Yes You Really Do Need to Invest in Agile Training - Here is Why

Anthony Mersino
April 27, 2017

As an Agile Coach, I find an interesting paradox about Agile Training. Most people will state that they already know all about Agile and Scrum. And if asked, most organizations will say that they are already using Agile, even if what they are doing is A.I.N.O. (Agile in Name Only). Or they will describe what they are doing as "agilish".  I am pretty sure that "agilish" in this context means that they aren't following Agile Values and Principles. And in most cases, it also means they are doing pretty much what they were doing before agile but now they call them by agile sounding names.  And they don't need or want Agile training.

This creates an interesting problem for me as an Agile Coach. You say you already are using and know about Agile, right?  And you say that you don't need or want any type of training on Agile or Scrum, right?  Are you sure you are a good judge of your Agile knowledge?

You May Not be the Best Judge of Whether You Need Agile Training

People aren't great at evaluating themselves.  We all tend to overestimate ourselves and our talents, traits and abilities. We feel we are smarter than the average person, or more generous or whatever. The truth is that we don't see ourselves or others accurately.  This is a known type of cognitive bias called illusory superiority

So probing for Agile Training and Coaching needs can be tricky. Frequently, managers, leaders and executives of all stripes feel they already know enough to succeed with Agile. Is it possible they learned everything they needed to know about Agile from that Forbes magazine article or from hearing a colleague speak about it at a conference?

If an organization is using A.I.N.O. they might get ticked if you tell them they need Agile or Scrum training.  I've had internal agile champions tell me that their leaders believed that they have been practicing Agile for years.  They asked me not to mention the need for Scrum training because they had been telling their leaders that they had already been using Scrum.  So please don't mention the need for training.  Huh?  You mean you want me to lie about the current state just so someone doesn't get upset about the truth?

Without Scrum or Agile Training, Terms are Misused and Principles Abused

I've also run into client situations where team members were taught or told things about Scrum and Agile that were inaccurate.  What do I tell team members who have been taught to use "Sprint" to describe waterfall phases, as in the Analysis Sprint, the Development Sprint, and the Testing Sprint?  I have to do my best to not scream out:  "That crap you were doing before wasn't agile!"  Sometimes I am diplomatic and I tell them that they need to adopt a more disciplined form of Agile or Scrum.

Organizations will also do things that run directly counter to the Agile Principles. I see helicopter managers who are micromanaging team members when they profess to have empowered teams who are self-organizing. Or in other cases, we have people being punished individually or held accountable for deadlines that were set by others.

Have a Conversation on the Need for Scrum and Agile Training

Unfortunately there is no standard assessment for measuring Agility (and if there were I'd be suspicious of it!).  So I find I that early on I need to spend a lot of time just asking questions and helping people understand where they are today, and where they might be if they invested in proper Agile training. I try to cast a vision for what they might gain by learning and improving their processes.  I talk about the benefits that they've hoped for that they aren't realizing.  Here are some typical talking points:

  1. All the Costs and None of the Benefits - I often start with a discussion of the benefits that people are currently seeing from using Agile and Scrum. Sometimes, organizations incur the costs of Agile and get none of the benefits. That is an easy quick win - stop misusing Agile and Scrum and getting none of the benefits.  By continuing to use old patterns and simply adding a daily standup and calling things sprints, you can actually add more overhead to a poor process.  People will become jaded if they are told they are self-organizing but continue to be assigned work from multiple projects with conflicting priorities and deadlines.
  2. Avoid Confusion and Thrashing - Even when done well, teams can often be confused about how to proceed and waste time thrashing on team processes.  Training helps to avoid this by getting everyone on the same page with both the "how to do agile" and "how to be agile" or the mindset and philosophy behind what they are doing. 
  3. Unlearning - Most of us already know all about Agile, right?  Even when we don't, our minds fill in the blanks about what Agile is without our even knowing it.  An easy example is the Scrum Master role.  Even though the Scrum Guide is clear in describing the Scrum Master as a process coach, impediment remover, and facilitator if needed, most everyone equates this role to the project manager and they believe that the Scrum Master also does everything that the project manager would do.  So a big part of my Agile training is to help people to unlearn things that they think they already know.
  4. Avoiding the Agile Mish-Mash - Many times I find that team members bring their experience from other areas or organizations into their current team. Any prior experience from their previous company is to them the best way to do Agile. Or they create a hybrid of all the things that they think work best, liking picking out food at a buffet. They end up with an agile Frankenstein that includes traditional waterfall approaches and bits and pieces of Agile and Scrum. 
  5. Poor Agile and Bad Scrum Hurts Others and Becomes the Standard - New teams that get stood up and use "agile" keep propagating the same bad patterns and mistakes from previous teams.  The "norm" for Agile in the organization will just continue to get worse.  Training can help people to overcome the bad patterns and to create more effective ways of working together.
  6. Facilitate Change and Continuous Improvement - If people see that Agile and Scrum are effective ways of working when used properly, they will be open to learning about other improvements.  They will become more open to change and trying new things.  The alternative that I have seen is when Agile and Scrum are used against people, they become more resistant to change.  They simply put their head down and wait out the proposed change, instead of embracing change and continuous improvement. 
  7. Make a Realistic Assessment of Where You Are - It is difficult to change without a realistic assessment of your current state. There is an old saying that the first step is admitting you have a problem. Without a clear idea of where people are today, there is no way to successfully help them get somewhere else.  Training can help people to appreciate where they are, and what they don't know.  Or as in the previous example, what they believe they know that simply isn't true.

Where to Start with Agile Training

If a client is interested, or even on the fence, I help them to think about small experiments they run. Perhaps a lunch and learn might wet the appetite for deeper training. Maybe they will try a training pilot with a team, or take a team that is thrashing and conduct "refresher" training.

Another area of low hanging fruit is whether those people who are being asked to support teams as Scrum Masters have actually had Scrum Master training.  Getting the CSM or PSM Scrum Master Certification is pretty easy, and taking the training to get it is a pretty low bar for someone acting in a leadership role.  (Read more about Scrum Master Certification here). If you are using Kanban, XP or other Agile approaches that are not based on Scrum, other Agile certifications such as PMI's Agile Certified Practitioner Certification (PMI-ACP) may be a better fit.

A Quick Self-Assessment on Agile Training Needs

  1. How well would your thinking and practices align to the 12 Agile Principles?
  2. What is the ratio of team members, Scrum Masters, Product Owners and leaders in your organization that have been trained vs. those that have not been through Agile Training?
  3. Have your Scrum Masters been through Scrum Master Training and received their Scrum Master Certification?
  4. Have you pursued any Agile Certifications beyond the Scrum Certifications, such as the PMI-ACP?
  5. Have your Product Owners been through Scrum Product Owner Training and received their Product Owner Certification?
  6. Are your "Agile" practices a lot like the practices you were using prior to becoming Agile?
  7. Have you used any any objective tools to gauge your agility? (BTW, we have Agile Health Assessments and Scrum Maturity tools)
  8. Have you brought in outside experts to assess the approaches you use? Have you benchmarked with other firms?
  9. Do you or your people attend Meetup's, conferences, or outside training sessions?
  10. Do you feel like you are getting the benefits of Agile and Scrum?

About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.