Agile professional development
- White Paper
- Digital transformation
- Benefits realization
November 22, 2020 |
19 min read
- White Paper
- Digital transformation
- Benefits realization
The professional world is increasingly volatile, and adaptable employees have the best chance of success. Many agile tools, techniques, and principles can be adapted and used to help structure your professional development so that you remain flexible. This paper explains how.
Fifty years ago, most entrants into the job market had a clear trajectory up the career ladder. Entry-level workers were guided through years of development and shepherded between predefined roles until, decades later, they reached retirement.
This model worked because most organizations had rigid, hierarchical structures that favoured steady upward progression. Job roles and job descriptions were also very stable when compared with those of today. A financial analyst in 1970, for example, could reasonably expect that in five years’ time the role would still involve doing much the same thing, using much the same programmes, tools, and techniques. It was relatively easy to develop training programmes because they only gradually became outdated and employees progressed in predictable ways. This is no longer the case.
The professional world is increasingly volatile. Because tools and technologies keep evolving, organizations are less able to predict which skillsets they will need in the future. Learning and development departments are trying (and struggling) to become agile. The days of long-term professional development plans are largely gone.
This phenomenon has contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of jobs a person can expect to have over their lifetime. Employees switch roles to find one that better suits their experience, aspirations, and values, or one that will offer them better training opportunities. Organizations are more likely to recruit at a higher level, rather than promote their existing employees, to fill a skills gap or replace an employee that has left.
There are other reasons for the rise in job-hopping. Flatter organizational structures have helped to reduce silos in organizations, meaning that employees have a lot more visibility into different areas of the business. This has led to an interest in cross-training and lateral progression. Lifestyles are becoming more changeable, so people often change their role to suit their need for more flexibility, better pay, or a new location. This is compounded by the fact that people are starting families later in life, which means that there is a longer period during which many people are relatively free of responsibility and therefore are more open to taking risks and making changes.
Loyalty towards your organization, very common in the 1980s, is almost non-existent among millennials. New graduates are increasingly likely to job-hop early on in their careers. In fact, a report from Gallup finds that 21% of millennials switched jobs in 2016, which was three times the number of non-millennials who did the same.1 Research from LinkedIn shows that entry-level graduates will, in their first five years of work, have nearly twice as many jobs as they did in the 1980s.2
On top of this, more and more people are deciding not just to switch jobs, but to make a dramatic change in career. A 2019 survey by Indeed found that almost half (49%) of US workers surveyed had made a significant career shift at some point, such as from teaching to finance.3
The upshot is that the professional world is not what it used to be; adaptability is the new dependability, and the onus is on the employee to direct their own professional growth. This paper explores how an agile mindset and an adaptive approach to learning and development can help you to manage a volatile career.
The Agile mindset
In 2001, a group of software developers published the Manifesto for Agile Software Development.4 This foundational document was the beginning of an agile movement, and it was a reaction to the increasing pace of technology development and its impact on software-based projects.
The ideas defined in the manifesto were, of course, intended to be used for software development. However, it was so successful that many other methods leveraging agile principles have now been developed and can be used in almost every industry.
Common agile approaches are:
- responding to change instead of following a plan
- relying on iterative and incremental progression
- maximizing immediate functionality
- prioritizing work
- promoting sustainable development
- holding retrospectives to promote continual improvement.
In volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environments, agile organizations and individuals can ‘adapt quickly in response to shifting consumer and market needs’.5
In response to the increasingly VUCA professional environment, AXELOS created a guide for organizations wishing to embrace agile ways of working. Although they are not specifically aimed at individuals, many of the lessons and ideas explored in A guide to AgileSHIFT® are relevant when discussing agile professional development.
AXELOS also launched the PRINCE2 Agile® best practice guidance and certification to explain how agile practices could be used in conjunction with the PRINCE2® project management method. It contains excellent explanations of many agile techniques.
2.1 Volatile Careers
It is important to recognize that, in today’s VUCA professional world, it is normal to have to change your professional focus, retrain or upskill, and follow opportunities as they arrive. An agile mindset, by definition, is about managing and leveraging change. Those who can cultivate an agile mindset and accept that their long-term career goals will shift over time will be better equipped to embrace uncertainties and leverage new opportunities.
