Agile Examinations

Agile Examinations

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Imagine walking into a school examination hall and opening up your exam paper to find a single question. As you complete your answer, a mark appears and the next question is revealed. However, this time you have some all-important feedback from your previous question.

Now I don't know whether the examination’s outcome would improve, however it does provide options:

1. If you got the question right, the best course of action would be to continue what you are doing.

2. If you got it wrong you can:

a) Chose to adapt your next answer or

b) Decide to get up, leave and do something more valuable instead.

No, this isn't an excerpt from J.K. Rowling’s next book. Welcome to the world of agile education.

From an early age, we are conditioned to get all the answers right the first time and take large upfront tests of our knowledge. This mindset can also be seen in our working lives, where there is a belief that if we research and study the customer hard enough, we can determine exactly what they need through analysis and assumption.

In his book: “Kanban from the Inside” Mike Burrows describes the need to shift mentally from taking orders and fulfilling requests to discovering and meeting people’s needs. This is reinforced in the opening line of the Agile Manifesto, "We are uncovering better ways..."

So how does this relate to examinations exactly? Think back to your most recent exam; it may have been a CSM or PSM you were sitting. You probably attended a course and then spent many hours reading and storing away knowledge that may or may not be tested in your exam session.

Now imagine you were instead assessed on the quality of the hypothesis you construct, how you might go about testing it or what you have put in place to accommodate the possibility your hypothesis may be invalid. This calls upon an entirely different set of skills and thinking patterns.

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to spend time with the former NFL player Eric Boles, who, since leaving the world of American football, spends time with teams and individuals, helping them identify their limiting beliefs.

One of the insights he shared which has stuck with me is, "What got you where you are today, will not get you where you want to go tomorrow."

Now I have no doubt this quote is attributed to someone else and please let me know in the comments if you've heard it before. However, he delivered it with such impact that it placed in my mind the image of a trapeze artist, swinging gracefully through the air, grabbing the next trapeze yet refusing to let go of the previous one.

The result is they become physically stretched by these two opposing forces and lose significant momentum.

This is what can happen to us and our teams when we are not ready to let go of that learned behavior of getting it right first time. Eric stressed that the act of letting go can feel very daunting at first, yet it is something that, practiced regularly, can start to replace the need to know all the answers.

So how might this look in practice? First, we need to free ourselves from the perceived need to know the right answer and instead focus on choosing the right experiment.

Invariably this first experiment will be big and daunting, so break it down to the smallest possible question (or hypothesis) that creates a feedback loop.

Once established, customer feedback loops are like an uncertainty vacuum, removing doubt and replacing it with the confidence that you are meeting a real need. They also work in two directions: As you discover more about a customer’s needs you provide more of what they seek, then the relationship grows and the customer shares more.

So next time you get a feeling in your stomach that what you're developing is not what the customer needs, listen to your intuition and shift your focus to the question: "What is the smallest, safest experiment I could conduct to gain feedback?”

You may not get it right first time, but that's the point. Examinations measure knowledge at a point in time, whereas learning = continuous growth!

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below. 


Tony Richards is an agile coach at Aviva in the United Kingdom.

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