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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Ahmed Sidky and Shannon Ewan on Designing the ICAgile Pathways

Ahmed Sidky and Shannon Ewan on Designing the ICAgile Pathways


2. Sounds interesting. Shannon?

Shannon: My name is Shannon Ewan. I'm a career IT consultant. I started off as a software developer, worked in many, many roles on many teams over the years. I've done my fair share of enterprise Agile coaching and training and facilitation as well. Also, a certified professional coach. I have joined ICAgile as the managing director.

Shane: Tell us a little bit about ICAgile and certifications because certification is almost a swear word in the Agile community.

Ahmed: Yes. So ICAgile started to -- we're basically trying to answer two questions. We came from a fundamental belief that Scaling Agile can be done in a lot of different ways but sustainable agility is achieved when people change. As organizations are changing towards Agile, what changes with people? ICAgile is trying to answer what actually needs to change when it comes to people's disciplines and crafts.

We wanted to do that in a methodology inclusive way. So it would apply to all methodologies, current and future. As organizations customize their methodologies, it would still be applicable because it's based on disciplines and craft in the Agile space. So what we did is we gathered experts to help define those learning objectives. You know many of them.

The second part of -- or the second question we're trying to answer is how do we encourage people to pursue that journey because it is not a two-day journey. It's actually a quite lengthy journey for people to pursue a depth and mastery in a certain craft in Agile. So, hence, we came up with knowledge-based and competency-based certifications to encourage people and for them to act with motivational milestones along the way.

Shannon: I think that makes that -- we just really want to recognize that this is about a journey and looking at some other disciplines out there who have really have these very rigorous certifications that recognize that there's an element of knowledge and practice and knowledge and practice and how these two things really feed off of each other so that you actually become Agile as you're executing.

Ahmed: Yes. It's a lot more about the being of Agile than just the doing of Agile.


3. You mentioned knowledge certifications and competency certifications. Do you want to give us a little bit of differentiation?

Ahmed: Sure. I can start a little bit backward just to, again, that swear word, as you said, certification. Again, I've been in the Agile community and Agile industry for a number of years. I know and I think a lot of our viewers know that certification has been a big topic of debate. A lot of times, it's really not about the certification itself. It's about whether the certification is meaningful or not.

That's something that we wanted to pursue in ICAgile from day one, which is meaningful competency-based certification. What we mean by competency-based certifications is an actual recognition that this person hasn't just learned something but, as Shannon was saying, that like learning and practice, learning and practice but actually has over that cycle, through that journey developed competency.

Shannon: Sure. Absolutely. So from a practical standpoint, the way we actually engage with folks who are on this journey is to get them to that expert level as we've worked with our expert communities to define what does this look like and how do we evaluate expertise. How do we evaluate from beginning to developing through competent to proficient and mastery.

So the folks who are pursuing this journey actually received that criteria. They know exactly to what standard they are being held. In some ways, that helps us control our pipeline, a little bit, because it really, really separates the serious folk from those who are just looking to kind of add some letters to the end of their name or to their resume.

We actually have them demonstrate in front of, via a video-conference, in front of a panel of three experts. So whether it's being given a story and I need to figure out how I'm going to test this story and how the conversation with someone who's acting in product owner capacity or if I'm doing a coaching demonstration with someone on an agile topic, right there, real live, absolutely nowhere to hide kind of situation.

Ahmed: Yes. I mean, if you think about it, Shane, what is the bar for a good coach? We have tons of people up there saying, "We are Agile coaches." Some of them are Agile coaches and some of them, in reality, aren't Agile coaches. Sort of what we try to do, not Shannon and I but we've gathered experts from around the world that sort of are thought leaders and practitioners in this space to actually define what does a competent Agile coach look like.

That, we're very transparent in our process. That's what we say, "Okay. You need to demonstrate these competencies and we'll give you a mentor to help you through that process but it's still up to you to demonstrate that competency.

