When I went in search of a tool to support virtual Rapid Learning Cycles Learning Cycles plans, the main requirement was that it duplicate the experience of working with sticky notes as closely as possible. When I looked for tools to support the Learning Cycle plan, I looked for things that would make it easy to plan and then easy to replan.
The biggest mistake that I’ve seen teams make when choosing a tool is to choose one that leads to brittle plans that are hard to change without breaking them. Traditional project management tools that expect a Work Breakdown Structure don’t adapt well to the focus on learning vs. doing.
On the other hand, some Agile tools attempt to reinforce the rules of Scrum with a backlog and no ability to plan multiple sprints in advance. These tools don’t allow for the long range planning that a physical product team needs. If rigid traditional tools are too hard to change, rigid Agile tools can’t be adapted easier because they don’t allow for advance planning.
Keep the First Learning Cycles Plan Light
We build the Learning Cycles Plan in the Kickoff Event with sticky notes for an important reason: if you need to change the plan, you just move the sticky note. Virtual sticky notes retain this property of the physical notes: because they are easy to create and easy to move around, people don’t get attached to them.
To reinforce this, we instruct our workshop participants to only touch their own sticky notes. In that way, they take responsibility for moving their own Key Decisions and Knowledge Gaps into the plan. The plan becomes the team’s plan — not the Project Leader’s plan.
We move these sticky notes as we build the Learning Cycles Plan, encouraging the team to pull learning forward and push decisions later. Physical sticky notes and virtual ones are easy to move from one place on the board to another, both in the Kickoff Event and afterwards.
After the Kickoff Event, it makes sense to move the final Learning Cycles Plan into a virtual visual planning tool like Jira or Monday.com. But not before or during the Kickoff Event. We want to make it easy to add lots of candidate Key Decisions and Knowledge Gaps, then filter and prioritize without committing to any of them yet.
Knowledge Gaps Need to Be Easy to Move
Your Knowledge Gaps will move often as the team learns more. The Learning Cycles Plan needs to be reviewed at every Learning Cycles Event to ensure that the plan represents the team’s best current understanding. This means that those sticky notes will be moving — a lot — as the team moves through Learning Cycles and Integration Events.
In fact, the only parts of the plan that needs to be 100% right are the Knowledge Gaps for the next Learning Cycle, and the Key Decisions for the next Integration Event. The team needs to be working on the right things for the next 2 – 4 weeks, building knowledge to make the right decisions the next time the stakeholders are with the team. These updates can take three different forms, depending on the degree of change in the plan.
Three Levels of Plan Updates
Each of these plan updates require different re-planning methods, to ensure that the team and the most-impacted individuals maintain their alignment, clarity and focus.
- Most of the time, a team has just a few Knowledge Gaps to shift around. This Minor Update doesn’t require any special effort, except to save time at the end of the Event to make sure the update gets done.
Minor Updates are the type of plan update I see most often. The volume of items that need to be moved is relatively small, and most of the people on the team have few adjustments to make. They take less than fifteen minutes, usually at the end of the Learning Cycle event.
- Major Updates can be triggered by team member changes, a team member that needs help with prioritization, new information that renders the current plan obsolete, or anything else that will require a lot of adjusting. Sometimes a team that’s new to Rapid Learning Cycles will need a major update as they learn more about Key Decisions and Knowledge Gaps to prune away the excess and add things that were missed.
These updates are best done 1:1 with the Project Leader and the individuals or sub-teams whose plans need the most adjusting, in the days right before a Learning Cycles Event. They can then present the changes at the Event. It’s important that the individuals report the update — not the Project Leader — to maintain team ownership for the plan.
Then the team will need to allow more time — as long as a half hour — to update the team on the changes to the plan.
- A team needs a Team Reset when they’ve experienced a severe disruption that changes their capacity for learning, the end goal of the program or the team’s expectations. Disproving part of the Core Hypothesis can lead to the need for a reset, as can resource reallocation. Not all reasons can be negative; teams also need a reset when their program has popped to the top of the priority list and they’ve received more funding and staff.
In all cases, the team needs to do more than just re-plan the Key Decisions and Knowledge Gaps they have — they need to revisit their assumptions about the program. That may lead to a completely different Key Decision flow. The Team Reset is a major event similar to the team’s original Kickoff Event, and may take a half-day or even a day for a complicated program.
Team Reset Events Work Best with Outside Perspective
Because the team needs to revisit their assumptions, it’s better for these events to have an outside facilitator. The Project Leader will have his or her hands full with helping the team on the content: adjustments to the Core Hypothesis, Key Decisions and Knowledge Gaps. It’s helpful to have a second person there to manage the mechanics of the process, especially if anyone new has joined the team since the last Kickoff Event.
You’ll know you need a reset — and consider a second facilitator — if the plan has so fundamentally changed that the team needs to make major changes to the Key Decision Flow. This means that there will be more than a few new Knowledge Gaps for new Key Decisions, and other Knowledge Gaps that are no longer relevant. The relative priority of Knowledge Gaps is also likely to change.
If you’re using sticky notes, you’ll want to take them all off the plan (after taking a photo of it for your records). Then you’ll build a new Key Decision flow, using the old sticky notes as they are useful. You’ll need to realign your Knowledge Gaps, and re-prioritize them. Finally, you’ll need to rebuild the plan. It will feel like a Kickoff Event, but without the advantage of a clean sheet of paper. For some team members, that’s reassuring — others may find this frustrating.
Don’t Make These Mistakes When Changing Your Plan
Here are the three things I see most often when teams need to change their plans that I would not recommend today (even if I have recommended them in the past):
- Trying to do major team updates with everyone in the room, especially if you are using a Virtual Visual Planning tool. It takes too long and the team loses interest quickly.
- Trying to do too much with links, dependencies, etc. to manage the plan. You really only need to understand the interactions in the Key Decision Flow — every other link you make is just a complication when the plan needs to change.
- Holding onto the old plan when the team needs a full reset. If things have changed so dramatically that most of your team members have to re-plan their entire lanes, it’s better to take a fresh look at the entire plan. You will not spend that much more time, and the team will have more engagement and focus by clarifying the new current state.
Maintain Clarity, Engagement and Focus
The right method of re-planning will help your team maintain clarity, engagement and focus: lightweight updates for minor changes, focused attention for major changes, and the chance to get a fresh start after a disruption.
Traditional plans break down under high uncertainty because they are hard to change; Agile plans break down under high cost-of-change because they are so easy to change that key dependencies and lead times can get missed. In an environment of high uncertainty AND high cost-of-change, teams need the ability to see the future — and adapt to it as it changes.