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Valerie Nichols

Hemsley Fraser

Executive consultant

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How agile design creates effective learning


Agile design is a new way to quickly create learning that meets the needs of the business in a changing world, says Valerie Nichols.

In the old days, designing a learning programme was a time-consuming, systematic and sequential process. Regardless of whether you’re an internal or external learning practitioner, you’d meet with your ‘client’, discuss their requirements, then you’d go away and develop something to meet their need.

You’d bring back your recommendation, which inevitably would need tweaking, either because the requirements had changed or there’d been some misunderstanding along the way. With luck, the required tweaking would be minimal but it was always possible that there’d be a major flaw in your proposal that would need significant reworking. So, again, you’d go away to make your revisions and this would continue until you eventually reached an agreement.

This traditional, to-and-fro approach, where each stage built on the results of the prior phase, is now being challenged by a new methodology called agile learning design. Borrowed from the IT community, where it has been used to enhance software development, ‘agile’ is a design process that meets the needs of a business in a changing world. It allows dedicated teams to collaborate simultaneously to quickly create a viable and valuable solution - and it’s just as effective for designing learning as it is for designing software.

For example, at Hemsley Fraser we’re working with a client which has redesigned roles in its business, following a reorganisation. A training need therefore arose to explain the new roles to all staff. Using agile design, we’ve been able to create and deliver this training just six weeks after agreeing the contract, a speed previously unheard of.

Agile design - like the traditional, to-and-fro approach - starts by understanding the client’s requirements and objectives. However, you then split the learning goals into component parts and identify the various stakeholders in different functions who should be involved in collaborative teams. The teams could comprise L&D instructional designers, the client’s internal subject matter experts, as well as learners themselves and their managers. This gives you multiple perspectives. Everyone in a team collaborates together, working side-by-side to create a solution. The provider doesn’t go away and bring something back for approval. Everyone concerned is involved in the design. 

Structured approach

Although the solutions are created collaboratively, this is still a structured approach. A key benefit is that it ensures buy-in and ownership. Each team simultaneously develops its own specific component of the whole. They each create a rough prototype, get feedback on it and make any necessary changes. All the various component parts are then brought together, to form a programme that is ready for release because it has been pre-approved at every level. 

This is very different to the traditional way of working in project teams. Usually, projects are built around specific milestones, deliverables and due dates. While agile design still requires an overarching project plan, there’s an acceptance that details in the plan may need to change as the teams involved respond to what’s needed and to changing circumstances. The big advantage of this is that the business gets exactly what it needs - when it needs it - because all levels have been involved in creating and testing the component parts.

Another benefit is that the process can be undertaken very rapidly. This has caught the attention of L&D teams that need to respond to rapid change. And that’s you - unless you’re in a very stable organisation, which has very straightforward training needs.

Technology, of course, can play a part in facilitating agile design. For example, we use an interactive display screen to create and agree on designs with clients in the moment, by discussing options, previewing them and adding content, knowledge assets and digital files to visually create a prototype. We’ve found that a key advantage of this is that you get absolute clarity and a shared understanding of the expectations, plus you can reach a consensus in as little as one meeting. What’s more, your client could either be sitting in front of you throughout this process or they could be sharing a screen thousands of miles away.

Two drawbacks

Before you get carried away by the advantages of agile design, there are two potential stumbling blocks:

1. It won’t work if the business doesn’t participate. Stakeholders at all levels in the business need to commit time and effort to the process - and this must be made clear to them at the outset.

2. The end result is unpredictable. This has implications for managing expectations and also for procurement. In traditional procurement, you’ll agree exactly what will be provided. However, with agile design, the learning goals will be met through an iterative process. If you’re working with an external contractor, this makes it difficult to agree a fixed-price contract, as the requirements may change during the process. If you’re an internal provider, you’ll need to ensure that the executives who sponsor your programme understand - and are comfortable with - the unpredictable nature of agile design. This can be a challenge for managers who like the ‘foreseeable certainty’ of traditional project plans. A good way forward is to focus on the outcome, not the outputs. In other words, instead of describing specific deliverables in a project plan, state the overall goal - why you’re doing it - and provide cost estimates for each iteration.

Whether you want to create a high-end customised solution or simply breathe new life into an existing learning programme, agile design is an innovative, collaborative and democratic option. Yes, the process involves fundamental changes in the sponsoring agreements, the working relationships and the deliverables but, ultimately, it can quickly deliver effective learning that will benefit the business.

Valerie Nichols is an executive consultant with Hemsley Fraser, the learning and development company. She can be contacted via

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Valerie Nichols

Executive consultant

Read more from Valerie Nichols

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