Podcast | How To Build An Agile L&D Approach

Gary Stringer
August 10, 2023
August 10, 2023

If you’re a small or solo L&D team, the world probably feels like it’s changing faster than ever!

The question is how can we respond, adapt and innovate to solve complex problems?

​The Agile L&D approach will help!

​And Natal Dank (Author of Agile HR: Deliver Value in a Changing World of Work) gives you the tools to build one in this podcast.

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Running order

0:00 Intro to Natal and Agile HR
2:54 What’s agile and why now?
10:46 Direct L&D benefits and relationship
14:59 Fall in love with problems, not solutions
19:15 Working in multi-skilled ways
21:16 The agile mindset for L&D
29:38 Thinking like a scientist and celebrating small wins with agile
35:05 Design principles for agile L&D
43:34 Scaling L&D efforts
47:07 Other agile tactics for L&D
50:22 Audience questions and final thoughts

Lessons on building an agile L&D approach

What is the agile approach, and why is it so crucial now?

Agile methodology has been around for 20 or so years, but until around five years ago, it was more directly connected to the tech industry.

The reasons it became so popular in tech are now business challenges that everyone has to solve, hence its growth as a popular approach.

“It's about ultimately managing risk… If I'm going to work on a product design or a project, I need to know that what I'm going to deliver is going to fix the problem.

“And I need to validate the evidence of that quite early on… I can't spend three to six months working on quite a large program or solution without knowing that this is exactly what the business needs.” - Natal Dank.

As the world becomes more complex, there’s so much we can solve, and we can’t do it all! We have to be ruthless, work out the important things to focus on and try to deliver value as early as possible. Then we can build it up from there.

Can agile help L&D become a more effective function?

“Rather than trying to plan everything up front, when I know the least amount of what's happening, let's put everything that we think we need to do in a backlog.

“And let's now focus on doing something quite quickly to either get a proof of concept or run a quick experiment… People start to use it, and then I've got some data to start working with that I can now decide, okay, do I keep going in that direction or do I change direction?” - Natal Dank.

By working in shorter cycles and focusing on delivering something valuable each cycle, we’re getting closer to what works and what doesn’t - allowing us to eliminate waste.

And we’re able to ditch our assumptions more effectively too! Those short cycles allow us to test hypotheses, see what happens, and use the data to take action.

Lastly, those small experiments ultimately help us determine if these activities will influence wider business metrics, allowing us to drive more impact.

“Take a complex problem, start breaking it down into smaller problems to solve, then decide which one to start with first, and go and test something, get something going.” - Natal Dank

Does it get us closer to our internal customers?

“The concept of agile is that you get close to your customer. So the idea is that by being able to respond, ideally immediately, to your customer needs, you're better able to understand if you're delivering value to that customer.

“So, if we take that into the world of learning, that's getting really close to our people and being very user or human centric in how we deliver what we're doing.” - Natal Dank.

In a nutshell, it helps us understand someone’s problems, how we fix them and which evidence shows we’re doing it.

The mindset needed for an agile approach

“You can't really change your mindset unless you give it a go, try things out and use the tools… ultimately, I find people need to experience agile ways of working so they can have some lightbulb moments.” - Natal Dank.

For example, that could be testing quickly for the first time and getting some really useful feedback that helps you pivot before you sink too much time into it.

Natal shared Simon Powers’ really insightful comment that mindset consists of beliefs, and that’s really relevant here.

🧠 Do we believe the world is complex and therefore can’t be managed as it was?

🧠 Do we believe that bringing skilled people together and self-organising can help us solve complex problems?

🧠 Do we believe in being proactive and driving continuous improvement? Natal shared a great framework for driving this that we’ll get to shortly…

We need those beliefs, or at least a degree of confidence in them, in order to truly invest in agile L&D.

Six design principles for agile L&D

“Agility in the world of L&D and OD can't be separated from design thinking, and that's where you get that human centric design. That's where you get that good discovery work. And it is that kind of concept of prototyping and testing before you go anywhere near implementation.”- Natal Dank.

Design thinking helps us tackle these big issues, especially at the start of a project, and it’s why Natal shared these six principles with us.

Principle 1: Human-centred Design - building an understanding of how people work through personas, experience mapping, interviews and data - then applying that to build user-friendly experiences.

Principle 2: T-shape people in T-shape teams - working in a multidisciplinary way, where collaboration is key, and silos are out.

Principle 3: The Product Mindset - embracing the idea that we’re building and managing products, and we might need to kill some off as we release others.

Principle 4: Experimentation and MVP - testing ideas in shorter cycles to gain early feedback and validation, rather than sinking months into ideas that don’t work. 

Principle 5: Deliver with impact - how do we know that we’re delivering? What’s the measurement or metric that signifies impact?

Principle 6: Scalability - can we do this at scale? And if we properly test and validate at every step, scaling becomes much easier.

Apply a plan, do, review and adapt process

These four steps are your ticket to continuous improvement, empowering you to constantly review what you’ve done and act on those insights.

Ideally, this cycle happens over two-week periods, but no longer than a month in L&D! 

Yes, we have a big-picture plan, but the agile approach is all about adding value, validating ideas, and collecting feedback at speed.

Key questions to ask yourself

- In this cycle, what are we going after or trying to achieve?
- How do we know if we’ll have achieved it? What does that look like?
- Did we get the data we needed? If not, what should we do next?
- How did we work? Review the process as much as the outcomes.
- What’s changed in the business by the end of that cycle that might force you to adapt?