Learning and agile teams

Learning and agile teams

The team as the basic building block for bringing about and implementing change


  • Understand what the agile approach is, and in particular the SCRUM method with its key concepts and tools
  • Understand what the learning organisation approach is and how it is complementary to the agile approach
  • To know some emblematic tools of these two approaches


While many methods have been tried to facilitate individual and organisational change, the team is the basic unit of the organisation that has been and is still being worked on. It is both :

  • the place where each person is integrated into a job, a role, a group, a culture through regular interaction with his or her manager, colleagues, partners and peers
  • and the place where vision and strategy are developed, decisions are taken and actions are taken, changes emerge and are implemented, and innovation takes place.

What happens is at the interface of individual and organisational change, highlighting the importance of cohesion, cooperation and coordination, and the manager has a key role to play.

We will discuss two recent approaches that focus on the team as the basic building block for bringing about and implementing change: the agile approach and the learning organisation approach.

1. The agile approach.

The agile approach brings together methods developed in 2001 by 17 software development experts who felt the need to adapt traditional project management. Indeed, the sequential mode specific to the industry does not make it possible to respond to the specificities of software development, in particular to the fact that the specifications are not always well identified by the client at the beginning.

It is based on 4 values of the Agile Manifesto:

  • People and their interactions more than processes and tools
  • Operational software more than exhaustive documentation
  • Collaboration with clients more than contractual negotiation
  • Adapting to change more than following a plan

We recognise the value of the latter, but favour the former.

As well as 12 principles that are easily found on the internet

Its aim is to progressively develop a product within the allocated time and resources, thanks to flexible and adaptable teams that have a global vision of the project.

SCRUM, first introduced in 1995 by Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber, is one of the most emblematic methods, a "framework" in the established vocabulary: meaning "rugby scrum", the name pays tribute to Nonaka and Takeuchi (1986) who coined the concept during their research on project management and knowledge sharing.

The traditional concepts (roles, rules, events, etc.) of project management have been renovated or created and a SCRUM guide is available free of charge to Internet users, the latest version dating from 2020 (https://scrumguides.org/scrum-guide.html#scrum-definition).

Among the main key concepts:

  • 3 pillars :
  • o transparency (common language, visual management, etc.)

    o inspection (monitoring progress and identifying deviations)

    o and adaptation (gap management)

  • The SCRUM team :
  • o a product owner : Product Owner, decision-maker and responsible for maximising the value of the product and the work of the team, thanks to the Product Backlog, a sort of evolving functional specification

    o a development team : Development Team, a self-managed team of professionals co-responsible for intermediate deliverables, between 3 and 9 people

    o and a SCRUM Master : guarantor of the method, leader and coach of the team

  • Regular, time-limited events to inspect and adapt something like the Sprint
  • o Sprint: a project lasting from one week to one month, as short as possible, during which an increment is made (one or more items of the Product Backlog).

    o The various sprints are planned by the self-organising team (Sprint Backlog), based on daily meetings: Daily Scrum, 15 min at the same time, at the same place to follow what has been done, what will be done the next day, obstacles, development activities, and follow-up via the review with stakeholders (Sprint Review, 4h maximum at the end of the Sprint which can lead to revising the Product Backlog) and the retrospective (Sprint Retrospective, 3 hours maximum to take a step back from what went well, not so well and to identify potential improvements before the next Sprint)

  • Standard documents ("artefacts"):
  1. Product Backlog: an ordered and evolving list of required items (features, needs, improvements, etc.)
  2. Sprint Backlog: set of items selected for the Sprint plus the planning of activities to achieve them
  3. Increment: software elements when it comes to IT projects, tangible component when it comes to a non-IT product of the Product Backlog completed during a Sprint

Other methods exist which complete the agile toolbox such as Kanban, derived from Lean, or Design Thinking (Stanford, 1980s): they apply to all kinds of projects (production, marketing, etc.) and no longer strictly to software development projects, with adaptations of roles, practices and tools. They integrate each other according to the situation and never stop evolving and influencing each other according to the fields of application.

Moreover, today, we often combine : Design Thinking or even Design Sprint (customer needs), Lean Start up, Scrum and Kanban (implementation).

Spotify is a recent example of the implementation of the agile approach at the level of an organisation, not just a team: https://youtu.be/Yvfz4HGtoPc and https://youtu.be/vOt4BbWLWQw

In terms of the founding values and principles, the agile approach (and all related methods) requires the maturity of the teams and individuals who practice it and this is where the learning organisation approach actually adds something.

2. Learning in teams: the contribution of Peter Senge

When he published "The 5th Discipline: The Art and Practice of Being a Learning Organisation" in 1990, the project of Peter Senge, a researcher at MIT, was to free the energies of organisations.