Now, that's a pretty high bar. So going back to your original question, the difference between that and knowledge-based certifications, knowledge-based certifications are motivational milestones along that journey to help people acquire the knowledge they need to develop that competency.

The reason we have knowledge-based certifications is it is a lengthy journey. People want those motivational milestones and recognition that I'm acquiring the knowledge on this journey. So imagine if there was nothing between grade school and a Ph.D., right? You have no sort of recognition in between, that's not motivational. It's like playing the game without a score.

So we need those motivational milestones on that journey but the intent of ICAGile is not for people to stop along the journey but to reach that level of competency and mastery.

Shannon: To add to that, we really want to make sure they're out there practicing the right things.

Ahmed: A hundred percent.

Shannon: We all know -- those of us who learn how to play golf without taking lessons, you build all these bad habits and then to undo that and really learn how to swing properly, it takes far longer than if you had really learned what do we really need to know to succeed in this craft?

Ahmed: I couldn't agree more.


4. How is this message resonating with the Agile community?

Shannon: I think, if I'm interpreting your question correctly, what's bringing the Agile community to us potentially?

What I'm seeing really is that people are wanting more. They were here. It's 2015, Agile's been out in the world for quite some time. It's got a lot of traction. It's certainly not hiding in the corner these days and people have learned a few processes along the way there. "Okay. How do I really get better at this? What is next for me? I want to succeed. I'm a true Agilist. I want to succeed with this. What do I do?"

So we see people who maybe started the journey, taken a class one or two days in a certain process or methodology. They really want to understand, "What does it mean to facilitate teams? What does it mean to really design excellent software? What does it mean to coach enterprises through Agile change, et cetera, et cetera? What do I need to learn and where is this community of experts and people who are passionate about this?"

Ahmed: To add to Shannon, I think there's two things we're saying. Intrinsic motivators, autonomy, mastery, and purpose, part of that is mastery. People want to master this craft. There is a path now to master. Once people become aware of it, there is that desire to pursue it.

But before the ICAgile roadmap was published, what does mastery look like? Who's classes do you go attend -- you look for the speakers, you look for the thought leaders but there was no roadmap to mastery.

So now that we've published this roadmap to mastery and people can see the different disciplines and, "Oh, here's the path. Here are the learning objectives. Here's the certifications. Here's what 'good' and 'done' looks like. I can actually pursue that."

That's one aspect. I think the other aspect that's motivating more people to come is as the industry grows, there's a lot more people that claim certain competencies. There's no rigor, there's no check.

So some people want to set themselves apart and say, "Actually, no. I've put a lot of time and effort in learning and I want to get that sort of endorsement that I know more than some of the others that aren't” – but many don't have that knowledge and competence and experience but today, they're all -- there's no recognition of that.

I think more and more people, more organizations want that too, because, again, from a hiring process, how do you know that this coach is going to come help the organization and not sink it? Because a lot of people the coaches to help them do what they don't know what to do yet, right? If you don't know what good looks like, well, anyone can tell you, "I'm the best coach."


5. So in terms of the take-up, what sort of numbers are you seeing of people who bought into this and come along on this journey?

Ahmed: Small and growing, we're at 20,000 members right now. The rate of increase is pretty high. More and more people are coming to ICAgile. More and more people are aware of ICAgile and the learning roadmap. We're engaging with more corporations directly now.

As corporations create their own custom-made methodologies and want to provide these, again, certifications, motivational, recognition milestones to the people, you don't have in the industry something today that they can teach their customized approach to work, call it Agile call it whatever, right? And at the same time, aware people certification, except with ICAgile.

So we're seeing an uptake from corporations. We're seeing an uptake from individuals. Like I said, we're 20,000 growing. We have, probably at this point, more than 80 training providers across the world that are partners with us. V Again, just to emphasize, we do not provide training, we do not provide courseware. We are an accreditation and certification body. So we have training partners that bring their courses to us, we accredit them and validate to make sure that those training courses cover the published learning objectives. Then they go out and train with those.


