July 18, 2019

6 Steps to Becoming a Learning Organization

In our ten-plus years of practicing Agile, we’ve learned a few things about how it functions within government – often the hard way.

As I reflected on two of this spring’s big government technology summits in California, Agile Government Leadership (AGL) and Code for America (CfA), I heard mutterings of a common theme: “Agile is great, but it’s been a buzz word and I don’t see how it’s really helping us do things differently. Our projects are still not running as smoothly as we’d like. It’s been hard to implement.”

I kept thinking about what we’re implying by focusing squarely on Agile as an end-all, be-all methodology. Ultimately, I’m realizing it’s not really about implementing Agile. It’s about becoming a learning organization; an organization that has a mindset centered around experimentation, smart risk-taking, and rapid evolution of day-to-day practices.

Pursue Learning, Not Agile

Even on a small scale, Agile transformation isn’t easy. Within government, Agile runs up against common hurdles within teams:

  • Agile doesn’t work within our procurement process
  • We don’t have an internal role setup to hire a Product Owner
  • We still need to tell our higher ups what the plan is for the year and report back to them

Before your organization can adopt Agile – heck, before your organization can adopt any new philosophy or supporting methodologies – you must first and foremost become a learning organization. By shifting your mindset from “We have to do it this way because this is how it’s always been done” to a mindset of “How might we improve the way we are approaching this work?” you have a place to start from.  

Adopting a Learning Mindset

Here are a few take-aways to help ground your team if you are planning or executing an Agile project, adopting human centered design, or undergoing digital transformation:

1.Set the goalpost. Align, as a team, on the problem you are trying to solve. Define what it is you are trying to accomplish. How will you know you have succeeded (hint: what are the metrics of success)? Define how you will accomplish solving this problem. For example, your goal might be to place X number of citizens per month in housing, or reduce the time it takes for them to sign up for Y benefits to 15 minutes.

2. Learn about users. Top of mind and central to your work must be users’ pain points and needs. Success is measured in how closely whatever it is that you’re building, designing, executing meets users’ needs. Immerse yourselves in the world of your users and learn how they’re interacting with products and services now. How does your goalpost line up with their goals? Does it shift how you set your goals and metrics?
Learn how housing or benefit seekers are going about obtaining services today.

3. Learn about the agency. Sit down with subject matter experts, program managers, project sponsors, and all those who work in the field on a daily basis. Understand and build empathy for their pain points and processes.
How are service providers trying to serve housing and benefits seekers today?

4. Summarize & share what you’ve learned. Coalesce what you learned: what’s working well, and pain points. Share this with others and get their feedback. Enroll them in getting excited to work on what’s next.
Create artifacts that visually depict what you have learned in a way that a layperson can  understand.

5. Try one small, new thing. “New” does not mean fixing every problem. It means leveraging what you’ve learned to try to make things better. Your pain points turn into opportunities for improvement. Once you implement your new thing, see how it goes and gather feedback (hint: run a retrospective) from people and use that feedback to implement the next new thing.
This could look like a change in your front desk intake process, running internal meetings in a different way, or deciding to implement Google Analytics on an existing product to learn more about how people are using it.

6. Reflect on the process. How did all of the above feel for your team? Were some parts challenging? Fun? Scary? What would you do differently next time? Checking in during change is key.

Transforming your culture into one that embraces learning will not only help set your team up to adopt Agile practices, but it will help your team adopt new methods of working in the future. This mindset helps build resiliency within team members and promotes a culture of continual change and innovation. If you find that internal stakeholders are skeptical of Agile, this can be a good place to start. The team needs to get used to being curious, experimenting, and failing – all in-service of learning. Then, once you are ready to dive deeper into Agile itself, pick a small project to start with where you can fail comfortably without fear of consequences.

If you’re interested in learning more about pursuing learning within projects, check out our blog post on Agile Management Coaching. For another resource on Agile projects, Jeff Gothelf has a great take. And, as always, reach out to continue the conversation.

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