later, and I just need to reference the website in a follow up email for them to remember.

I reflected later that asking the group to do this type of task also helped them gain the learning from the article that they needed personally. And, as might be expected, because everyone reads at different speeds, and takes in different information that they find resonates with them, it creates a discussion which is much more owned by the individual because of the insights they’ve already gained.

The third (and most recent) time was again with a group of managers going through coaching skills training. I asked them to do the same thing with Mindtools, and this time was faced with a challenge which didn’t arise the first time. The Mindtools website isn’t currently designed to be responsive to smartphones or other devices. On the site a pop-up window appeared which many people couldn’t navigate away from, and this happened to more than a few people. What it meant was it became a distraction from the learning intent.

I learned here that although a useful way to help share learning and craft a different kind of dialogue with the group, sometimes things don’t go according to plan. In this case I resorted to using trusty old flipchart and marker pens. Can’t go wrong with those staples of learning facilitation!

I’m still on the lookout for how to use technology in this way and ensure it stays relevant for the group, and doesn’t become a distraction from the learning intent. There’s plenty of room here to play around with how I incorporate this type of activity into the learning experience, and also how it becomes an enduring part of the learning experience. There are still a lot of people who are wedded to workbooks, and I’m really keen on how to curate content as an ongoing learning experience. As useful as online collaboration tools are, I also wonder if there’s a trick being overlooked with respect to people being ‘fed’ information via a curator of learning. Lots of wonderings here, and lots still to do.