Of course, some well-known professions still mandate rigid training programmes that sometimes take years to complete. Careers in medicine and law, for example, require years of study and practice before you can be considered a fully-fledged professional, and the career paths can be quite inflexible and bureaucratic.
This used to be the norm, but now the volatile nature of most industries has meant that most career paths are more malleable. So, what if, rather than choosing a job we would like to have in twenty years and working stubbornly towards it with little consideration for the intervening time, we embraced the uncertainty? Now, many people will have more success if they build a career by periodically identifying desired outcomes, maximizing functionality wherever possible, and being flexible about the long-term direction.
In this case, desired outcomes could be anything you get out of a job, including money, job satisfaction, experience in an industry, networking opportunities, training opportunities, travel opportunities, holiday allowances, benefits (such as medical coverage), and so on.
By considering the outcomes we want and need from our roles as incremental markers of success, we can identify which roles, in which industries, will help us progress towards our goals.
More importantly, this agile, outcome-focused approach promotes the continual re-evaluation of success factors. It means that, when industries change, diversify, and fluctuate (as is inevitable), you will be able to respond to the changes by assessing whether your current trajectory is still optimal and, if necessary, moving in a new direction based on the outcomes you have prioritized.
Agile techniques and professional development
3.1 Product Backlog and Sprints
The product backlog and sprint approach is one of the most common and fundamental agile techniques. Figure 3.1 shows how it works in software development.
Figure 3.1 A basic ‘backlog’ and ‘sprint’ structure for delivering software
PRINCE2 Agile® explains how this process works:
‘New features for a product are held in a prioritized list called the product backlog. […] The team that will build the features decides which items from the top of the product backlog they can create in a timeframe of typically 2–4 weeks (which is known as a sprint). […] At the end of a sprint new features should have been created and they may go into operational use.’6
The product backlog and sprint approach is essentially a way of ensuring that you benefit quickly from your work and that you always work on high-priority items. The short sprints ensure that you always respond to the current environment, not outdated information.
This approach can be adapted and used to structure professional development. There are many professional development activities available for every industry. They include:
- taking training courses
- taking on new responsibilities as part of your current role
- attending industry events, conferences, and webinars
- shadowing co-workers to learn about their roles
- blogging about your industry or another industry that interests you
- listening to relevant podcasts
- taking out a professional membership
- volunteering in a position that utilizes your developing skills
- following industry news.
You can use a product backlog and sprint approach to prioritize and manage all of these activities to ensure that you are making valuable progress. If you have a list of possible professional development activities that are specific to you and your goals (the backlog), you can prioritize them according to your current environment, then choose one or two to work on during a set period (the sprint).
By taking this approach, you continually re-evaluate your priorities and progress in a direction that is harmonious with your professional environment, no matter how it is evolving.
3.1.1 Agile training
In the past, professionals had a very good idea which skills they would need to develop in order to progress towards their chosen career goals. This was because the slower pace of change meant that many organizations used the same systems and tools for years, so they had standard training available for their use. There were lists of skills needed for every job role, and candidates had months, even years, to gain those skills and make themselves more marketable.
Now, there is no one-size-fits-all training standard. As new technology is developed and adopted, proficiency in the old technologies becomes redundant. Furthermore, when new tools and technologies are released, those skilled in their use only enjoy a brief period of high-demand. In fact, research demonstrates that although technical skills are often highly valued, their value declines as more people upskill in those areas.7
It is hard to predict what skills and proficiencies will be valuable in five years. Instead of trying to train on a long-term schedule, it is better to work flexibly. Consider training only when the skills you will gain will help you in the near future, or if you are certain that they will remain valuable for a long period of time.
Skills in technology-based areas, such as programming, are much more likely to become outdated. Because nearly everyone in developed countries is a digital technology user, learning and development should be ongoing for most people in those territories.
