Learning and Practices Development @ Liip

  • Benoît Pointet

Pull over push. At Liip, everyone is encouraged to widen their horizon and deepen their skills in the way they see fit. Striving for human, digital progress starts with Liipers’ development.

Liip, as a digital agency, evolves in a fast-paced environment. The work requires us to constantly adapt. There are continuous changes in technology, user-centric design, organizational approaches and other fields where we continuously seek to propose the best solution for customers and stakeholders.

In this article we share how we sustain the learning of individuals and teams at Liip. Our “education system” is shaped by principles that have been established throughout the years.

  1. Self-managed learning path
  2. Depth and breadth of learning
  3. Continuous learning
  4. Learning on the job
  5. Unstuck by guild
  6. Reflection spaces

Each of us, as individuals, learning the right competencies for a given job and context is only half of the equation. The other half concerns the 30+ self-organized teams. We, as a team, have to learn from the situation as well as develop and maintain an appropriate set of virtuous practices. On this aspect, some principles also have emerged.

  1. Frame and advocate minimal usage of practice
  2. Enable teams in the needed practices, save as last resort
  3. Seed and support what grows

Let’s discover how each of these principles is put into practice at Liip.

The growth of one : learning individuals

1. Self-managed learning path

Each project, sprint or team setup is unique. In that sense, one could say that we organize the projects and the company around a single axiom: “what really makes sense”. Additionally, every Liiper comes with a different background and contributes in a specific way to the team’s work and the company's success. Many of us (have learned to) love to push their boundaries, learn new things, try new stuff. On this basis, it is not hard to guess that education at Liip follows a “pull over push” principle.

In this spirit, every Liipers is therefore given the same budget (time and money, pro rata temporis) per year to support their personal growth fitting their current and future engagements.

2. Depth and breadth of competencies

We strongly believe that tech competencies are only part of what’s needed. We thus foster education au sens large. Liipers choose and can spend their education budget on, among others, tech certifications, mindfulness classes, UX conferences or leadership masterclasses.

Developing one’s tech competencies is the sole responsibility of every one of us. On the other hand, we provide basic education in many practices and aspects that are key to our way of working. For instance, Agility, Holacracy, communication and feedback, managing one’s work, as well as introductions to the different systems and processes in use.

All in all, it matters that as Liipers we master our trade just as much as that we can function in a human system that puts in our hands a great amount of freedom and responsibility.

Many Liipers tend to expand into cultivating broad basic competencies while deepening their core competency (aka T-shaped competency profile). Some go on to build several core competencies and develop a bridge-shaped competencies profile.

3. Continuous learning

The individual education budget is an annual budget, meaning the unused part of it vanishes at the end of the year. We do so to invite everyone to continuously invest in their growth.

Continuous learning is now also a principle for the in-house trainings. The pandemy invited us to shift from full-day training sessions (which were great yet exhausting experiences) to (online, of course) sequences of 2h-3h sessions, with, potentially, homework in between, allowing for overall more in-depth learning experiences.

Moreover, continuous learning wouldn’t happen without the 500+ Slack channels named by the topic they gravitate around (like #analytics, #ask-holacracy, #python, or a specific project). These are a tool for Liipers to exchange knowledge and get help quickly and efficiently.

4. Learning on the job

Most of the Liipers go on with what they got from the introductory trainings and their background experience and use it in their daily work life. Some choose to deepen certain skills or knowledge that others will probably not feel the need for. But often, it is what the situation calls for that invites every one of us to deepen their skills.

5. Unstuck by guilds

Some roles (such as Product Owners, Scrum Masters, Designer, Analytics or Content Specialists) are often filled by a single person in our crossfunctional teams. This setup can make it difficult for the role-filler to get expert advice. For people in those roles, exchange formats in which “people of a same trade” gather and grow together are organized and hosted (often at the initiative of a few passionate Liipers): exchange hours, XYZ lunches, but also “intervisions” (aka co-development groups). Those formats enliven networks of peers.

