Enterprises may be on board with the idea of Agile methodologies, but do they actually have the skill sets in hand to achieve it?
David Sabine, scrum trainer and consultant with Berteig, who has been involved with Agile work methods since they were introduced in 2007, said public training classes on the subject are always full these days. “There is so much demand. There has been such change in the industry and this is putting a lot of pressure on organzations to understand how to do their current operating mechanisms; and to understand how the team is now the performance unit versus the individual.”
Given the speed of technological innovation, it is perfectly understandable that Agile is taking centre stage, Sabine said. “Agile was born out of necessity. It’s there because of the rate of change and the fact that people are dealing with very complex problems that can only be solved through communication in environments where everything is inherently unpredictable – or only predictable on a short-term basis.”
It’s not just about training however. A move to Agile also dramatically affects classic org charts that are typically organized by skillsets or authority rather than by the cross-functional roles needed for Agile team members.
“I firmly believe that skills related to technology are not the hardest part to manage,” Sabine said. “You can always provide training around technology skill sets. The hardest part for organizations is how to support a learning environment in an extremely dynamic, complex and unpredictable marketplace. Learning is not just something you do when you have a budget surplus.”
“The buck does not stop with training,” confirmed Thomas Palantzas, client solutions specialist, business process improvement for IT training firm Global Knowledge. “When I’m asking customers what their needs and issues are and how to support them, the first question is, let’s look at the inventory skills all over. In other words, what skills are required to emerge into Agile projects?”
Much of what is needed for successful Agile adoption falls under the soft skills umbrella. Global Knowledge has a table that outlines the traditional and complementary skills required, along with the appropriate courses. On the traditional side, skillsets include scheduling and cost, cost management, risk, procurement management, quality control, project integration and communication. The inventory is considerably longer on the complementary skills side, and include advanced leadership, team building, effective decision making, prioritization, change management, consensus building, facilitation, critical thinking/problem solving, time management, vision thinking, collaboration, motivation, and more.
The easy part of transition to Agile is finding the hard skills, such as programming language and development expertise; the soft skills may be harder to come by. What adds to the challenge of transitioning to Agile project management is that an entire generation of employees is transitioning into different roles. At the same time, attitudes within traditional roles are evolving as well, Palantzas said, adding that Agile is widespread amongst organizations with a substantial IT component, such as financial services and telcos. “While some smaller organizations and manufacturing operations are embracing Agile, it is really gaining traction is in cloud-based projects. They need Agile skills as a foundation to swim in the pool. It’s the nature of the beast: cloud is heavily IT based and methodologies have to bring deliverables to the table faster.”
Agile expertise can be counted among the skills that are “very, very, very relevant” for large organizations, said Pam Maguire, product and relationship manager for IT, Global Knowledge. “Within the skill sets needed in the age of digital transformation, Agile is an important component, especially in those organizations that have invested in data centres and cloud technology. They also recognize that if they don’t use Agile when going in the direction of cloud and software-as-a-service, they can’t deliver business outcomes to compete.”
So what does an organization need to do to tackle the Agile challenge? Perhaps the most influential factor in fostering an Agile-driven environment is that it must be led from the top, Palantzas said. “It’s more than just a tactical decision. It’s a strategic one. If you just operate at a tactical, team delivery level, change will not be sustainable. Managers need to figure out how to manage things in a different way; and the hardest part of that is organizational alignment.”
Given the potential scope and complexity of Agile training, and the limited supply of training expertise, Palantzas said a cost-effective approach is to train key people (i.e. the strongest contenders) and make them mentors.
Maquire also cautions employers to never underestimate the soft skills required in Agile. “They have to be aligned with the business. Ask yourself: What is your exposure? How connected are your people into the business? What are the conversations you are having? These are all things people can learn.”
While the task may seem daunting and the logistics overwhelming, Palantzas observed, “If a company is not using Agile methodologies, I can tell you one thing. They will be. So you need to get ready for it now, which means investing in awareness and training.”