Avoid Agile Layoffs

3 ways to pivot in an agile job market downturn
An illustration of working professionals and the scrum iteration loop

It's been tough lately for the agile career path. 

Earlier this year, Capital One laid off over a thousand agile team facilitators. More recently, colleagues from multiple unrelated companies told me their transformations got shut down. Indeed, many agile coaches are telling me what was supposed to be their dream job is paying less and harder to find. 

Why is this happening? Don't executives understand our work literally makes things better and impacts the bottom line?

Unfortunately, the answer to that is NO. 

Scrum Alliance and the Business Agility Institute just released a new joint study called “Skills in the New World of Work.” The report tells us about a fundamental shift in the marketplace for what hiring managers want in their workforce. Gone are the days when the textbook agile roles were in high demand. Instead, the current climate challenges us to apply our growth mindsets to our own careers. In this article, we’ll talk about what that means and three things you can do about it. 

The Good News

Interestingly, the need for agile skills is actually growing. Big time. 

In the report, 64% of all companies polled say that demand has increased over the past year. Indeed, nearly 70% reported that at least a plurality of their organization is expected to work using agile skills. 

Specifically, seven of the top 10 skills are those soft skills that relate to the human element. Teamwork, problem-solving, EQ, and the like. Put another way, the agile mindset is now at the top of the pile in the agile job market. And yet, many of our colleagues are struggling to find work or get ahead. So, then, how do we reconcile these two contrasting truths? Below are three career pivots that can harness this demand and overcome the agile job market downturn. 

Pivot 1. Broadcast Your Bottom Line Impact

By far and away, the most desired agile skill is communication. In the report, nearly two-thirds of companies say they are explicitly asking for or screening for it. And from where I sit, this is where we have the most untapped opportunity as a community.

Here are some illustrations of how that one skill could set you apart... 

  • A product owner brags they delivered a dozen features in the last release. But the leadership is not impressed, asking, “So what?” The soft-spoken business analyst casually mentions the release now puts the team at 75% complete of globalization features needed for the international market, valued at $15M in year 1. Moreover, that release incurred +10% in unplanned consultant costs but was considered with it to gain a 25% faster delivery timeline. Six months later, that analyst is asked to lead three teams while the product owner continues to struggle. 
  • A scrum master is interviewing for a new job and is asked to explain the value of their role. The scrum master is prepared and shares a key theme from their previous job: Over a single year, higher quality and teamwork increased the team’s feature throughput by 22%. He then connects that metric to the team’s budget, clearly showing the improvement was worth even more money than the scrum master’s asking salary. None of the other scrum masters can tell a similar story, and so he gets the job. 
  • The Head of the Agile Center of Excellence gives quarterly updates to senior leaders on organizational performance metrics. Every time, there is a new victory announced around on-time delivery, increased employee engagement, or better quality. Meanwhile, few others are able to share consistent, credible growth during their briefings. One day, the COO pulls her aside and says, “With our latest acquisition, we’re restructuring the organization. Your work with the center was excellent, so we’d like you to head the restructuring effort and have some of those other VPs reporting to you.” 

These examples simply illustrate a key finding around business acumen: “Many organizations identified the need for specific business and domain expertise.” Namely, if you are not able to connect the work you do to the bottom line, then you are missing an opportunity to stand out. 

Pivot 2. Pursue the Pi-Shaped Skills Profile

For years, we’ve been told the best teams are staffed with “generalizing specialists.” These are people who have a deep expertise in a core competency but could also contribute moderately in several other things. A publishing industry product owner could roll up her sleeves and help out with some documentation or testing. An automation tester, if needed, would be willing and able to make some cosmetic website changes. This strategy was often visualized as the T-shaped professional and was said to foster more productivity and collaboration. 

Today, however, things have changed. 

The report says 93% of companies say it is moderately difficult or harder to find people who have all the core skills needed for an open role. In particular, there is a growing need for more versatile “goldilocks” employees with multiple areas of expertise. Examples include… 

  • Scrum master with stakeholder management AND technical experience, or
  • Good communication skills AND a high level of technical understanding or
  • Experience with multiple business / functional areas

…and so forth.

They call this the “pi-shaped profile,” where ideal team members have not one but two or more core competencies. 

An illustration describing pi-shaped skills

One SAAS company I’m working with right now recently launched several executive-facing initiatives and struggled to find the right people to lead them. They considered tapping existing scrum masters or cross-team agile coordinators but found them too focused on meeting mechanics (aka expert facilitation skills). Instead, they gave those prestigious roles to those team leads “who had a strong get-things-done track record AND exposure to most areas of the business.” 

This is the new trend. You can no longer rely on a singular professional trait. If you want to stand out, build your niche as one of only a few people who have BOTH one high-demand skill AND another. 

Pivot 3. Bring Your Old Skills to a New Role 

One important opportunity of this “multi-skill” trend is to bring your expertise to a completely different role. 

One of the report’s key findings relates to the much admired and debated Agile Coach. In the current work climate, demand for agile coaches as a dedicated role is low (18% of organizations). However, the actual skill of coaching is desired within other roles. For example, imagine the impact of a technology manager who could build authentic relationships with senior leaders while also mentoring tech leads to delegate more decisions downward. That candidate would stand out as someone who could define a technology direction AND raise the overall competency of the engineering corps.

This same concept could be applied to a scrum master bringing their facilitation skills to a stakeholder alignment role or a product owner leveraging their backlog management & visioning techniques to gain a program management role with more responsibility. 

Simply put, companies no longer want professionals who merely fill an agile role but rather bring their agile skills to any role. 

Bottom Line

The agile job market has shifted dramatically in the last year. While conventional agile roles are under attack, agile skills are in higher demand than ever. These three pivots can help you avoid the next layoff or capture your next career victory.

What Skills Are Employers Seeking? Find Out Here

The "Skills in the New World of Work" report reveals insights about in-demand job skills and how agilists can make sure they're aligning their professional development with what employers need and want. Complete the form below to get your copy of this report.

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