I’ve covered agile software development methodologies in a favorable light from a journalistic perspective for a number of years, and last month at The eLearning Guild’s DevLearn 2016 Conference & Expo, I was thrilled to see Megan Torrance promoting the use of agile’s best practices in the training industry. The agile manifesto, compiled more than 15 years ago, is hardly out of date today in its principles or core tenets—and her explanation for why agile has just as much of a place in the development of modern, innovative training offerings made perfect sense.

When Torrance asked her DevLearn 2016 session attendees, “How many of you are using or are looking to start using agile?” maybe a third of the room of 60 or so raised their hands, and in a later interview she told me that was one of the highest numbers of agile users she’d ever seen when asking that question. Agile is not being used by everyone in training today, and even as an agile devotee, I can admit that’s … okay. After chatting with some in the room to learn how their agile journeys were going, answers ranged from “Awesome” to “We’re having some difficulty scaling” to “We’re really in the early days and are just trying to keep our heads above water.”

I believe that one of the reasons that software and training development teams have both such success and difficulty with agile is that it’s impossible to find a single definition or approach to agile that the world can agree on. While this ambiguity enables anyone “doing” agile to find the collection of methodologies, processes, and tools that work best for their needs, this can also result in aspiring agile practitioners becoming confused about where to begin, or having difficulty knowing exactly what they’re even beginning.

When asked who would be willing just to define agile, even fewer hands went up in Torrance’s class. There might have been three willing participants, and I was one of them. Torrance’s own definition was solid enough: “A collection of tools and techniques that result in better products for our customers.” But, again, with that level of freedom when it comes to choosing that collection of tools and techniques—especially at a conference where seemingly every expo vendor is promising “better products for your customers”—you can see why agile confusion runs so rampant.

Personally, even though the Merriam-Webster definition of agile is just as ambiguous in its meaning, I think it’s better than any others I’ve heard—especially when those looking to become more agile realize that the secret is first striving to improve the agility of their customers.

According to Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary, agile means:

1 : able to move quickly and easily

2 : quick, smart, and clever

    • an agile mind
    • an agile writer
    • an agile thinker

While training or software development organizations technically never “become” agile (it’s a goal you never stop working toward), their customers can absolutely reach this state of nirvana, and prioritizing their agility over their competition’s—or even your own agility—is how you get there.

Think about it. What abilities and qualities do learners need? All of the above. With “change” being a synonym of “move,” and the business world around your learners changing every day, learners themselves must be agile enough to easily keep up with—or ideally, to stay ahead of—those changes. Whether it’s moving from an outdated process to a new one, launching a new software feature to your business partners or customers, or changing the way support tickets are handled, the agility of your customers to quickly adopt those changes should be priority number one.

And it very well may turn out that giving yourselves “the ability to move quickly and easily” is the key to giving your customers that same power. Your agility will likely impact that of your learners, but let’s not get so hung up on trying to answer, “How do we become more agile?” and then assuming your customers’ agility will follow. I believe that the training industry, and the software development industry as a whole, would benefit by being able to report the increased agility of their customers, and not just of themselves.