6. These learning objectives are in the creative commons, they're freely available?

Ahmed: Yes. They are creative commons. The reason they're creative commons is this such valuable information that we, I don't think anybody should just hold on to it as any kind of proprietary IP. This is from the community - to the community and if this is the only thing we're offering to the community then we have achieved our mission.

Shannon: To piggy back onto that as well, I mean, this is very much a synergistic interactive process that we engage in with the community.

Ahmed: That's true.

Shannon: It's not ICAgile saying, "Thou shalt learn such and such." In an Agile manner, we take feedback from our community. We listen to what people are demanding, what they want to know, and we work, we co-create a lot of things and a lot of the programs.

Ahmed: To give an example, we revamped two tracks at this point based on feedback from the community, completely torn them down and restarted them. Why? Because the craft has evolved. As we publish these learning tracks, Agile is, again, which is great. It keeps moving. We want to keep moving. Again, we are engaged with practitioners and experts to tell us, "This is out of date -- the new way of thinking is this or that."

Shane: One of the things you mentioned was organizations building their own stuff using their own processes. How can we be confident that they are actually good? How can we do this? it feels to me there might be a risk to it and (dare I say it) being watered down.

Shannon: There are so many layers to that question so I'm going to -- Choose what to tackle first and then you can chime in. So brilliant question. I think one of the things that we say and believe ICAgile is that Agile processes evolve and Agility is here to stay. To truly be Agile, you've got to look at what is situationally relevant for you.

So this is becoming -- we've seen corporations and we believe to succeed and transform and succeed that scale, you've got to do what makes sense for your culture, for your corporate identity, and who you want to be in the marketplace.

We provide the standards. So we are consistent and flexible. We do hold corporations to this rigorous process in terms of accreditation and really meeting the core learning objectives. That said, they have flexibility in terms of, "Okay. If I'm looking at value-based delivery, perhaps my process involves these four practices."

They will put things together in ways that really make sense for their employees, et cetera, for their realities. Then we will work with them to say they're vetting this against an industry standard, give them feedback, maybe this, maybe that and really, this is something that will work for them.

We see so many times where corporations will send their teams out for training and then they come and this is a major investment that they're making. They come back and they're like, "Well, that's great but how do I use it here?"

Ahmed: Yes. That's a common thing we've heard. I mean, that was from the inception of ICAgile that led us to this is relevancy, right? I mean, the whole point of agility is to customize the way you work and have it evolve and inspect and adapt but if all you know is a methodology, then you will try to fit the ecosystem to fit that methodology and that's not Agile.

So, yes, we encourage organizations to look at their situation and figure out the most agile way to achieve business success for them within their constraints and as the constraints change, which then means they have different practices. The way learning objectives are formulated are, again, methodology-inclusive and based on the values and principles.

We've done many different iterations to make sure that all these learning objectives don't point or lead people to a specific methodology but more to Agility, right? So the accreditation process is that rigor that you're looking for.

A lot of people say, "Well, if companies go and create their own methodology, how do we know they're not just doing the waterfall and calling it Agile?" Well, that's accreditation, right? Because we actually look at them and say, "No. Your material doesn't cover these learning objectives. You're not actually talking about the mindset. You're just talking about practices."

We believe that, remember, all of this is focused on that human transformation, the being of Agile we set in people's mindsets around certain crafts. So if we see that a lot of the material is focused on the tools and the do and don'ts and all that, I can almost guarantee you, that course won't pass the accreditation process.

Shannon: And you can tell that there's a lot of passion here around this particular subject. What I would say is, if you could just slap a framework on it, this will -- we would not be bringing people from all over the world for these conferences. We wouldn't be having these conversations that --

Ahmed: We'd publish a book.

Shannon: If it were easy, it would be all be done, right? So this really, this situational implementation makes a lot of sense and it's a much more sustainable approach.

