The Guide on the Side
I’ve delivered quite a few training classes over the last several years, most of them in how to effectively utilize Scrum and Agile tooling in the delivery of software. And yes, I’ve relied heavily on Powerpoint decks to get my message across, doing my best not to read from the screen, but deliver the information in an engaging way. If you’re a trainer, you know this can be a tough thing to do. You gotta be on, and know your subject matter inside and out. Without that, not much else matters. Once you’ve got that down, it’s a matter of conveying the message and helping the learners understand. How we do this varies. Much of it is our own personal style, and what we learned from someone else along the way. But here’s a dirty little secret… many of us trainers aren’t really professional trainers at all. We just know something so well that someone made the decision to throw us in front of people to share our knowledge.
I’ve seen some really good showmen/women as I’ve attended training classes over my career in IT. It’s a truly impressive (and sometimes entertaining) thing to watch; a performance really. They know their stuff, no referring to their notes, lots of eye contact, voice inflection and fluctuation, a few jokes thrown in for good measure, smooth flow and spot on timing. And we all clap at the end. Bravo! I aspired to be that polished.
But a colleague recently told me about this idea called ‘Training from the BACK of the Room’ based on a book of the same name by Sharon L. Bowman.
In true Agile fashion, I tried it out in my Agile tool training classes. At first, it seemed uncomfortable to me. I had my old slide deck down pat and knew it well, so who better to share all that great information than yours truly? In my traditional training model, I was the ‘sage on the stage’.
But I vowed to really give this new thing a shot. I still used a Powerpoint deck, but the number of slides went from about 100 to 15. Training became more of a conversation, a series of exploratory exercises, and discussions afterward.
Rather than providing step by step instructions on how to perform a certain exercise, I’d give them a challenge, like…
- Identify at least three help options in the tool.
- Create two user stories. Name one ‘Add book to wish list’, and the other ‘Remove book from wish list’.
- Create an Epic called Manage Customer Account
- Create three child backlog items under that Epic called…
You get the idea here. I’d have similar challenges around Release Planning, Sprint Planning, blocking stories, closing stories, setting up notifications, creating and sharing conversations, reports, etc.
I get folks heavily involved in showing the class what they did and how they did it. Dig into their thought process. Recognize and appreciate that others may have done the same thing differently, but achieved the same result. Literally have them come up to the front of the class and drive on my laptop, showing us all how they did it (see pic above). I thought I’d have to call on folks to get participation, but I didn’t really. They mostly volunteer. They’re eager to share what they learn. I encourage folks to work in pairs (paired learning), but not everyone does, which is ok.
The feedback was surprising (to me anyway). Initially, I felt like I wasn’t really doing my job as a professional trainer. But folks loved this new format! The feedback forms (which were better than my previous classes) only told part of the story. In addition, people would come up after class and tell me they had never had a training course like this before. The majority of students really liked being engaged in this new way. To be fair, there was a minority that didn’t really care for it. I understand.
Oh, and yes, I literally did train from the back of the room (sometimes the side or front too). Most of my time was spent walking around, helping folks who got stuck or had questions about the exercises/challenges I gave them. The struggle is part of the learning.
At the end of the day, what I learned is that being the ‘sage on the stage’ is not as good as being the ‘guide on the side’. I know… it rhymes, but it’s true. We shouldn’t expect a performance from our trainers, or to sit in awe, as they impress us with all their knowledge and showmanship. That’s not the point. As students in a training class, our goal should be to learn something that hopefully helps us do your jobs better. As a trainer, it should be to help them learn. When they go back to their real job, they should be able to recall what they learned, and apply it to their own unique situation. As Trainers, we can make it stick by engaging students, challenging them, asking questions and guiding.
If you’ve attended training like this, what did you like (or dislike) most?
If you’re a trainer, have you seen this method applied to training other than ‘technical ‘or ‘tool’ training?