The Professional Agile Leadership course and assessment: my personal takeaways

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A few months ago I enrolled for a Professional Agile Leadership (PAL-E) course. This was during the time when I decided to persue my further career at a different employer. The premise of this course has always intrigued me. But it seems taking this course could not be at a better time…

Recently I have started a new job as a Scrum Master in an organization that has grown very fast in a short amount of time, and is still growing. I am conducting Scrum Mastership on both the operational level and on the middle management-level (to optimize agile processes in the organization, also in order to facilitate sustainable growth). In my capacity as a Scrum Master I am already addressing various dysfunctions big and small, but I am looking forward to other ways in ‘serving the organization’ in becoming a more agile environment. That requires change. And change on an organizational scale requires leadership.

Professional Agile Leadership

The Professional Agile Leadership course is explained as follows on the website:

“Being an agile organization requires senior leaders, middle managers, and agile team members to change the way that they organize their work, manage that work, and measure the results of the work. Agile teams cannot do this on their own; they need help from the entire organization. Changes in the way that people think and work are required driving improved results by having everyone’s goals and ways of working aligned. In this two day class attendees develop a deep understanding of the role that leaders play in creating the conditions for a successful agile environment.

Leaders and managers are critical enablers in helping their organizations be successful, yet the role of leaders and managers in an agile organization can be quite different from what they are used to. This workshop uses a combination of instruction and team-based exercises to help participants learn how to form and support agile teams to achieve better results, and how to lead the cultural and behavioral changes that organizations must make to reap the benefits of an agile product delivery approach.”

Professional Agile Leadership (PAL) Essentials

What I wanted to learn

Coming to the two-day training, I wanted to know more about:

  • Ways to assess and develop the agile growth of teams
  • Ways to address personal growth and development within teams
  • Ways to help teams scale/grow in a sustainable and agile way
  • Ways to address knowledge sharing with international teams (with members in different timezones)
  • Ways to indicate the impact of making agile improvements to the C-level management

On December 1st and 2nd 2022, I participated in this promising two-day course at Xebia Academy. Ron Eringa was our trainer.

What I learned about in the course

  • At the start of the course the class reflected on reasons why organizations are adopting agile. Soon after we discussed the role of leadership in this adoption.
  • We talked about David Snowden’s Cynefin model, which I was already familiar with (and use a lot myself when explaining Scrum and empiricism). One great takeaway from the course is that when dealing with the complex domain, the role of people becomes very important. And to deal with complex environments, people need to be self-actualized. It’s the domain of emergent practices, where best-practices of other situations ususally don’t fly because the solutions are very contextual.
  • Later we discussed the areas in which an agile leader operates (and intervenes). It is drawn in a set of two by two quadrants ranging in one axis from interior (when it’s inside people, the undercurrent) to the exterior (behavior that you actually can observe) and in the other axis from the individual to the collective. The quadrants were overlaid with a picture of an iceberg, implying that what is observable is not necessarily the whole truth, and that behavior on the outside can stem from something that is invisible underneath.
  • What I found absolutely insightful is the maturity model in which we explored the different levels of maturity of the Scrum Master, the Product Owner, the Developers and the leadership. We explored different kind of interventions (Delegation Poker) that may (or may not) be compatible with the maturity of (parts of) the team.
  • We also discussed the organizational structures of traditional organizations and organizations that have adopted a true agile mindset. I found this subject a bit difficult to grasp, purely because I do not have a mental model on large-scale organizations. The organizations I have worked for were and are mostly very ‘flat’.
  • The golden circle by Simon Sinek was discussed again and its importance to bring about organizational change. However, Ron addressed that at the core not only lies the question “Why?”, but also “Who?”. Who are the people that are changing? Ron referred in his training material to Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” (a book that is still on my nightstand and still have to read).
  • We discussed Patrick Lencioni’s virtues of ‘The Ideal Team Player’ and found this ideal team player at an intersection of humility, hunger and ’emotional intelligence’.
  • Another great insight was the formation, selection and testing of individual and team values. This is something I have not done much, and probably should be doing more as a Scrum Master. Team values, but also overarching goals can give teams more and better purpose.
  • I had to leave a little earlier, but the training material included a lot of useful information about ikigai, Evidence-Based Management and the ecocycle planning – topics I had to read about afterwards.
  • During the course, Ron provided us with helpful literature. We received the book “The Professional Agile Leader” written by Kurt Bittner, Laurens Bonnema and himself. This book includes a lot of information that was also in the course and was very helpful in the preparation for the assessment. During the course Ron also provided with useful tips for reading material. As a book worm, I have added many a book to my Amazon wish list!

The Professional Agile Leadership (PAL I) assessment

Ron provided some tips in preparing for the Professional Agile Leadership (PAL I) assessment:

To be really sure that I was to succeed, I also:

So on a cold, December Saturday I did the assessment and …I passed!

I got a score of 93.7% (85% was needed to pass). The time limit was quite alright. I had 60 minutes to finish 36 multiple choice/answer questions! I finished with 10-ish minutes, having enough time to revisit questions. The nature of the questions focused a lot on applying agile principles to the organisation. If I were to give a useful tip, there is one important word to keep in mind, which is ‘value’.

Conclusion, reflection and what is next

The course gave really good insights in the challenges of leaders in agile organizations. The role of leadership in an organization shifting to agile practices is important and takes a certain mindset and skillset. This class provided with great insight in the environments in which such leaders operate in and what should be expected of them. It gave me better tools in being a better change-agent (as a Scrum Master) and thus be more helpful in changing the organization. I learned about very useful tools to assess and develop the agile growth of teams and its members. I am also able to give an indication of the success of agile improvements (though I would still like to know more about this topic).

Sometimes it was a bit hard to let go of my perspective as a Scrum Master. When in the training, we were asked during cases about making certain interventions as a leader, I was very much driven by my Scrum Master-heart. In my current position, I will have more of a double-role. But that also requires me to take a very critical look at my own functioning as a Scrum Master. What if I as a Scrum master might be part of the problem – what can I do to solve this?

How was Xebia?

The Xebia Academy was a nice and inspiring environment in the eastern part of Amsterdam. The location was easily accessible by public transport. The facilities were great and the students were well taken care of.

I found Ron Eringa to be a great trainer, because of his rich experience and compelling way of communication. His way of teaching and answering questions usually start with a thorough reflection, before diving into the actual answer. This creates a good mindset and way of thinking, instead of students straight off processing an answer. His facilitation skills are quite something and one day would like to have myself. The most useful insights were made through discussion with the class and within smaller groups and really helped forming a good mental model.

One of my prime arguments to train at Xebia was the ability to use the Dutch government-funded personal education grant (STAP), as Xebia’s courses are officially registered and eligible. As my employer will undoubtly provide funds and resources for my education, I would like to invest in my own knowledge as well. This makes Xebia a very attractive training provider to me. Education is awesome but it can be quite pricey.

So what is next?

The course got me thinking about how to apply empiricism to achieve good business value. How can you make sure that, in a business, you can make sure the feedback of customers and business results are well translated to valuable input, with which you can adapt and improve? I might be tempted to take a course and assessment in “Evidence-Based Management™” in the future…

Also I was not able to answer a few questions I had on scaling and knowledge sharing across multiple teams. As I am already working with multiple (international) teams, this is knowledge I really would like to have on a short term. For his I think the “Scaled Professional Scrum™ with Nexus Training” might be very, very helpful. I know what I will asking Santa this year…

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