“Agile” is almost as hot these days as “mobile” and “gamification” when it comes to training industry buzz words. Sure, agility sounds like it could be a cornerstone of your workplace wellness program, but in fact it has a lot more to do with the overall health of your projects.

What is agile project management?

Agile project management is an approach for managing a creative project process, where team members both accept and expect change along the way. The team develops successive iterations of a product and uses their resulting observations to further improve the result. By comparison, a strict interpretation of the ADDIE model (analyze, design, develop, implement, evaluate) and other linear approaches works well in situations where all the inputs and outputs are known in advance. In a strictly linear model, change is often resisted as it throws project schedules and deliverables out of whack.

How agile works for eLearning development

Agile project management, originally conceived by the software industry, lends itself well to eLearning design and development projects where, if we’re lucky, we’re making creative and complex decisions along the way. How often do your customers (internal or external) know exactly what they want before the project starts? How often does that change once they see what you’ve built? How often does the underlying subject change in middle of the development project? We don’t live in a world that stands still while we build the CBT for it. And, I dare say, every once in a while we get a great idea that changes everything right in the middle of ADDIE’s development “D.” What to do? Get agile.

There’s a lot to it. For now, let’s start with what I call the “hallmarks of agile”—practices that agile teams adopt to manage their projects to bring them in at the right time, with the right budget, and with the right solution.

Define scope with user stories

An agile team sits down with stakeholders, learners, and subject-matter experts to define scope based on specific functions or actions they must accomplish. This business-performance-focused approach gets the project off to a solid start. Product-based projects (think performance support, LMS implementations, etc.) will tend to use a method based on creating “user stories” to define desired functionality. For instructional-design projects, use performance-based methods like Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping.

Break it down

When you break scope requirements and work tasks into small chunks, it’s easier to estimate your work and the project as a whole. Estimating is a whole other topic in and of itself, so for now we’ll focus on keeping things small. Complex tasks become simpler—and estimable—when you break them down into their component parts. And, as you’re working along, you’ll know when your estimates are off sooner if you work in small bursts. How small? Each team sets their own pace and has their own culture, but we’ve found that two- to four-hour tasks work well for many project teams. 

Produce frequent iterations to collect feedback

Using an agile project management approach, a team builds their deliverables in small increments, releases usable training frequently, and uses those releases to collect feedback early and often. Sound like the successive approximation model (SAM)? Successive approximation, aka iterative development, is central to agile methodology. It’s how you proactively gather feedback and, yes, changes, so you can further improve your product.

Accept and expect changes in requirements

Many of us are in the business of building training to give our learners and their organizations a strategic competitive advantage. It’s important to get it right. Some in our industry bristle at the thought of “eleventh-hour changes” to our projects. In expecting these changes to come, and accepting them willingly, we ensure that the training we deliver is up-to-the-minute. Now I’m not saying this is easy—however, it is essential. It’s what being agile is all about. When you produce an iteration, each release is an opportunity to gather feedback that influences future iterations. It’s ADDIE’s evaluation “E.”

Communication, communication

Agile is a full-contact sport. Frequent communications with business sponsors, with subject-matter experts, with learners, and within the team are essential. Not only does this help you manage the day-to-day workflow, but it is also a key method for gathering changes and ensuring that you’ve got the message right. Agile teams connect daily to coordinate their efforts in what’s called a daily scrum, or a synch-up, or a huddle, to name a few commonly used terms. In these meetings, team members share what they accomplished in the previous day, what’s planned for the day ahead, and what they’re stuck on and need help for. Customers and SMEs are involved in daily or weekly meetings, depending on the pace of the project. Learners are involved at each iteration in the feedback-gathering process.

Live in a visual world

One of the keys to managing small tasks and responding to change is a visual, vibrant, accessible, and living project plan. Whether it’s index cards and thumbtacks or a cloud-based tool, everyone has access to the plan, updates their own task completions, and knows exactly where the project stands at a glance. This is not a neat Gantt chart that’s made once and then shelved, or, at best, updated only on status-reporting days. An agile project plan is a living creature that shifts and adjusts as the work is completed each day.

What comes next?

In the months ahead, I will be addressing the key steps outlined above in tips that will appear in Learning Solutions Magazine, and in a Guild Academy course that will provide depth and practice. In the meantime, please post your questions in the Comments on this article!

Want more?

Megan Torrance will teach a Guild Academy course, Agile Project Management for eLearning, starting May 13, 2014. Sign up for this course and learn how to apply agile project management techniques to scope out a project, estimate and plan the work, generate frequent iterations to gather more feedback, and welcome constant change into the development process. Find out how to select a first project to use agile, how to train your team, and how to get your internal and/or external clients on board. Since agile is just as much a state of mind as it is a project-management method, you’ll also explore daily practices for implementing agile in your workplace.

Sign up now before this one-of-a-kind class fills! See the course page for details. There is a substantial discount for Guild members!