If you are familiar with project management strategies for technology, chances are good that you have thrown around the word “Agile” in your employee training plan strategy meanings. However, it may not be as well-known among more traditional instructional designers. Training project management still heavily relies on the decades-old ADDIE model.

So, what does “Agile” mean, exactly? It’s not just Silicon Valley jargon or a management fad. Rather, it is a codified practice essential to modern software life cycles.

What Is Agile Project Management?

Agile is a software development philosophy that a group of like-minded programmers developed at Snowbird Ski Resort in 2001. They were interested in a methodology that emphasized results over rigid processes. The idea is based on a process through which a team reflects on how to become more effective and then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly at regular intervals.

These methods contrast with more traditional development methods, like the ADDIE model, wherein planning is frontloaded, followed by a rigid development timeline and a deliverable at the end. Of course, it is important to outline specifications early, but what happens if business needs or technical specifications change halfway through the development stage? Much of the prior work may suddenly become obsolete.

The Agile method attempts to avoid such disasters through an iterative approach. It provides the stakeholder with individually functional units of the employee training plan at several points throughout the process, rather than only at the end of development. Moreover, the review phases after product delivery help to ensure alignment between the stakeholder and the training team through what is often a long development timeline.

According to the Standish Group, an information technology (IT) research advisory firm, Agile projects may have greater odds of success than those that use “waterfall” methods (like ADDIE) — in fact, its 2018 research found that Agile projects were about twice as likely to succeed.

How Does Agile Apply to Instructional Design?

Instructional design is not the same as programming, and effective code is vastly different from compelling prose, but there is value to be gained by examining the spectrum between strictly sequential and loosely iterative.

The ADDIE model, a classic instructional design model, was developed at Florida State University in the 1970s and consists of five phases:

    • Analysis: the identification of learning objectives, intended audiences and timelines.
    • Design: the creation of course content (i.e., scripting, conceptualizing activities, etc.)
    • Development: the assembly of designed materials into a course.
    • Implementation: including testing the course on the organization’s server or with its learning management system (LMS).
    • Evaluation: evaluating the course against its original objectives and gathering feedback from learners.

This model is as “waterfall” as they come. It’s worked for decades, but advances in business operations technology and the short skills lifespans in the modern corporate sector may make the model obsolete.

Should we jump on the Silicon Valley bandwagon and consider ADDIE a relic from the past?

Imagine a large employee training plan where most of the content comes from subject matter experts (SMEs). Rather than schedule an endless block of interviews with SMEs, followed by months of scriptwriting with no additional feedback, it might be beneficial to cycle through activities from the analysis, design and development steps. For example, after designing the course, you could develop a rough outline of the course prior to conducting in-depth SME interviews. Then, with the aid of experts who know the material, you could refine the language of the course and add, emphasize or diminish certain sections.

What happens when someone requests a custom eLearning activity that isn’t supported by your course development platform? Rather than designing the entire course and hoping that the programmers will be able to fulfill those requirements when the development stage arrives, it might be wise to work on the minimum viable product — for example, by creating an individual module around one subject or task and then having a review meeting with the stakeholder who made the request to ensure the final product is what he or she is looking for. A bonus with this approach is that you can test the course early on, giving you more time to fix any problems in implementation.

Neither of these examples fits neatly into the ADDIE model. In fact, they would be better supported by more Agile instructional design models, such as rapid prototyping or the successive approximation model, which are more like a hybrid model between ADDIE and Agile.

Should We Ditch ADDIE?

From a management perspective, the ADDIE model is straightforward and well defined. However, it’s not particularly flexible. Much like the programmers who conceived of the Agile design philosophy, instructional designers are seeing the need to adapt their training design processes as they seek to provide for a diverse set of customers and unique content development challenges. This need for flexibility in no way requires a designer to ditch methods that have worked in the past. Jim Highsmith of the Agile Alliance put it this way:

“The Agile movement is not anti-methodology, in fact, many of us want to restore credibility to the word methodology. We want to restore a balance. We embrace modeling, but not in order to file some diagram in a dusty corporate repository. We embrace documentation, but not hundreds of pages of never-maintained and rarely-used tomes. We plan, but recognize the limits of planning in a turbulent environment.”

Maybe the most agile behavior of all is flexibility. As employee training and development plans become more complex, the best training project management solutions will more often entail a hybrid ADDIE/Agile model. And, as a general practice, your teams will benefit from Agile principles like frequent feedback and rapid iteration.