Levels of Mastery in Agile

I came across the diagram shown below that I think nicely summarizes different levels of mastery in Agile:

Levels of Mastery in Agile

Many people don’t seem to realize that there are these three different levels of mastery and just learning the basic practices is only the beginning.

The three levels of mastery are:

  1. Practices (Doing) – This level is associated with learning the basic practices of Agile at a mechanical level. There are many people who are at this level of learning – they’ve received their CSM certification (or equivalent) and they may have had some practice in the real world and know how to do the basics. The danger is that many people think that this is all they need to know when they have mastered this level of learning. People who get stuck in this level of learning can become fairly ritualistic or dogmatic and insist that there is only one way to do Agile and that is doing it exactly by the book as they have learned to do it.
  2. Principles (Understanding) – People who have gone on to this level of learning have gained a deeper understanding of the principles behind Agile and why it makes sense. This deeper level of understanding gives people a broader perspective – instead of seeing Agile as a mechanical process that must always be done ritualistically “by the book”, people at this level recognize that there may be a need to customize and adapt the processes to fit a given situation. They are also able to see Agile in a much broader context beyond the basic team-level Agile implementation and recognize the need to make Agile work at much higher levels of complexity for large enterprise-level projects.
  3. Values (Being) – This is the highest level of mastery. People at this level of learning not only understand the principles at a deeper level, they also understand the values behind those principles and have internalized those values into the way they work. People at this level are becoming Masters and are at the “top of their game” – they are able to easily go beyond applying Agile to routine Agile project implementations and they are able to apply the principles and practices to much more demanding and difficult situations with much higher levels of consistency and success.

The three levels of mastery shown in this diagram correspond to the “Shu-ha-ri” levels of mastery from martial arts that I have previously discussed:

Agile and Lessons Learned From the Martial Arts

How does this relate to the idea of “Agile Project Management”? People who look at Agile and traditional plan-driven project management practices (what many people tend to call “Waterfall”) at a basic level of practices will typically see them as competitive, mutually-exclusive, binary alternatives that are totally incompatible with each other. This is a basic problem and has led to Agile and traditional plan-driven project management being perceived as separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two.

I believe that people who are at a higher level of learning and understand the principles behind these two disciplines will see things in a very different perspective. They will probably see them as much more complementary rather than competitive and recognize the reasons why one set of principles and practices makes sense in one situation and not another. They will probably not see them as totally incompatible and be able to easily blend the two sets of principles and practices together as needed to fit a given situation.

One of my favorite analogies for this that was originally created by Bob Wysocki is the difference between a “cook” and a “chef”:

  • A good “cook” may have the ability to create some very good meals, but those dishes may be limited to a repertoire of standard dishes, and his/her knowledge of how to prepare those meals may be primarily based on following some predefined recipes out of a cookbook.
  • A “chef,” on the other hand, typically has a far greater ability to prepare a much broader range of more sophisticated dishes using much more exotic ingredients in some cases. His/her knowledge of how to prepare those meals is not limited to predefined recipes, and in many cases, a chef will create entirely new and innovative recipes for a given situation. The best chefs are not limited to a single cuisine and are capable of combining dishes from entirely different kinds of cuisine.

This is the challenge that I believe we face in creating a more integrated approach for Agile Project Management. We need to develop more “chefs” who are capable of seeing both Agile and traditional plan-driven project management principles and practices in a very different light as complementary rather than competitive alternatives. My passion is in helping project managers achieve that goal and I will be teaching the first graduate-level course on Agile Project Management at Boston University this fall. I am also publishing a new book that will be used as a text book in that course and that text book will be available to other universities and also to individual project managers. If you want any more information on that, let me know.

4 thoughts on “Levels of Mastery in Agile”

  1. I would be interested in knowing when your book comes out. I am one of those at “chef” level. And blend practices and procedures for enterpris level organization. I am always on the look-out for more insights and shared practices to continue to support and manage my organizations.

    1. Hi Colleen, it’s good to hear from someone who has also recognized this need to become a “chef”. My new book is being published through Wiley and should be available in January 2015.

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