Bringing Lean & Agile to Continuing Professional Development

Sorrel Harriet
6 min readApr 22, 2022

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At Armakuni, continuous learning is at the heart of everything we do, and that applies to how we develop our people as much as it applies to how we develop software.

I was recently revisiting the “Three Ways we apply Lean Principles to the software delivery stream”, as outlined in The DevOps Handbook (Kim et al. 2016) — a staple on the Armakuni reading list. It struck me that the third way— the “principle of continuous learning and improvement” —aligns closely with experiential learning theory , a popular learning theory you’ll hear about on any teaching course (see Kolb (1984) and Gibbs (1988)). The Toyota Improvement Kata (Rother, 2009) is a great example of this: it’s essentially Kolb’s reflect-learn-plan-experience model in a different guise.

The Toyota Improvement Kata. Image copyright: Mike Rother (2009)
Kolb’s experiential learning cycle (Kolb, 1984). Image copyright: Skillshub (2019)

And yet, in the world of CPD (aka continuing professional development), we hear endless reference to ‘learning pathways’. These are essentially curated routes toward a pre-determined end state, often consisting of a series of bitesize modules or short courses which allow learners progress through a curriculum at their own pace. Expertly curated Learning Pathways can be really helpful when the direction is known and unlikely to change in the short-term (it’s also why we don’t tend to let students design their own University courses). But life doesn’t always lend itself to set trajectories. Often we’ll find ourselves seeking to develop and grow in multiple different dimensions at once, and it can be hard to choose and commit to a single learning pathway. For the magpies among us who face this situation in our working lives, there needs to be another way of bringing structure and focus to our learning.

Image: Pixabay

That’s why Learning Plans at Armakuni are not typically ‘Waterfall’. Rather, they are a living artefact used to visualise and sense-make on an individual’s quest for continuous improvement. Allow me to walk you through the process I go through with people to ‘incept’ their learning plans…

Step 1: Identify their ‘North star’

Every learning plan starts with a personal vision statement. This is the individual’s ‘North star’ from which everything else should hang. The personal vision statement can be role oriented, or much broader in scope — it’s up to an individual to determine the scope and timeframe. However, it should connect them to their values, strengths, and ‘the difference they want to make’ in the company or wider world. For this reason we’ll often start the process with a discovery session aimed at identifying their North star.

Below gives you an example of what a personal vision statement discovery might look like. I like to use Miro for developing learning plans because it is malleable and can be as collaborative and visible as an individual wants it to be.

Example ‘Personal Vision Statement’ discovery frame

Step 2: Personal SWOT analysis

After vision comes a personal SWOT analysis. This is where we reduce the scope from ‘boundless’ to ‘bounded’, wherein the boundaries are typically defined by their current or aspirational role. For those unfamiliar with SWOT, it’s an acronym for Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats and it’s a method often used in project planning. I use it in my learning 1–1s to learn how the individual sees themselves and open up conversations around the themes that crop up. It can also be an opportunity to give feedback, and/or offer a person a different perspective.

Step 3: Prioritisation

Whereas the SWOT analysis invites people to go broad, in the next step, we’re seeking to identify priority areas for growth. This can be achieved in various ways. Sometimes we’ll use something resembling the 3 Horizons model, allowing the individual can choose their horizons (e.g. Now-Next-Later). Other times we might use something closer to an Eisenhower Urgency-Importance Matrix. Either way, the goal is the same: identify priorities to feed into a learning backlog.

Step 4: Build a learning backlog

Goal setting is the fourth stage in the process. These are fed into a ‘learning backlog’ which should be reviewed and updated periodically. For the Agilists out there, a ‘Definition of Ready’ for a goal in the learning backlog is this:

  • It needs to be defined in terms of learning (“I want to learn…”);
  • It needs one or more actions associated with it (“I will learn by…”);
  • There must be a definition for success (“I’ll know I’m successful when…”);
  • There must be a deadline attached.
Example learning backlog — a living artefact

None of the above need to be set in stone — they can be honed and tweaked as much as necessary — and there is never a right/wrong way of doing it. For example, success can be defined in abstract or concrete terms (e.g. “I feel confident I could teach someone this” / “I passed the exam”.) I may also encourage an individual to include stages from a reflective model into their backlog where appropriate. For example, actions can include things like, “I will seek feedback from Carol on X” and “I will reflect on Carol’s feedback”. This helps turn something theoretical into a deliberate practice.

The learning backlog is also something a person may choose to make visible to a manager to invite their input. They can move completed goals into a ‘Done’ column (or update their status visually), so the individual has a record of their journey and the progress they are making (handy as evidence for performance reviews.)

Sounds time consuming…isn’t it cheaper to send them on a crash course?

Real learning takes time. You can go on a week-long intensive course and you may only remember a fraction of what was covered. It may take much longer for you to integrate what was learned within your existing practice. Crash courses can be great for gaining a specific skill or exposing you to new possibilities, but there is no real equivalent of a package holiday for learning.

Building and iterating over a learning backlog can seem like a costly investment of time, but it creates space for reflection that might otherwise slip off the agenda. As Toyota, Kolb and others unanimously agree, it’s the constant cycle of experience and reflection that moves people. As the saying goes, education does not guarantee learning.

That’s why we set aside 2 days in each month for everyone at Armakuni to focus on learning, both as a community and independently. We also encourage them to build time into their daily routines for reflection, as well as providing coaching support through our network of pastoral managers.

Thoughts?

What do you think about how we’re embedding continuous learning at Armakuni, and how do you approach it in your organisation?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions via the comments below, or connect with me over LinkedIn.

Gene Kim, Jez Humble et al. (2016) The DevOps Handbook. IT Revolution

David A. Kolb (1984) Experiential Learning. Prentice-Hall

Graham Gibbs (1988) Learning by Doing, A Guide to Teaching and Learning Methods. Oxford Brookes University

Mike Rother (2009) Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement. McGraw Hill

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