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On Agile and Mastery

I’m lucky enough to find my job professionally satisfying. That’s because I think the line of work I’m in actually matters—not just to me but to anyone who works in teams or with processes involving people. Because I believe that I enjoy my work.

And because I enjoy my work, I think about its history and future a lot. And one of the things that I think about often is how the industry has matured. Agile is now grown up—and, in my opinion, it’s time to complete the process of professionalising the field.

What do I mean by “professionalising”? I mean taking steps to help ensure that terms like “coach” carry weight. I mean establishing arm’s-length means of certifying expertise in agile. I mean, considering what mastery really means here.

Other professions, such as law and medicine, have apprenticeship and articling stages that candidates must complete before they’re considered full members of their fields or “expert” in any way. Agile lacks this. Yes, people may refer to themselves as coaches, experts, or “thought leaders” (has there ever been a more vacuous phrase?). But what are designations worth if we bestow them upon ourselves?

I’ve been working in the field for nearly 20 years. I’ve learned a lot and consider myself a solid journeyman. I help build agile coaches with that in mind. But I would never call myself a master. Work with me, and you’ll get my perspective; it’s up to you to go your own way.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: If you want outside certification for your agile expertise, there’s Scrum Alliance. There is no question that Scrum Alliance has impacted the quality of agile coaching. Only about 200 people worldwide have achieved either the Alliance’s CEC (Certified Enterprise Coach) or its CTC (Certified Team Coach) designations; it takes real work to get them. But there are two issues here. The first is that there is no requirement to hold these qualifications—or any others. The second is that the Alliance grants the designation and sells the related training, which may be perceived as a conflict of interest. Also, because there is no structured apprenticeship or journeyman stage leading up to a bid for the CEC or CTC, people simply have a go with what professional experience they’ve got and hope they’ll succeed in their attempt. The vast majority do not.

Compare this, for the sake of argument, to the International Coaching Federation. The Federation has precise requirements for the credentials it grants, but it doesn’t offer training to obtain those credentials; instead, it looks at an applicant’s body of work and assesses it. Another interesting model is that of the British Computer Society; as well as offering memberships to organisations, it also offers tiered memberships to individuals at different points in their careers.

I believe the agile coaching world could benefit enormously from an independent assessing body that offers gradations of certification measured by clear criteria and based on the weight of professional experience. The certification process could take the form of submitting a paper or papers, followed by an interview with a panel of senior, experienced agile practitioners. Any certification process would be more complex than I’m making out here, but that’s a subject for another post.

This approach would help our field become a true profession, giving it the structure it deserves and is ready for. It would help practitioners shape their professional lives, allowing each person to be assessed at different levels according to experience and competencies, not uniform training. It would also give those who engage agile services a solid sense of what they could expect from professionals at different levels.

Right now, anyone can call him- or herself an “agile coach,” whether that person has spent seven years in the field or simply taken a three-day course. There’s no agreed-upon benchmark for the title. This Wild West approach is inappropriate for a field that now has the depth and scope that agile has.

It’s time to change that.

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