6. Reflection spaces

Agency work is a race, an endless race. Either you take it as a series of 100m sprints and won’t last long, or you realize it’s a marathon and run it accordingly. And as in every marathon, pace is key. Although our fast-paced agency business pressures us to work relentlessly, we strive to create reflection spaces.

They come in various forms: teams hold retrospectives at team and project level, a “Buddy” role accompanies each Liiper through their onboarding period and another “People Developer” role takes the relay after it (like a mentorship program), project dailies and chat channels provide the space to share micro-learnings, often along the emotions that came with it :-), go-live emails announce product launches to the whole company, together with the key learnings of the team. A yearly Liip Conference caters for a common reflection time.

The growth of many : supporting team growth

If the growth of one’s competencies at Liip looks more like a “permacultivated” garden than a monoculture mile, how do we then, as a company, ensure the right minimum of the right practices and processes so that teams favour long-term viability over short-term wins?

The permaculture metaphor and “pull over push” principles probably fit our reality as well, along a few other principles which guide the development of practices at Liip.

7. Frame and advocate minimal usage of practice

Our teams are free to self-organize their work. A few teams apply Scrum by the book, while most use only parts of it, many have more than one Agile practice in their toolbox and will adapt the tool to their current needs. Here again, “what really makes sense” is the base rule.

Yet, we know our very human biases: when everything goes well, the team tends to forget the healthy practices (say… holding regular retrospectives ;-) ); then things start getting awry, and the team says “we have no time for them”, until the team is really in deep trouble and someone says “wasn’t that what Scrum was supposed to prevent? Let’s get back to the basics!”; then things get better, maybe too well, so that after a while …. – Although this is a caricature, you get the cyclic nature of it…

So, we ended up framing a minimal amount of Agility in all clients contracts, to provide the space for Agility to happen in every project and protect it from various pressures.

If the frame is set by contract, advocacy happens through many people in various roles, among which the Scrum Master role, who see the value of Agile practices and continuously promote them at team and company level.

This approach of framing and advocating, which keeps an inherent tension of “you’re free to self-organize yet Agile” hopefully fosters in the long run, what is to me the heart of Agility : ability to apply Agile practices and ability to question their pertinence and go back to the essence of “what really makes sense”.

8. Enable teams in the needed practices, save as last resort

We did not reach this dynamic equilibrium in a night. We went through several swings between abandon and religiosity, similar to the cycle described above, also at company level. And as every equilibrium, it needs to be constantly balanced. Fervent advocacy and dogmatic “we must… !” are bound to fail at Liip. They end up almost always in toxic situations: benevolent advocates feeling unheard and getting louder, and teams, on the other side, feeling threatened in their authority to self-organize and listening less and less.

The key to ending such situations is to admit that a certain amount of failure is needed to learn, and to accept that a team will inevitably, from time to time, take what seems like bad process decisions and get in trouble, only to realize the value of the things they disregarded. Also key is to accept that sometimes teams won’t follow the best practices and still find an unexpected and incredibly winning way ahead.

The “internal network” that supports the development of practices at Liip proposes training, coaching and concrete help on many fields of practices. Yet, that network refrains purposefully to try to save teams before they hit the ground, letting them masters of their fate and learnings. For the network of helpers that it is, it’s an uneasy stance to adopt.

9. Seed and support what grows

The third principle for our “gardeners of practice” network, is to nurture the curiosity of Liipers into many new ways of working and to support any effort that goes in this direction. Anyone can propose a new internal training and get helped in organizing it once it found an audience.

Supporting what grows means also looking at new local initiatives in ways of working and support their spread, once they proved to be valuable to our context. A recent example concerns the practice of intervision (see above).

Gardening, here again, is an appropriate metaphor, if we don’t forget that every one of us is always plant in their own growth and gardener of the growth of others.

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