Why Training Courses are killing your chance to be Agile

It seems like agile training courses are sprouting up everywhere here in Australia. I seem to even be getting emails from places I don’t even remember subscribing to about 1 and 2 day courses designed to teach you everything you need to know about everything from Lean and XP to Scrum, and even get professional development points from organisations like PMI for attending. Many believe that all they need to do is to go on a course and that will make them agile. The problem is that this belief is killing people’s success with agile adoption.

20% of agile projects fail because of lack of competence

The State of Agile Survey in 2011 reported that 28% of agile projects fail because people simply don’t have the necessary skills.

  • 13% didn’t know why their agile project failed.
  • 11% recognised their failure was because they lacked agile expertise.
  • 5% report their teams had insufficient training.

In 2012, the picture of agile adoption has improved, but not significantly:

  • 6% didn’t know why their agile project failed.
  • 9% understand that they lacked the agile experience to assure its success.
  • 4% report insufficient training was the cause of their failure.

Skills training for agile methods alone is the wrong model — it only makes you consciously incompetent

The science of social and behavioural psychology reinforces that agile projects fail because those who lack experience, or who are unconsciously incompetent, lack the ability to critically self-rate that expertise. On average, people who are unconsciously incompetent rate their ability as above average compared to those who are competent [1].

Perceived logical reasoning ability and test performance as a functional of actual test performance
Perceived logical reasoning ability and test performance as a functional of actual test performance. Kruger & Dunning (2009)

Competence, however, doesn’t come from training. As agile methods are process-based, competency with Scrum, for example, must be based on behaviour. An agile competency model, therefore, requires:

  • An understanding of the process and its rules — from either a book or training.
  • The ability to apply them — applying the rules using scenario-based training.
  • The opportunity to apply them “on the job” — on a real project guided by teacher or mentor so that old behaviours are unlearned and apply new ones applied and reinforced in a real-life context.

A psychological model for competency emphasises “on the job” training is vital

Bandura’s[3]  models for learning reinforce that becoming competent with agile methods, like Scrum, requires a number of steps over a period of time:

  1. Attention — In order for an individual to learn Scrum, they must pay attention to an experienced Scrum practitioner’s behaviour. A coach fulfils this requirement.
  2. Retention —  People need to be able to remember details of the behaviour in order to learn and later reproduce the behaviour. Training is only the starting point. A coach will reflect on the behaviour during Retrospectives in order to reinforce what people should be thinking about and doing when putting Scrum into action.
  3. Reproduction — In reproducing a behaviour, an people must organise their responses in accordance with the model behaviour. This ability only improves with practice.
  4. Motivation — There must be an incentive or motivation driving the individual’s reproduction of the behaviour. Even if all of the above factors are present, a person will often fall back into “Waterfall”-style behaviours if  they don’t see any advantage in reproducing Scrum behaviours.

Bandura’s models as an agile adoption method for teams and coaches

Bandura’s work in behavioural and social psychology [3] ultimately tells us that people don’t learn by trying something, failing, and then learning from their mistakes. People learn from watching others succeed and then replicating what they observe to be the factors that contributed to that success. This is the basis of “on the job” modern apprenticeship and traineeship programs and is why Scrum coaches are invaluable in enabling a team to become agile. Scrum coaches are “unconsciously competent”. A good coach not only know the rules of Scrum, and why they apply, but what happens when Scrum’s rules and processes are not adhered to or changed. A great one understands that skills adoption, learning and behaviour are all part of a psychological approach to becoming unconsciously competent.

Conclusions

Deming noted that to lead transformation, people must learn the psychology of individuals, the psychology of a group, the psychology of society, and the psychology of change. Adopting Scrum is no different. It means that success in becoming competent with Scrum means learning new skills and behaviours and that this requires modelling the behaviour of an experienced individual — an agile coach. If you’re considering going on a training course ensure that it’s part of a wider strategy to enlist a coach to help your skills become behaviour.

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1. Kruger, J. & Dunning, D. (2009) Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognising one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.

2. Sincero, M. S. (2011). What is social learning theory.

3.  Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. General Learning Press.

4. Deming, E. W. (1993) The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education.

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