This iterative approach is one of the hallmarks of an agile mindset. By continually assessing your needs, you will automatically prioritize development opportunities, thereby identifying those that are most valuable at the time and maximizing immediate functionality. By remaining flexible, you allow yourself to respond to change. For example, if project management responsibilities are added to your role, you might decide to prioritize project management training (such as PRINCE2) to ensure that you get good results.
Working flexibly in this way ensures that the effort you put into learning and development is rarely, if ever, wasted. The idea is to learn as you go and let your experience and skills influence your progression, rather than letting a long-term goal dictate the training you undertake.
3.2 The Delta
One of the core ideas explored in A guide to AgileSHIFT® is the delta. Organizations and individuals today face a constant threat of being left behind as others progress. The most modern organizations today will, if they fail to innovate and embrace new technology, be outstripped by other organizations that are more forward-thinking.
“The increased pace of change, the rise of new technologies, the threat of disruption, and the possibility of an inefficient market can all lead to the development of a gap between where an organization currently is […] and where it could or needs to be. In AgileSHIFT this ‘threat gap’ is called the delta.”8
The difference between where the organization wants to be and where it currently is. This could be measured in terms of capability, performance, or value delivered. The larger the delta, the greater the vulnerability of the organization to competitors and disruptors.
On an individual level, the delta represents the gap between your skills and proficiencies and those of your competition or your ideal future self. Narrowing the delta should be a continual process with four stages:
- recognize the extent of the delta
- narrow the delta through activities like training, networking, and research
- expect the delta to grow again as the environment changes
Because the environment will not stop changing, professionals must expect the delta to continually shift.
A key takeaway is that professional development is no longer just about enabling career progression. Instead, it is a crucial ongoing activity that is necessary just to remain where you are. Someone who does not develop professionally risks slipping backwards in their career; for example, if their organization changes its ways of working (as is common in today’s VUCA environment) and they are unable to adapt.
3.4 Customer/User Stories
Because continual learning is so important, many organizations encourage managers to oversee and influence the professional development of their direct reports. For a manager to effectively influence a staff member’s development, they need to be able to empathize with that person and understand the delta that they are faced with.
Too often, training and other professional development activities are ascribed prescriptively and even arbitrarily, with little consideration given to employees’ individual needs. When learning and development departments have metrics to meet, employees can end up training in areas they are not interested in or attending conferences that are not relevant to their job role.
A guide to AgileSHIFT® explains the concepts of customer and user stories, which are used to help service providers understand the user’s perspective. User stories can be useful to managers who need to discuss professional development with their team and discover what is important to them on an individual level.
|Definition: Customer story|
An informal, natural language description of one or more features of a piece of work. Customer stories are often written from the perspective of an end user or final customer in order to better understand their requirements.
User stories are simple. They can generally be expressed in a single sentence: “As a [CUSTOMER or USER], I want [FUNCTION of FEATURE] so that I can [VALUE or BENEFIT].”10
In general terms, user stories have the following benefits:
- The team creating the solution will have a better understanding of the problem.
- The customer/user does not have to explain the solution they want; instead, they can focus on the outcomes they want the solution to help them achieve.
- The team creating the solution is less likely to waste time and resources.
- The solution is more likely to satisfy the end user and solve the problem.
In a professional-development scenario, the benefits of user stories are similar. User stories should be short and easy to resolve. When used correctly, they can easily become part of a product backlog and sprint approach. This means that agile professional development can be implemented both by an individual and, where appropriate, by their manager in complementary ways.
An employee, Henrietta, is being seconded onto the service desk team to help them in a busy period. She expresses some concerns to her manager; she is inexperienced and worries that she does not understand all of her new responsibilities.
Her manager, Darius, puts himself in Henrietta’s shoes. He can write a simple user story to express the problem.
“Henrietta, a transferring employee, wants to understand more about the function of the service desk so that she can perform better in her role.”
Understanding the problem, Darius uses his knowledge of the service desk team and the role that Henrietta will be moving into to offer some tailored solutions. She can:
- take role-specific training, such as in ITIL® 4
- do some on-the-job shadowing before her start date
- ask her colleagues for informal training relevant to the service desk.
By empathizing with Henrietta, Darius can address her needs precisely, without wasting time or resources.