Ahmed: I want the viewers to make sure they get like what the learning objective isn't the Agile BOK. It's not the, "This is how you do Agile." Actually, it's quite the contrary. The learning objectives, actually, would multiple times say, "People need to learn about this concept through one of these or other approaches”. Just to even give people like, "Please understand that there multiple ways in doing this." That recognition is the agility that we want to see in the organizations.


7. We spoke about organizations, what about training providers? What support -- what help do you give them in terms of the course designer?

Ahmed: I'll let Shannon start there.

Shannon: Well, we do, it's interesting. We've been seeing more and more. Another thing that our process offers is flexibility in delivery of training. As long as it makes sense and the learners are going to come out from taking away the key outcomes that we're looking for.

So we work with training providers in terms of -- for their reality, do I have to package this as a three-day? Some modules using an online format, even splitting things up in terms of classroom and then adding some experiential component where one of their instructors or coaches is actually on the ground taking participants through the activities and that actually helps them.

It's much easier for the instructors to really see, "Yes. The folks are grasping what we're trying to teach."

Ahmed: We talk about accrediting learning experiences not courses, right? Because a learning experience is multi-modal. So it could be through mentoring, through classroom, through a little bit of virtual, a little bit of hands-on. So we want to open the world and say, "There is no one way of learning."

There's learning experiences that people are involved in and we accredit all those different types of learning experiences. For the course designers, which are heavily related to the training providers, the guidance we give is in the learning objectives itself.

So I invite people to look at those learning objectives because you'll see, every learning objective provides context. Like, here's what the world is thinking about. Then it says, the purpose of this learning objectives is for the learner to get 1, 2, 3, 4. That actually provides an acceptance criteria, right?

It says, "For this learning objective to be complete, make sure to include hands-on exercise or a discussion." So the level of guidance that we provide to course designers is actually really high. As we've expanded into beyond the fundamentals, because a lot of people were training fundamentals in 100 different ways but really now going into this craft discipline in Agile management, coaching, testing, these things.

A lot of people have the knowledge but don't know how to package the course and these learning objectives provide that guidance. It says, "You need to teach this concept and here's some ideas on how to do that."


8. Great. We've spoken about the -- or, you've just mentioned the pathways, what's in the current set of pathways and what's coming next?

Ahmed: All right. A little bit of preview here. The current, help me if I'm missing anything, Agile fundamentals, Agile coaching, Agile management, enterprise Agile coaching, I'll talk about that in a minute, value management, which is more on the business side like product ownership and portfolio management, development, testing, and very soon, leadership will be published.

We're on a revision of the leadership one. So that's one that was sort of never published because when it came out, the world had already changed. So we are revising that. DevOps is coming up and business agility which I'll let Shannon talk about because it's near and dear to her.

Shannon: Well, one of things that we've talked a lot about is sustainable organizational agility. It's looking at what structures need to be in place for a truly Agile organization. So looking beyond products, software development, product development, delivery, and really looking at, "Okay. We're talking about we want teams to collaborate. How do we incentivize team behaviors not individual behaviors?"

So that's just an example. So looking into business in general, becoming truly Agile, how do we manage talent? How do we handle finance and budgeting, et cetera, et cetera, marketing? So looking at instead of saying, "Okay. Our team is Agile. However, working with this part of the organization is a constant barrier for us."

Okay. How do we speak the same language? What is this common-- because we all want to collaborate more, we'd love to deliver more value, et cetera, et cetera. So how do we really start to speak that same language and look at what we need to be focusing on and learning at an organizational level?

Ahmed: And I think that's the next wave, right? I think even though Agile is sort of born in IT it's not meant only for IT, right? While people may think that Agile is, for sure, I think everyone will agree that Agility is more of an organizational business concept, especially in the creative economy that we're in today, organizations that aren't sort of partnering with technology and technology is enabling that agility. If the business itself and its strategies and structures isn’t Agile, those organizations won't survive the next wave of innovation and creativity. They're just completely slow. So that business agility track is what we're sort of looking into the future and saying, "Okay." Sort of, "The IT has a chartered path but what about the rest?"

