What style of agile training works best?

Have you ever been in a class or training session which is so boring you felt like you might fall asleep?  Or maybe you are one of the people that DID fall asleep!  I know I’ve been there many times.  When I started facilitating sessions on agile and Scrum I knew I couldn’t do it if the sessions would put people to sleep.  I knew I had to have dynamic sessions that kept people involved and challenged them to exceed their own expectations.  I put together the best sessions I knew how and I was quite successful with it (see the bottom of the sidebar at www.agileall.wpengine.com for course results and quotes from evaluation forms).  Attendees were very happy with the results, but I knew I could do better.  Much better. I knew I could talk less and have the attendees do even more.  I knew I could better help the attendees if I could just figure out how to get information across in a different way.

Then something happened which changed my life and will help me change many lives going forward.

A few months ago while searching for some airplane reading material for my Kindle (which I love!) I decided to try and find some good books about training techniques.  There are hundreds of books on the topic of training and many of them sounded more boring than watching grass grow. Then I stumbled across the book “Training From the Back of the Room” and it intrigued me so I made the purchase.  As I read the book I knew I had found a source of information which was going to dramatically change the way I facilitate courses.  Having students teach each other instead of having the trainer teach them?  Having students do homework prior to class?  Not doing introductions until the class is well underway?  Not giving out a notebook with slide printouts?  This was all very challenging for me, but I knew in my heart I had to embrace it in order for me to learn and improve.

Now flash forward a few months…  I’ve now had a chance to facilitate several courses using the new techniques I learned from the book.  The results have exceeded my wildest expectations in a number of ways:

  • Allowing attendees to work through an exercise prior to formal introductions means they get to start building relationships with each other and the course material right at the start of class.  The very beginning of the class is the time people remember most when they leave! Instead of wasting that valuable time on introductions my classes now spend it on a meaningful exercise.
  • Giving out blank spiral notebooks, pens, lots of markers and other materials instead of a notebook of slides encourages people to take more meaningful notes. Helping them take notes in a particularly meaningful way for a particular topic helps deepen their understanding and retention of the information.
  • Having attendees teach each other exposes the combined knowledge of the group and allows me to truly facilitate toward a meaningful result.
  • I had always used a lot of collaborative discussion exercises, but having even more and adding twists to them so they aren’t all just discussion helps attendees build relationships and connections with the material in ways that are fascinating to watch.  More importantly, the end result is better knowledge retention.
  • Breaking my speaking up into smaller chunks allows attendees to better absorb what I am saying.  I averaged speaking about 10 minutes per hour in the most recent course I facilitated and the results were outstanding in all areas.
  • I now average fewer than 20 slides per day for a course.  I won’t embarrass myself by saying what that number used to be!  I could cut the slides down to zero, but I find having key slides helps drive discussion.  In almost all cases the slides have fewer than 5 words (in some cases no words) and a picture capturing something about the concept.  I try to keep the pictures entertaining which keeps attendees engaged.
  • I have some handouts I use during certain portions of the course which attendees can save in the pockets of their supplied notebook.  Attendees love getting the essential information in a concise format rather than having to dig through a notebook of slides to find what they want.
  • This may be the least important item or the most important depending on how you look at it – I have a LOT of fun facilitating these courses.  Instead of feeling a bit wiped out when I  leave a class, I leave feeling incredibly energized.  I usually have fun with my classes, but this is a new level which is much higher than I expected.

So what does all this have to do with you?  My hope is if you are looking for a course on agile or Scrum (or really any topic) you will take the time to find an instructor who won’t bore you to death.  Before registering you might want to ask a few simple questions (my new answers in parentheses):

  • What materials will I leave the course with?  (a spiral notebook with your notes, a set of handouts for critical areas of the course and you will leave having had a lot of fun!  You also get follow-up support via email and in the near future you can join the Agile For All community message board for information exchange with peers at other companies)
  • If you use PowerPoint, approximately how many slides are included in the course?  (in my courses I average fewer than 20 slides per day)
  • What is the percentage of course time is spent on lecture vs. exercises?  (approximately 15%/85%)

The answers to these 3 questions can be very enlightening.  If you are the type of person that needs to walk away with a book full of slides and you don’t like to interact with others then maybe my new style isn’t for you.  In that case asking for answers to the 3 questions above can still help you choose a course provider!  However, if the last sentence describes you, you might want to reconsider and try a course which challenges your assumptions.  I was scared the first time I tried facilitating a course this way, but even the most reserved people in the room participated and had fun during the course.  That’s when I knew my life had changed and many more would be changed in the future because of it!

Until next time I’ll be Making Agile a Reality for more people by getting even better at training from the back of the room by being more of a facilitator and less of a teacher or trainer!

A special thanks to Roger Brown (CSC and CST) who emailed me today and part of the email was thanking me for recommending “Training From the Back of the Room” to him!

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  1. Bob, I know you are an outstanding trainer from the class I did with you a few years ago so I am very excited to get and read “Training from the Back of the Room”. I am reading a book now called “Presentation Zen” which I love. It also says to put very few (less than six) words on a slide. This is a challenge for a guy like me who trains highly technical material but I’m working on it. Even if I can’t achieve it for every slide I know these suggestions are making my materials better.


    1. David, I had read Presentation Zen a while back. It is a great book and is pretty close to what I use for the presentation parts of the course. I also liked “Beyond Bullet Points” which I think I read around the same time. Both books helped me try to keep words to a minimum. But I have to admit I didn’t fully take the plunge until recently. Now I’m glad I did. I have found that a slide with few words and an entertaining picture can lead into the topic and then a handout or a few of them can help with later retention of the material. It is amazing to me how much more students retain when you almost force them to write some things down rather than relying on the slides. I’m convinced it works, even for highly technical material. As good as you are now, I can’t wait to hear about your future results because I really want to know how much higher than 10 out of 10 your students will rate you! 🙂

  2. Hi Bob,
    first of all your blog is great – very agile-inspiring 🙂
    This entry inspired me enoug to write a little comment;) Have you ever used simulation games during your trainings? Some time ago I hae conducted exercices about project management for students (waterfall, agile, …). It was really hard for me to show them all those project management problems… In theory everything seems so easy… Than I have created couple of short simulation games (altergames). During the game they had to face many different/weird situations and find a solution. It was a good introduction to interesting discussions.
    Looking forward to your next blog-entry:)

    1. Monik, I do use several simulation games depending on the circumstances. I also frequently turn physical demonstrations into ongoing simulations during workshops by asking questions like “How would we model that with the demonstration we did earlier? Let’s try it!” I think simulations are absolutely essential to the learning process.