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Professionalism and its Relationship with Scrum

May 6, 2021

Professionalism picture from dictionaryRecently I was on a call where I was talking about Professional XXXXX. It is not a surprise that I do that a lot, after all the word professional is one we use to describe who is. Our products are called ‘Professional Scrum or Professional Agile XXXXXX’. Our community of trainers is called Professional Scrum Trainers (PSTs). So professional is a word I use a lot. The person then asked: “What do I mean by the word Professional? Is it just to indicate that our organization is focused on people who make money whilst using Scrum?”. 

I emphatically said NO, and went on to explain what we mean when I say professional in the context of Scrum or agile. Afterward, I realized these ideas are not written in any one place. They are actually spread throughout our website, in our products, and part of each of our assessments and training, but not described in one cohesive way. 

Here is my attempt at describing what I mean by professionalism and why it is so important in this crazy, ever-changing world. 

For many, the word professional means one simple thing - to be paid for a job. This is in part thanks to sports where amateur vs. professional is a category. But when I am talking about professionalism, the financial transaction is the least important element.. In fact, how many jobs have you paid for only to think ‘I wish they had been more professional’. Being paid for doing something is not the basis of professionalism. Professionalism is something much more. 

In terms of outcomes, I like to think of professionalism as embodying:

  • Customers and stakeholders believing you did your best to serve their needs
  • Your colleagues and fellow professionals respecting you and in turn the way you treat others garners the word respect
  • You desire to become better at your craft and also help others to do the same 
  • The outcomes you create are valuable and are of an appropriate quality
  • You follow a code of ethics that are both transparent and embodied in how you act
  • You treat everyone in a manner that leaves them feeling good about the interaction

I wrestled with adding ‘When asked, people you work with would say they trust you’ rather than ‘you treat everyone in a manner that leaves them feeling good about the interaction’. Trust and feeling good are not the same thing, but can you feel good if you do not trust the other person? And feeling good adds many elements such as clarity, understanding, and even kindness. I decided that those traits are actually important and so I went with feeling good. 

That does not mean you always deliver the right ‘stuff’ or agree with your stakeholders or colleagues, but when those things happen the interactions leave everyone with a feeling of trust and understanding. Being professional often means you walk the line between pleasing the customer and doing the right thing. You may even walk away from a customer if they are asking you to compromise your values. Disagreement, however, is managed in a ‘professional’ way allowing both parties to continue to respect each other.  A good example of this is when you ask your building contractor to do something to the house that you really want that actually would affect the structural integrity of the building. A professional will communicate clearly, discuss the issues, and maybe present alternatives. They do not tell you that your ideas are stupid, or worse indicate that it is your choice but they will do it. Often after these disagreements, you feel even more at ease with the professional you are working with. 

To deliver on these outcomes and be perceived to be a professional requires you to concentrate on four things. Values, customer outcomes or value delivered, discipline, and having a desire to help others. Looking into each of these in a bit more detail.

  • Values - this element describes the values or behaviors that a professional embodies. For example, medical doctors take the Hippocratic Oath, or for nurses the 5 core nursing values. In the case of professional Scrum, we focus on the five values of Focus, Courage, Commitment, Respect, and Openness. 
  • Customer outcomes - The ultimate objective of a professional is to deliver value. Delivering value, however, is not a simple activity because not only is there a customer, but there are also many stakeholders that the professional must manage to the best of their ability. Balancing the needs of everyone in a transparent, consistent, and fair manner is crucial for someone to be perceived as a professional. Ethics is a part of this element because sometimes stakeholders will encourage a professional to work on outcomes that are, to the professional, unethical. Examples in the media include the VW emissions scandal or the Facebook Analytica data scandal. Balancing the desires of some stakeholders, of which society is one while thinking and acting ethically is a difficult but important element of being a professional. 
  • Discipline - A professional works diligently on the task at hand and can be trusted to get the work done. Not only does this mean that they provide honest forecasts, but that they also deliver to the quality standard that is required. In Scrum, we talk about Done and the importance of delivering to the Definition of Done. But, in Scrum, it is more than the actual work, it is also committing to the process, the events, acting on continuous feedback, and doing your best to be prepared and diligent in the execution of the work. 
  • Helping others become more professional - The only way to scale a profession is for people to help others in its pursuit. For example, mentoring and teaching others is a cornerstone to the martial arts not only because when you share knowledge and teach, but you also hone your own skills and understanding. Promotion and growth should be tied to the elements of contribution, not in terms of customer outcomes, but how many people a professional has truly helped. 

Going back to that original question on the phone. A very logical next question would have been why is professionalism important in a Scrum or Agile context? Why is this a cornerstone to your brand and identity? 

Of course, professionalism is important in all contexts. Every aspect of life is improved when you engage with professionals. Think back over your interactions with hotel receptionists or shop workers. Remember the last time you talked to someone on a help desk. Now think about the best or worst experiences in those situations. When you thought of those people as professionals I am sure the experience was better. Being professional seems to be a part of being good at your job or at least the perception by others as good. 

In the context of complex work, it becomes even more important. 

Now, think a bit about those interactions you have had in your daily life that required some level of professionalism to be shown. The more complex the problem, the more important it becomes. For example, rebooking a flight after you missed your connection, or dealing with a problem with your home. 

Complexity and professionalism seem to be linked. Perhaps because it is not a simple answer. Perhaps because there is ambiguity on both sides. Perhaps because you need a trust-based relationship to find the solution. There are many reasons why complex situations benefit from professionalism. 

When our founder and Scrum co-creator Ken Schwaber coined the name ‘Professional Scrum’ he used it to describe the difference between what he was teaching to other ways of teaching Scrum. For example, the importance of Done, how the truth about estimation can set you free, why the Sprint Goal is needed, and the impact of values on everything about Scrum. To illustrate the difference between good Scrum and poor Scrum. When you look at our classes, assessments, and even content on our website you see the professional theme throughout. It describes the mindset that Scrum is approached with. That foundation has led us not just to teach Professional Scrum, but also to live by the ideas of professionalism that he encourages. Our community, our products, and our place in the world are defined by the idea that we are professionals - of course sometimes not living up to our high standards but always using them as a yardstick to improve. 


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