Agile Adoption Challenges: The Four Stages of Learning
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Having taken some college courses on Psychology, the subject has always been interesting. Recently while reading Introducing NLP, I came across The Four Stages of Learning. This struck a chord when thinking about the challenges encountered with organizational Agile adoption.
The The Four Stages of Learning as described in the book are:
1. Unconscious Incompetence
2. Conscious Incompetence
3. Conscious Competence
4. Unconscious Competence
These stages are best described by the example of driving. From the book,
First there is unconscious incompetence. Not only do you not know how to do something, but you don’t know you don’t know. Never having driven a car for example, you have no idea what it is like.
So you start to learn. You very soon discover your limitations. You have some lessons and consciously attend to all the instruments, steer, coordinate the clutch, and watch the road. It demands all your attention, you are not yet competent, and you keep to the back streets. This is the stage of conscious incompetence when you grind the gears, oversteer, and give cyclists heart attacks. Although this stage is uncomfortable (especially for cyclists), it is the stage when you learn the most.
This leads you to the stage of conscious competence. You can drive the car, but it takes all your concentration. You have learned the skill, but you have not yet mastered it.
Lastly, and the goal of the endeavor, is unconscious competence. All those little patterns blend into one smooth unit of behavior. Then you can listen to the radio, enjoy the scenery and hold a conversation at the same time as driving. [...] If you practice something for long enough you will reach this fourth stage and form habits. [...] However, the habits may not be the most effective ones for the task. Our filters may have caused us to miss some important information en route to unconscious competence.
When you think about trying to get an organization to adopt a new process, this has to be considered. Each organizational member has already stepped through each stage of learning with the existing process and developed habits. They have the unconscious competence necessary to “get their job done” while “enjoying the scenery”.
By introducing a new tool, technique, or process into the organization, you are asking them to unlearn by going from stage 4 back to stage 2. Relearning is then moving from stage 2 back to stage 4 with more choices to create more efficient patterns. Obviously there is going to be resistance to this given the existing learning investment.
There must be strong motivation for someone to go back from stage 2 to stage 4 in the learning process. When you learned to drive a car, independence was your likely motivation. When learning to code you wanted a good-paying job (or maybe you really enjoyed it). The key point is that there is strong motivation to learn.
Convincing members of an organization to relearn their approach to developing software is even more challenging. It will certainly require more than just a good argument, you will need to motivate them and keep them motivated throughout the relearning process. Keep this in mind the next time you encounter resistance to your agile methods. It may help you be a bit more patient and willing to try alternative approaches when you understand their perspective.