What Do We Really Mean By Agile?

Friday, October 23, 2015

Agile helps manage the time and budget invested in a project. It also helps project managers better target the deliverables required to meet the project’s goals. But why should L&D professionals use a project management method derived from the information technology (IT) industry?

To a certain extent the process of developing software and the process of developing training are parallel. They face many of the same types of project stakeholders: sponsors, subject matter experts (SMEs), developers, users, and learners. They also face many of the same types of problems: SMEs who aren’t dedicated, ever-changing business needs, and lack of clearly defined requirements.

Agile works best for projects with clear (even if they’re moving) start and end dates and deliverables. However, Agile does not work well with support functions, such as LMS help desk support, or the ongoing delivery of classroom curricula.

4 Types of Agile

At least four different uses of the word agile are active in the training world. While there is some overlap, knowing which agile you’re using is important.

Content Agility is the capability to deliver learning material in a variety of formats. Think of this as a “write once, publish many” approach with the same content and structure being delivered through multiple platforms. Most content management systems and higher order content authoring systems allow for content agility.

Learning Agility is a person’s ability to handle new problems and challenges based on prior learning and experience. It’s essential for effective leadership and innovation, and can be fostered by an organization’s culture around learning and growth.

AGILE Instructional Design is a design approach to a learning project with five stages: align, get set, iterate and implement, leverage, and evaluate. AGILE is designed to support learning teams as they rapidly deploy both formal learning and complementary performance-support mechanisms for informal learning.

Agile Project Management is a method for managing a creative project process, one in which team members experiment and observe to improve a product as it is developed. Agile project management works well when the design and development involves creative and complex decisions, when the specifications may not be well defined, and when business needs shift. To handle all this change, the Agile project management approach builds deliverables in small increments, releases usable products frequently, and uses those releases to gather feedback. LLAMA—the Lot Like Agile Management Approach—is a modification of the traditional Agile technique to support instructional design and development projects.

Iterative Development

A hallmark of Agile project management is the iterative development approach, also known as successive approximation. In this approach, you release small, meaningful portions of your project to gather feedback and make changes to implement in the next round of work.


Many of us are in the business of building training to give both our learners and the organizations they work for a strategic competitive advantage. So it is important to get it right. Sometimes instructional designers bristle at the thought of 11th-hour changes to their projects. However, by expecting these changes, and accepting them willingly, your team can ensure that the training they deliver is up-to-the-minute.

This isn’t always easy, but it is essential. Perhaps the best way to describe iterative development is to compare it to something more familiar—the ADDIE model that is typically drawn as a linear progression through five phases: analyze, design, develop, implement, and evaluate. While in an ideal world the ADDIE model’s evaluate step leads directly into the next iteration of the linear progression, the realities of life in an organization with multiple pressing priorities means that this doesn’t happen as often as it should.

In the LLAMA approach, the ADDIE steps are done in more rapid succession, completing several iterations in the same timeframe. In that sense, the team doesn’t wait until the very end of the project to get feedback from the sponsor, SMEs, and potential learners. The goal is to produce several iterations of the training, each of which is a usable version. The instructional design team benefits from feedback before the course is fully built so that changes can easily be made.

During each iteration, you’ll release what’s known as the minimum viable product, or MVP. The MVP is the simplest version of the deliverable that is still viable to release into the world—often to a very small subset of pilot testers or reviewers to get their feedback. During the scoping and planning phases of the project, you’ll identify ways in which you can plan for releasable iterations and MVPs throughout the project.

Iterations are typically released every two weeks to two months, depending on the scope of the project. After each iteration is released, you receive feedback and make changes to the work. These changes are defined in terms of learner stories, or, in many cases, simply a list of things to revise. The team estimates the work effort associated with each change, confirms with the project sponsor that the adjustments are worth the work effort required to make them, and begins the planning and scheduling process for the new iteration.

Early and frequent iterative releases also keep you and the project team from getting too far off track, both in terms of facts and scope, and in terms of project estimates because you’re working with smaller durations of time. Should the organizational imperative underlying the training change during the project, you already have a built-in communication mechanism with the project sponsor to learn about the change as soon as possible. A common mistake is to require sign-off or commitment from reviewers and the project sponsor at each iteration. Unfortunately this sets the team up for struggle and possible failure. Requirements are constantly changing and we have a mandate to keep up with them, rather than resist them. Sign-off is a process for shutting down changes and closing doors behind you, rather than keeping them open and keeping up with the speed of change.

For more advice on how to manage instructional systems design and development projects using Agile project management, join me for the ATD Agile Project Management Virtual Workshop on November 13, 2015.

Editor’s Note: This post is excerpted from TD at WorkAgile and Llama for ISD Project Management” (ATD Press, 2014).

About the Author

Megan Torrance is the Chief Energy Officer of TorranceLearning, an elearning design and development firm outside of Ann Arbor, MI. She has spent over two decades knee-deep in projects involving change management, instructional design, consulting and systems deployment. Megan thrives on design excellence and elegant project management. And coffee. She and the TorranceLearning team have developed the LLAMA project management approach, blending Agile with excellent instructional design techniques. TorranceLearning projects have won IELA and BrandonHall awards, and the 2014 xAPI Hyperdrive contest at DevLearn.

Publications include “A Quick Guide to LLAMA: Agile Project Management for Learning,” and “Agile and LLAMA for ISD Project Management,” a TD at Work. Megan has written for TD Magazine several times including the article, “What is xAPI” in the February 2016 issue. 

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