What learning and development resources should you look for in an organization?
According to the 2017 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report11, learning and development is the second-biggest issue facing organizations. In the face of large-scale, long-lasting changes in their own ways of working and in the ways that their employees progress, many organizations are investing significant amounts to refresh their learning and development programmes.
The focus has shifted from prescribed training to training that adapts in response to the customer’s needs. Organizations are switching from bulky, expensive programmes and courses to more agile training techniques that deliver exactly the value that is needed.
Crucially, organizations must recognize that prescribed learning is not enough; developing professionals need opportunities to grow in unexpected ways.
Some of the leading practices in this area include:
- setting a generous learning and development budget (and making it easy to access)
- encouraging employees to cross-train and experience alternative career paths within the organization
- leveraging micro-learning programmes to help employees experience a wider range of training without committing to a long or expensive course, and without necessitating long periods away from work
- developing a large pool of training content that is available for free to all employees
- making the management of the learning and development programme the responsibility of a specific person in the business.
Most importantly, organizations must actively work to create a culture of continual learning. Simply saying that they support their employees’ professional development is not enough. Organizational leaders must make development resources available, then formally encourage their use by, for example, making learning an explicit part of employees’ objectives. Managers should be rewarded for helping their team develop. Cross-training and internal hires should be the norm.
Organizations need to recognize that a culture of continual, flexible learning is the only way to support agile professional development, and therefore ensure that their employees remain engaged and committed over the long-term in spite of the VUCA environment.
The benefits are not all on the employees’ side. Organizations that manage learning and development well are reaping the rewards of their efforts. Deloitte reckons that ‘organizations that define themselves as great places to learn achieve 23 percent greater financial returns, out-innovate their peers, and endure business cycles far better than their contemporaries.’12
The professional world is increasingly volatile, and adaptable employees have the best chance of success. Because environments, tools, and technologies are evolving quickly, most people need to continually train and upskill just to keep up. To get ahead, professional development is non-negotiable.
Many agile techniques, which were originally created for the field of software development, can help professional people to structure their learning and development. Agile techniques generally help to promote a flexible, iterative, reactive mindset that is ideal when faced with the volatile nature of careers and industries today. Techniques and ideas like the product backlog, sprints, the delta, and user stories can all be useful in this context.
The common feature from these ideas is that they all encourage the focus to be on desired outcomes. An agile approach to professional development means identifying what you want and prioritizing that list, then working to meet your goals. With increased volatility comes increased opportunity; an agile mindset facilitates change, meaning you can leverage every opportunity that comes your way.
As we have seen, it is now common to change jobs many times throughout your career, and even to shift career paths altogether. The number of options available to us means that a wide range of desired outcomes can be achieved. We have the flexibility to design our own lives, so do not let your job define the life you lead. Instead, take an agile approach and keep developing so that your life choices define your career.
AXELOS. (2018) A guide to AgileSHIFT®. The Stationery Office. Print. AXELOS.
(2018) PRINCE2 Agile®. The Stationery Office. Print.
Bersin, J. (2017) Catch the wave: The 21st-century career. Deloitte. [Accessed 21/08/2020]
- Gallup. (2016) How Millennials Want to Work and Live. [Accessed 21/08/2020]
- Berger, G. (2016) Will this year’s college grads job-hop more than previous grads? LinkedIn. [Accessed 01/09/2020]
- Indeed Editorial Team. (2019) Career Change Report: An Inside Look at Why Workers Shift Gears. [Accessed 21/08/2020]
- Various. (2001) Manifesto for Agile Software Development. [Accessed 25/08/2020]
- AXELOS. (2018) A guide to AgileSHIFT®. The Stationery Office. Print.
- AXELOS. (2018) PRINCE2 Agile®. The Stationery Office. Print.
- AXELOS. (2018) A guide to AgileSHIFT. The Stationery Office. Print.
- Deloitte. (2017) Rewriting the rules for the digital age.[Accessed 04/09/2020]
- Bersin, J. (2017) Catch the wave: The 21st-century career. Deloitte. [Accessed 21/08/2020]