Should I Train My Agile Release Train? The Research Says Yes.

August 3, 2020 Focus area: Digital Transformation , Scaling Agile

Two questions that regularly come up when our clients think about starting an Agile Transformation Process (ATP) are: 1. Should I train my employees in the Agile mode of working? If yes, 2. How many employees should I train? It’s tempting to think “we are going to do this ourselves” or “we don’t really need to train that many people”, but this kind of thinking leads to being penny-wise and pound-foolish. You save a few cents, but it costs you a lot more down the road.

An ATP is a mammoth undertaking, make no mistake. You are taking a company and turning its way of working on its head. Ensuring that everyone in the process of the transformation is adequately trained is an essential factor in the success of the ATP. Not training your employees or training them inadequately is akin to building a house without foundations, you saved a bit of money and it might look good for a little while, but all you need is a little pressure and the whole thing collapses.

A recent academic study of 35 agile practitioners from 13 different countries showed conclusively that no training or inadequate training makes an ATP significantly harder or completely ineffective. The authors of the study note the following:

“While comprehensive and effective training is difficult and expensive, it helps organizations to overcome most of the challenges they are faced with during (an) ATP”.

The research identified Five key issues that caused training to be inadequate or ineffective - Partial training, Inappropriate content and non-practical training, Time-boxed training, Lack of time commitment, and Human aspects. The graphic below sets out the issues and effects, together with other factors:

Screenshot 2020-08-03 at 15.15.44.png

Source: T. Javdani Gandomani et al. / Information and Software Technology 57 (2015) 295–309

1. Partial Training

This is an area that we see a regular issue with clients - typically it is one of budget. Clients will state that they cannot send everyone on the particular training because they don’t have the budget allocated for that particular quarter/year, alternately, they don’t have the time and budget. What happens then is that a portion of the team is sent out for training and the remainder is not educated in Agile practices; the hope is that the existing employees will learn from those who went on the training. Our experience and the research in the study shows that this is not the case. One participant in the study stated:

We had only two days training time and managers chose only 20 persons in our company… Most of the raised problems were about the untrained people…

2. Inappropriate content and non-practical training

A question we’ll often get is: “What course just teaches the basics?”. Often the company will try and do a bare minimum training in an attempt to save down-time and money. The problem with that is that there are more specific roles that do require individual training. These roles are often pivotal in the ATP and, if they are not properly equipped, these people can be a major roadblock to the training.

The other issue is not having practical training. One participant in the research stated:

“I have seen many persons that read a lot of books and went to many seminars, but I believe that without practical training, people cannot achieve the real purpose of training”

Theoretical training provides the basis of reference for people, however, there are many practical aspects to an ATP that can only be learnt through doing it. This is where a consultant/coach steps in, bringing the knowledge of previous transformations, leveraging the theory of the training and applying/adapting that theory to the particular circumstance. The study showed that a combination of theoretical and practical training was most effective.

3. Time-boxed training

Because an ATP is a continuing process, it is only logical that training needs to be a continual process, not a once-off time-boxed event. New hires come, people retire, resign and get let go and this churn of staff means that there will always be a need to engage in additional, continuous training. Not only that, existing people with a good foundation of Agile practices still need to have these principles and practices reinforced. This is one of the reasons that companies often hire full-time Agile coaches to assist with continually training people within the company.

4. Lack of time commitment

Everyone in every company is busy. This is just a fact of life. What frequently happens in our experience and what has been noted in the study is that team members and management state that they do not have time to do this “Agile thing” because they are too busy with delivery. This is a sure recipe for failure, as noted by the authors of the study:

“Although it seems that this issue is simple, most of the participants viewed it as a serious issue in practice”

5. Human Factors

The final factor that can cause training to be ineffective is simply a lack of acceptance of the new working mode amongst the employees of the company. Factors such as unhappy employees, or employees who fear losing their jobs and incorrect perceptions of Agile practices were noted as resistance factors that could cause training to be ineffective. This can be remedied by agile coaches/consultants who have been involved in a number of change management scenarios and who know how to navigate these forms of resistance.

According the academic literature, the results of poor training are unrealistic expectations, difficulty of change, lack of deep understanding of Agile values, lack of effective collaboration and low confidence. Each one of these on their own is damaging to any ATP, all of them collectively will ruin any ATP.

If ever you are faced with the question of whether Agile training and consulting services are actually worth it, this body of research puts a strong argument together to say a resounding “yes”. The real question is not whether you should get Agile training and Agile Coaching/Consulting services, but rather how much you should get if you really want to see your Agile transformation succeed.