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“Just too late” is early enough

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“Just too late” is early enough

· Agile Zone ·
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One of the great privileges of my working life is to have the chance to share knowledge and encourage learning. I have been writing, deploying and teaching many software delivery courses over the last decade and most of the experiences have been positive for both the participants and myself, or so they tell me…

However, there have been instances when people just don’t seem to want to engage or can’t quite understand the significance of what we are discussing. When I dig beneath the surface of their previous experiences and why they feel they are attending the course, I typically discover that there is a common reason for their disengagement; they simply aren’t ready to learn.

For an individual to want to make changes in how they perform, take on challenges or operate their daily activities there needs to be a compelling reason for them to learn how to make the change and to then apply that learning. Traditional thinking tends to be that we provide people with ‘just in time’ education so that they are prepared with the new skills required of the change. However, this tends to fail in ensuring that the skills are learned in a way that allows them to be applied effectively when the time for change arises.

I much prefer to find ways of applying a ‘just too late’ learning approach. This can be achieved in a number of ways and here I will share with you just a few…..

New opportunities – “Things are changing, you have the opportunity to be part of it and reap the benefits.”

This could be seen as the leader’s strategic motivational speech but it doesn’t have to be like that. Being honest within the organisation about what is coming in the industry, how this will mean change, but also new opportunities for people who want to come on the journey, is a great way to help people discover the need to learn. Of course they also need to be given the chance to participate, but those who want to be part of it will really understand why they need to participate in learning too.

Known unknowns – “Find out what you can, answer these questions, tell me what you discovered and question what you don’t understand.”

The above approach to encouraging learning is not for everyone. Instead, some organisations realise a need to develop new skills and their employees find that they are sent on training courses without really knowing why they are there. When that happens, it’s mainly to the extent that they aren’t aware of what it is they don’t know, or how it could add value to them. In this and many other scenarios a ‘research first’ approach to education works well. Don’t make the class sit through your interpretation of what they need to know, let them discover this for themselves. Give them a topic, ask them to find out what it means, why they should care, and have some questions to ask if they don’t quite get it. It makes for a great discussion, with experiences shared and all the learning is driven by the participants.

New challenges – “Welcome to the project, this is what we are expected to deliver and this is how we will deliver it. Any questions?”

As project teams form they can often feel a sense of not knowing how to get started. Sure, someone tells them that they will follow a certain approach using specific techniques, but if that’s even a little new to them it will be tough to get started with confidence. However, if the project can start with a whole team approach to learning using the project as the example to work on, people will see the value of the activity and be left with some progress on the project and a way of working to continue.

Retrospectives – “So, we did well in the last month, but could we have done better?”

This is the most common ‘just too late’ learning moment for iterative and agile teams, but what is most important is that the lessons are also applied to the future of the project. These actions may be a change of working practices for the project which may require additional education, but in this instance there will be a strong appetite to learn from the team who now realise where they need improve.


In each of the four examples above we are building an awareness of the need to learn. However, to establish the use of the techniques may require an organisational culture change which is rarely easy to achieve. This is because even though an individual chooses to learn because they know they need to change, the organisation around them may not have learned the same lessons and may not be ready or willing to change. To enable this ‘just too late’ learning at an organisational level requires a regular measurement, and a continuous improvement mindset. But that’s another story…

Julian Holmes


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