The Future of Agile Roles != The Future of Agility

The story of Capital One laying off hundreds of people in Agile roles is making the rounds. I have no direct connection to Capital One, so I can’t comment about what’s going on there. 

What I can share is for years now, I’ve been coaching companies and leaders to see the Scrum Master and similar roles like the SAFe RTE as accountabilities relevant leaders take on (it can be formal managers/leaders or natural leaders from within teams that are passionate about agility and gravitate to this). See the Scrum Guide for Leaders

One example is the VP of Engineering in a growing startup, who decided to take on the SAFe RTE role (Chief Scrum Master for the Agile Release Train) since they felt it was up to them to provide this sort of leadership. 

Remember – Scrum Accountabilities != Scrum Roles

This way of thinking is supported by the 2020 Scrum Guide update that changes the language from Scrum Roles to Scrum Accountabilities. SAFe also sees itself as a dual operating system in parallel to the organizational structure, which means the Scrum Master and other roles should be seen as accountabilities.

If/When leaders take these new ways of leading and showing up to heart, it creates healthy and sustainable agility. Getting there requires support and coaching of course.

Sometimes you do need someone dedicated to agility

In addition, there are situations where no one is passionate about organizational performance, health, agility, and development. In these contexts, the right move IS to have a person dedicated to these accountabilities. Most of the time, these people are brought in to become part of the leadership team of a larger group. 

So what do the layoffs of Agile roles mean? 

Is “laying off all agile roles” a sign that a company achieved agile nirvana? Probably not. 

My take on what we’re seeing right now in the market is more often one of these scenarios: 

  • Companies wake up to the reality that they are DOING Agile (rather than BEING Agile) and see the Agile roles as part of the problem. 
  • Companies that believe in their Agile way of working and have achieved a reasonable level of agility. They want to continue to improve, but when they are looking to extend their runway in the current macroeconomic environment, they make the tough but necessary decision to spend less on the “future of work” and more around “doing current work”. 
  • Change in leadership and the loss of a formal or informal Agile Champion leads to a change in perspective about agility. 
  • Companies where people in agile roles are making an impact, but either don’t care or struggle to provide transparency to this impact in a way that will resonate to business people (think CFO). In the current context, this isn’t a very sustainable strategy… 

Now what? 

If you’re in an Agile role (Scrum Master, RTE, etc.) I recommend you focus on continuously improving the effectiveness and results of your team (or ART), in a way that is impactful to the business, ideally in a quantifiable way. Look at Evidence-based Management for ideas regarding what to focus on and what conversations to have with your team and your stakeholders. 

It might be frightening but you should also consider asking your team, stakeholders, and leadership a question used in Netflix – How hard would you fight to keep me here? The answer and conversation might be hard to hear – but it will provide the transparency you need to inspect and adapt your focus. 

If you’re in a big organization with a formal or informal agile role community of practice I recommend you make this a topic you work on. 

The optimistic in me hopes that, as a community, we will use 2023 as a wake-up call that will positively impact what we focus on and the value we bring to organizations. 

And finally, one of the hard truths about our role is that our ultimate success is when we’re not needed anymore. Moving between teams, contexts, and sometimes companies is part of this profession we took on…