Through his work in companies, he identified 5 personal disciplines (from the Latin disciplina: to learn) that are complementary for an organisation to be able to learn

  • Personal mastery: clarifying our personal vision, focusing our energy to implement it with an objective perception of reality
  • Shared vision: developing a vision that resonates with and engages everyone
  • Mental models: developing awareness of our representations and ways of thinking and sharing them
  • Team learning: dialogue, thinking together intelligently and removing obstacles to collective learning
  • And systems thinking: integrating the 4 previous disciplines into a coherent approach, understanding the 'living' system we are in and how we create it ourselves.

We will focus on team learning, which Peter Senge sees as the basic building block of the learning organisation. Learning in a team relies on the alignment of each individual with the expected goals and the collective ability to achieve them.

If the team shares the vision of the objectives, how can we coordinate the work, encourage cooperation and develop collective intelligence? How can teams be encouraged to learn, especially management teams whose influence is structuring for the rest of the organisation?

For Peter Senge, it is a matter of alternating discussion and dialogue for each team.

  • The objective of discussion is to exchange different points of view in relation to a common objective, until one of the team members wins. While this form of communication is useful for making decisions, concluding and acting, it has limits (in terms of truth) that can be avoided by dialogue in complex situations.
  • Dialogue (from the Greek, dia: through and logos: word) is a form of communication that focuses on the meaning conveyed by words. It aims to co-construct meaning from each other's understanding for greater coherence and harmony, by creating a climate that allows inconsistencies, contradictions and confusions to be perceived. It is best suited to complex issues and invites the exploration of new understandings that pave the way for the emergence of new actions.

For this, there are several conditions:

o "Suspending" one's assumptions: each member puts his or her assumptions in front of him or her to question them, to observe their influence on his or her opinions and positions.

o Listening to what is said, beyond the words as described in Theory U, including the practice of silence.

o Consider others as colleagues: accept to open up to each other (share assumptions) at the risk of being vulnerable at times. Mutual risk-taking is a factor of psychological security but also an invitation to create a playful climate, conducive to playing with new ideas, analysing and testing them, a certain lightness that allows for depth.

o Use a facilitator to provide a framework and ensure that the dialogue progresses until the team is mature enough to manage itself

Learning in a team is not synonymous with the absence of conflict, particularly of ideas, which is absolutely necessary for creativity. In order for conflicts to emerge, a learning team is characterised by its ability to highlight defensive routines which take quite banal forms:

  • saying it's a good idea even when you don't mean it to avoid confronting someone with a flaw in their thinking
  • avoiding criticising someone or not engaging in a discussion about a difficult issue
  • asserting oneself in an authoritarian way by discouraging any reaction
  • Protecting oneself, avoiding questioning oneself or showing that one does not know... They result from the fear of sharing one's way of thinking and thus exposing potential shortcomings.

Learning as a team in the sense of Peter Senge is therefore one of the conditions for the successful implementation of the agile approach, whose methods could be satisfied with effective discussions, focused on the action, the decision without taking into account the system in which these decisions are made and these actions carried out.



The empathy map (a tool that helps in the drafting of a Persona): allows you to create a profile of a target user (his objectives, characteristics, etc.) used to set priorities and make decisions during a project


The Retrospective event

The intention is to take a step back from the SPRINT that has just ended in order to record what went well and identify possible improvements for the next SPRINT.

This feedback concerns the organisation, the roles but also the ways of working and the relationships. It is up to you to integrate the issues you want to address, and the level of depth of the conversation you want.

Ce qui s’est bien passé
Ce qui ne s’est pas bien passé
Les améliorations pour le  prochain SPRINT

SOME TOOLS FOR LEARNING IN A TEAM (team learning, leaning as a team)

Making defensive routines visible:

  • The facilitator can lead by example and make defensive routines visible by sharing how they feel: "Look, I notice that I feel threatened by this new idea. Perhaps you do too? Could you help me understand where this is coming from?" or "Does what I'm saying make sense? I feel like I'm being judgmental. I'd like to have your perspective to be more objective.
  • Everyone can learn how to use learning conversations (productive conversations), develop listening skills, use the inference scale.

The keys to an effective discussion :

(after establishing the framework of trust)

  • Pay attention to my intentions: what do I want from this conversation? Do I agree to be influenced?
  • Balance questioning and assertiveness: what leads me to this point of view? What do you mean by saying this?
  • Co-constructing meaning: when we use this term..., what do we mean? - Use self-awareness as a resource: what am I thinking? what am I feeling? what do I want now?
  • Explore impasses: what do we agree on? disagree on?


(after establishing the framework of trust)

  • Coffee conversation. Choose the topic. Remind people of the rules (non-judgment, respect, seek to understand, invite and respect diversity of views, talk about what matters and makes sense, honesty and depth rather than talking to say nothing)
  • Round 1: 1min / person. Everyone expresses what they think, feel or do about the topic and the others listen.
  • Round 2: 1min / person. Each person expresses what emerges for them (feelings, thoughts, desire to do) after listening to everyone else and the others listen.
  • Round 3: Free conversation
  • Round 4: everyone shares what they remember