Agile encourages and provides opportunities to keep learning from experience. However, short iterations create continuous pressure to keep delivering the working software. Enhanced visibility also robs any possibility of having hidden buffers to think, explore, discuss and learn. If you have experienced this and feel frustrated because you are caught in the present ways of working, then this session is for you.
Working with our project teams, I realized that there are ways to overcome this challenge once we understand what stops us from learning. What I noticed is that we focus too much on time management. It is a legacy from the days of mass production and time & motion studies. With work becoming more and more white collar in nature and especially with agile approach and its emphasis on responding to change over following a plan, managing attention has become far more important. Watching our attention in action is a great habit to develop and highly beneficial while working under pressure.
Another simple but very effective tip is to keep asking "what next" after completing each action. We always have multiple threads running. Each thread is not a continuous chain of actions, but typically quick actions followed by pauses in between. These pauses cause our attention to be lost from many of the threads we are currently not focused on. Just asking this simple question and making sure that we know what the next action is and when we can take it is so important. I have found this to be a great habit not just at work, but in every walk of life.
Learning from experience isn’t really about problems and solutions. It is more about exceptions and opportunities. The moment we think of an exception as a problem, we are in a hurry to either defend it or accept it, closing any possibility of looking for different opportunities for change and improvement. It is important to avoid this emotional attachment. Calling it exception helps, as it is a neutral term.
There are plenty of small exceptions which keep popping up around us all the time. Many we don’t even notice. Some we notice but brush aside as statistically insignificant. But every exception has a potential to provide an unexpected improvement opportunity so far missed. It is important to be aware that they exist even if we decide not to do anything about them immediately.
Apart from exceptions that keep happening on their own, it is good to occasionally & intentionally create exceptions by doing something different. This surfaces the inherent risks early and helps us deal with them before they become big problems.
We normally think of interactions as a way of sharing information and knowledge. We also realize the value in getting different perspectives. But the real value of interaction lies in acting as a trigger to help us see what was already there but we were missing it. It is as if the locked-up system energy (or synergy for short) is suddenly released.
During the session we will see many real-life examples, for which you will see parallels in your own experience. Conferences such as this provide a great opportunity to share our experiences with other participants and the speaker. You get a chance to verify the solutions offered by the speaker by discussing them in small groups how you would put them in practice, while you ask the speaker for clarifications if any.
Once we are aware of these possibilities, the next step is to put them in practice. It is not enough to do it once in a way. With discipline we need to keep repeating till they become a habit, a second nature. Once this happens, it doesn’t require our attention. It just becomes part of what we do and needs no extra time.
Apart from practicing these solutions individually, we can make use of the Scrum events like sprint planning, daily huddles and sprint reviews to share within the team small but significant ways we can keep improving ourselves. Once agreed, many of these can be put in practice immediately. However, there are some changes which have wider implications and can be captured in our tracking system for use during the sprint-end retrospectives.
This is useful but not sufficient. Reality keeps changing while we are stuck in our old habits. We encounter new situations where tips learned earlier may no longer work. We need to know not only what currently works, but also understand “Why it works”.
Humans by nature want to delegate the routine to machines or tools or other human beings so that we can focus more the creative aspects. However, we can’t delegate all routine work to others; so we delegate it to our muscle memory which works below our conscious level, freeing us to focus our attention on the non-routine. This leads to habits which are not so easy to change. As we say, old habits die hard.
When we are faced with a compelling new reality which is different from our assumed reality, there is a creative tension. We consciously try new way of working. When it works, we try it some more. After some time we feel comfortable and relegate to our habits and can forget about it. So learning from experience is all about moving from one stable state to the next, through a period of instability.
Here Kolb learning cycle with its four stages comes to our aid. We will see how the inspection and adaption through the cycle of daily stand-ups and sprint-end retrospectives can progressively help us keep learning. During a daily stand-up each team member who speaks is in a state of “Concrete experience” (Doing / having experience). Others who are watching are in “Reflective observation” (Reviewing / reflecting on the experience). After a minute or two, when next person starts to speak, they switch their roles.
Retrospectives represent the next stage “Abstract conceptualization” (concluding / learning from the experience). The next stage “Active experimentation” (planning / trying out what you have learnt) needs to be split in two parts. Planning should happen in the retrospective meeting itself. Trying out would happen during actual work as appropriate. Proof of effective learning can be noticed while we work and during stand-ups, thus closing the cycle with “Concrete experience”.
We also will see how the Kolb learning styles can be used to suit individual preferences of the learners. They can also be used as per the needs of different parts of the learning cycle.
We will also see how the real-life examples we saw earlier can be explained by Mezirow’s "critical reflection” which helps us to understand how the new experiences become catalysts and lead to transformative learning.