Lightning Cross-Training for Organizational Development

Added to People

At Agile2018, we trialed what we called ‘Agile Circuit training’. It was intended to be a high-energy Friday morning session (i.e. after the Thursday night party) where people got sound bites on multiple topics and left the session with practical takeaways. Troy was asked to participate in this as a speaker for one of those topics… unsurprisingly covering Data and Metrics. The rough mechanics are five separate learning stations (each equipped with a flip chart and round table) around the room and five separate “experts” on their topic. At the start the participants are spread out across the stations, then after ten minutes, the participants are moved to the next, taking two minutes to settle. After 60 minutes, every attendee has heard each topic.

Lightning talks are very short, usually 5 to 10 minutes focused on a single topic. The benefits for the audience are obvious: dense information, and if they don’t like a topic just wait a few minutes and they get to hear another topic. Often overlooked, though, is the benefit to the speaker. When speaking about a topic you know really well and are passionate about, it is easy. However, making it brief is incredibly hard. Authoring a lightning talk about something you know well is hard. Really hard.

To author a lightning talk you have to distill the messages into simple statements. You don’t have time to build a story arc, you just have time to convey five key messages (two minutes each). Under these constraints, you have to select topics very very carefully. And you need to make sure the messages are clear and don’t require prerequisite information the audience doesn’t possess. Balancing these requirements means many topics you “want” to talk about don’t make the cut. It’s heartbreaking.

This is a session that is quite easy to present and envisage in a conference setting. This article explains how to take this concept and apply it to organizational development goals.

Organizational Development Goals and First Attempt

Organizational development (OD) calls for the development of people, requiring:

  • Current experts to continually learn and a stream of successors to be developed
  • Empathy between different skill sets (knowing what others do) is required
  • Learning why others struggle is vital
  • Helping the organization learn the stressors between groups – the organization’s connective tissue injuries

To help build empathy and understanding between groups, this lightening process proved pivotal. Each Vice President or Senior Director of a group prepared a lightning talk about what their groups do, how they do it and their struggles (with others). Using a similar setup to the conference circuit training, using nothing but flip charts and tables, the attendees got a sixty-minute exposure to their own and other groups’ information.

Organizational and personal development is multi-pronged. For the presenters, they had to learn their key messages. For the attendees, they got to learn about things they never even considered. Everyone also got to chat with each other. These interactions weren’t forced or official, which made them even more valuable. Learning that others were facing or had solved similar struggles, and learning that you are the cause of struggles is the first step to resolution. The goal isn’t to solve them during this one event, it’s about setting the conditions to cause them to be solved – when and where is largely out of your control.

Lessons and Improvements

It may shock you to realize that the leaders (VPs and Senior Directors) of a group don’t really know what is going on! Although it’s hard to sell that, the initial run of this type of event should be presented by anyone other than the leader of a group as it’s not the best way to develop staff. Not all information makes it to the leaders. To maximize cohesion between groups, the people doing the work are often better positioned to share. Alternating and surveying the attendees after the event for value might help assign the right future speaker profile.

A key responsibility for leaders is to develop their successors and their successors to develop theirs. Having successors prepare and present will give them a taste of leading and cultivate the trust of their peers and encourage this. It can also be educational for the leaders to just listen for a while and learn by attending the other tables.

Even if not attended by all staff, there is value for regularly running this event for new hires. This type of cross-learning will help the new employees bind into the organization with an understanding of how cross-group interaction works. These people will become invaluable to solving the flow inhibitors between dependent groups.

Final Thoughts

Consider using circuit training in your organizational development tool chest. It not only helps the attendees but develops the speakers’ ability to quickly share their most important points with the audience. Something we all could improve upon.

Who knows – we might see you at Agile2020 sharing your experiences of trying this within your organization.


About the Authors

Agile Alliance is a nonprofit organization with global membership, supporting and serving the Agile software community since 2001. We support people who explore and apply Agile values, principles, and practices to make building software solutions more effective, humane, and sustainable. We share our passion to deliver software better every day.

Emma comes with a degree in Computer Science many moons ago and chose to work as a test engineer, starting out as a compiler tester in the semi conductor chip industry. During this time she became familiar with both hardware and software and used many languages to develop and enhance automated testing against a suite of tools and enable developers to be able to initiate their own builds and determine the status of these and allow them to investigate build issues early.
This good grounding in the development lifecycle and the varied development activities form what is now called DevOps, develop build and test through to release was invaluable to the rest of her career.
She has continued this career path under different job titles and in different methodologies and varied languages but always believing that it is important to consider the whole cycle from conception through to value delivery, support and maintenance. This led to a feeling of affinity with agile and she now works as an agile coach. She has been actively involved in training and coaching internally throughout her career but stepped out of her comfort zone to reach a wider audience within the community. Being part of the BBST training team, speaking at conferences and running workshops and continually learning.

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This is an Agile Alliance community blog post. Opinions represented are personal and belong solely to the author. They do not represent opinion or policy of Agile Alliance.

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