Because you can tell, as Shannon was saying, non-linear career paths are a big thing. We're talking always about generalizing specialist. Do talent management sort of organizations, HR, and whatnot, do they have the knowledge they need to build performance management systems that incorporate generalizing specialists and team performance and non-linear career paths? That's the kind of learning objectives that will be in that upcoming track.

Shannon: Rewarding people for pursuing their passions not moving up the hierarchy.

Ahmed: Exactly. It's a common one.

Shannon: Yeah. Exactly. Job satisfaction is such a huge indicator of organizational success. So how do we look at really making these places where people want to be working?

Shane: You mentioned the enterprise coaching track. Tell us a bit more about that.

Ahmed: Yeah. I'll tell you a little bit and let Shannon talk you a bit more. It was two years in the making that's why we're really proud of that. Why was it two years in the making? People at the Agile organization, there was no body knowledge around that, right? So a lot of people talk about enterprise Agile coaching, enterprise Agile coaching but this is similar to how five years, ten years back, we talked about Agile coaching.

There was no like, "What does 'good' look like? What do people need to learn?" So we want to come ahead of the curve a little bit this time and say, "Wait, before the next wave of people just calling themselves enterprise Agile coaches, let's define what that domain, what that craft actually looks like."

But that wasn't an easy task, Shane, because what does the craft look like? What are the set of learning objectives that makes someone an enterprise Agile coach or have the craft of coaching at an enterprise level, which includes the scaling component, the transformational component, cultural, human, the being, change of management, all of those things.

We have a phenomenal track and set of learning objectives defined by some of the best experts in that space. We're just really proud that set of learning objectives. Shannon was more intimately sort of involved with that so I let her --

Shannon: Well, I'll talk about it a little bit from a who is that going to pull in? Who is asking for it? Because we do have -- we have an Agile coaching track which is really focused on team coaching. There's such an art to facilitating and coaching teams.

I wouldn't say that enterprise coaching, while we do have folks who have gone through the full track who are very much interested in getting into enterprise coaching, it's not just a pure linear progression as we're talking about. So we also have folks who are coming from the organizational change side, organizational design, et cetera, et cetera. So this isn't just a continuation. It's an entry, it's an introduction of a whole bunch of new skills and disciplines so that people are -- we're really seeing a lot of -- we spend a fair amount of time in those learning objectives looking at what makes a business Agile? What is enterprise agility? So that's some new concept that you don't see in other tracks.

Ahmed: Yes.


9. Who were some of these thought leaders who contributed to that?

Ahmed: Yes. So we had Marsha Acker, Lyssa Adkins, Michael Spade, Pete Berhens were the core group of people that sort of led the Enterprise Agile Coaching track. They sought feedback from a whole bunch of people, practitioners and other thought leaders in the community.

Shane: So credible experts.

Ahmed: Yes. Very, very credible experts. By the way, Shane, we do that with all our tracks. So with people leading any of these tracks are probably one of the foremost thought leaders on those tracks. We have -- with the, for example, value management, Shane Hastie, you, again, were leading that track along with a bunch of other team members.

Pat Reed who's leading the Agile Management track, Janet Gregory, Sharon Robson, Jeff Pain, were leading the testing track. The development track, we had Gerard Meszaros, Colin Garlick, Alistair Cockburn leading that track. So we have people, real thought leaders.

We have the Leadership track, we have Will Joiner, Michael Hammond is leading that track, Pam Karafa [Phonetic], Charlie Rudd. So we don't look at it for just people that claim that they know this space. These are people that have helped define this space and they know the good practitioners and the other thought leaders. Those are the kind of people we seek to define this tracks.

Shane: Well, Ahmed, Shannon, thank you. This has been a really enlightening look inside ICAgile. Enjoy the rest of conference.

Ahmed: Well, thank you.

Shannon: Thank you.

Oct 02, 2015