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The Looming Skills Crisis in Agile

global-pmo-esi-300About two years ago I decided I needed to know more about Agile. I had read several books on the topic, including Jim Highsmith’s Agile Project Management, but reading about it wasn’t enough for me. Although I had worked in IT for almost 17 years, a majority of which was spent in software development using iterative methods, I knew that Agile took the concept of iteration to another level. So, I enrolled in a Certified Scrum Master (CSM) course, a two-day program I attended in Lower Manhattan where I was living and working at the time. Not surprisingly, many of the participants in the course hailed from the financial sector.

Including myself, there were five people at my table. The other four guys (they were all men) worked in the IT Division of a bank deemed “too big to fail,” in other words a financial behemoth who employed more than 6,000 folks in IT alone. They told me that the new CIO had issued an edict stating that all software development projects would be done using Agile methods and everyone needed to “get on board.”

The CIO’s training strategy, they told me, was to train current project managers (like the guys at my table) to use the Scrum approach to agile development, and they, in turn would train the rest of the staff once they returned to the office with their newly printed CSM certificates. Make sense? Not on your life.

This cockamamie approach to training folks in Agile is similar to just training the captain of a Rugby team and sending him or her back to the field to train all the other members. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would think that would work, so why do some executives think that this strategy will work in business? Well, I have an idea.

I think they believe it will work because they view Agile methods as just another software methodology, or systems development life cycle (SDLC). They reason that if a programmer is good at one SW methodology, they can quickly learn another under the tutelage of their Scrum master. Wrong!

If Agile were just another methodology, this approach just might work. But the fact of the matter is Agile is not just another methodology; in fact, it’s not a methodology at all. It’s a fundamental reconceptualization of what it means to develop software. In short, it’s not an evolution in software development. Done correctly, it’s nothing short of a revolution. This profound lack of understanding of what Agile is and what it takes to implement is the reason so many organizations are struggling to implement Agile, notwithstanding the fact they have bought into all of its promises.

In ESI International’s 2015 Global State of the PMO, respondents from five continents indicated that there was a looming skills crisis as regards Agile. For example, while 56% of the respondents said the number of Agile was increasing, 66% said they had “little or not practical experience with Agile.” If this doesn’t speak to a skills crisis I don’t know what does. In fact, I don’t think it’s looming at all. It’s here.

When asked “why Agile was so difficult to implement?” the top three reasons given were changing the culture (56%), changing from traditional methods (44%), and not having the right leadership to drive change (43%). The key challenge for supporting Agile was a “lack of trained resources.”

We read and hear a great deal about the benefits of Agile development. To be sure, there appears to be substantial opportunities to improve software development (and other product development processes) through various Agile techniques such as Scrum. But if an organization is to fully realize the gains it must first recognize that all involved must be intimately familiar with its approach, and that includes the client (otherwise knows a Product Owner in Scrum)as well. It’s not enough to just train the captain we need to train all the team members, and the referees!

More importantly, an organization must also recognize that Agile isn’t business as usual. You’re not just swapping one methodology for another. You’re swapping “mindsets,” a much tougher transition for those ill prepared to make the journey.

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About LeRoy Ward

LeRoy Ward
J. LeRoy Ward, PMP, PgMP, Consultant, ESI International, brings more than 33 years of expertise in project and program management to the refinement of ESI’s portfolio of learning programs. He works closely with ESI clients worldwide to guide the assessment, implementation and reinforcement of knowledge and skills that allow for the effective measurement and successful adoption of learning program objectives.

One comment

  1. Our recent surveys show that agile is not new to most firms. They are well over the hump of introduction. Of the 300+ organizations that we have surveyed, most have been using agile methods operationally for over 2 years. Based on your article, it can be inferred that they are not reaping the benefits because the training they received was poor. However, the data we have collected shows just the opposite. Independent of these findings, the data we have collected says that a different stage of training has been reached and courseware needs to be designed to accommodate those who have made the transition and need to bolster their skill sets in areas like refactoring, automated testing, etc. and start to address development operations issues. That doesn’t mean that training in the mindset is not needed. Just the opposite, it is. The agile manifesto and tenants need to be reinforced as does the skills, knowledge, and abilities that go with it.

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