MVP (acronym explained below) is a concept that can improve agile project management planning by ensuring that teams iterate intelligently. To unpack that sentence, let’s back up a little.

Agile project management emerged from the agile software development model, which emphasizes iteration, testing, and incorporating feedback from that testing into the next iteration. Agile “sprints” quickly produce iterations of a software product. The approach focuses on customer experience, collaborative development, and responsiveness to customer feedback.

Agile project management, according to Megan Torrance, chief energy officer at TorranceLearning, is “a way to manage the near-constant change we face in our organizations … with an attitude that expects and accepts change.” But to succeed, it’s not enough to iterate. Iterations have to work; they have to move the team—and product—to the end goal of an eLearning product that enables learners to meet learning and performance goals.

Enter the MVP.

What’s an MVP? It’s a minimum viable product. Torrance describes the MVP as “the simplest thing that could possibly work.”

“The goal is to get a simple version of the solution out into the hands of the users to make sure that you’re on the right track and identify the highest-priority things to do next,” she said.

In essence, the MVP is the “first draft” of a product, and it has to meet the threshold of a successful iteration. A sketch or wireframe is not an iteration. According to Torrance, an iteration has to:

  • Do real work,
  • Be able to be evaluated, and
  • Actually be evaluated…

For the iteration to be evaluated, someone has to use it—and provide feedback. That feedback has to be gathered, studied, and, most importantly, used to improve the next iteration.

In short, the first iteration—the MVP—has to be a reasonable stand-in for the actual product under development.

Without the MVP, all is lost

“The MVP is the thing that actually makes an iterative development process—like agile, LLAMA, or SAM—work,” Torrance said.

That’s not an exaggeration. The idea behind an iterative process is creating a “rough version of a product” with the express purpose of getting feedback on it. There are two enormous benefits, Torrance said:

  • It’s easier to make changes to an early “draft” than to a finished product.
  • Problems and needed changes are identified “before you’ve burned all your budget and timeline developing the ‘perfect’ finished product.”

“Each cycle of an iterative development process is an opportunity to advance the product both iteratively (making it better) and incrementally (making it more). For an eLearning product, it could be things like fine-tuning scripts and graphics (iteratively) and moving from a script-and-screen draft to a playable online draft (incrementally),” Torrance said.

Defining the MVP

Before defining an MVP, the project team has to clearly define the learning objectives, which are related to the client’s or organization’s business goals. A business goal solves a business problem. Training is not a goal; training is a means to an end—solving the business problem.

Torrance recommends starting by defining an observable goal. “What will I see a successful learner doing on the job after the course?” An observable goal uses an action verb, for example:

  • The employee will enter data accurately (then define “accurately”)
  • The employee will provide verbal feedback to direct reports
  • The employee will make sandwiches (or pack orders or assemble widgets) according to the established process and to meet defined standards

Next, the team has to define what the learners need to know in order to meet the observable goal. That’s what the eLearning will teach them.

Agile project management, like agile software development, encourages working out loud, publicly, collaboratively. Torrance suggests breaking down goals into discrete tasks (see “The Secret of Better Project Management: Task Cards”), and creating task cards—or sticky notes, or lines on a whiteboard—where each task is defined. Tasks should be small, and planners should keep constraints in mind: deadlines, budget, staff schedules—and scope.

Once the goals are clear, planning begins. Plan from big to small, Torrance advises, and work small to large: Define and create the MVP first.

Don’t skimp on user testing

“The biggest mistake I see people making is in not getting their iterations out to actual users,” Torrance said. 

Developers often do testing with the client, with SMEs, or with team members. But that’s not really going to tell them whether the eLearning will work with the people who actually need to use it.

Developing an advisory board or committee, or other group of actual learners—people who might actually use the end product or who closely reflect the abilities and knowledge level of the real learners—is one way to conduct meaningful user testing. Another is creating learner “personas”—archetypes or “learner stories” that capture the business needs and desired performance outcomes of the typical learner. (For more on personas, see “Personas Place Developer Focus on Learners’ Needs.”)

“Ideally, you should be testing your MVPs with the primary learner persona(s) for your project or as close as you can get. So if you’re building new-hire training, test an MVP on actual new hires, or people who are recent new hires, or the immediate supervisors of new hires,” Torrance said.

For a project to train mentors and their protégés, Torrance said, “Our first iteration was a live ILT [instructor-led training] that we delivered to members of the target audience. We then made adjustments to that ILT course, gave it to the client, then started working on the eLearning courses. We used the ILT version of the course to validate the content and the job aids for the program.”

So, yes, it takes time to do actual user testing, but the whole point of iterative processes—like agile project management and development—is to be responsive to learners’ needs, so it is time well spent. “Perfect is in the eyes of the user, not the developer,” Torrance said. It’s not (only) about whether learners “like” the product or even whether they can pass tests based on the content; it’s about the learners’ performance after completing the eLearning: “Specifically, we’d really like to know if the users can perform the tasks successfully as a result of the training.”

Data gathered by testing the MVP and each successive iteration is used to improve the next version. Project managers generally set the number of iterations at the beginning of the management and development cycle; three iterations is common.