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The career path in a lean and agile organization

Careers in lean and agile organizations are differing profoundly from what we experience in hierarchically structured organizations. Instead of climbing up a ladder in one domain, people who make a ‘career’ in a lean and agile organization will switch the domains in which they work more often. Instead of moving vertically, they will move horizontally. This changes the reward and incentive structure (compensation and benefits) and it dramatically shifts the perception of what a career actually means.

Nowadays, after 15 years of experience, agile product development and its implications on work and organizations are well understood. The number of examples of companies that have started their agile journeys increase significantly. Whenever I accompany organizations on their journeys to becoming ‘agile’, one vital question arises sooner or later: How does the career path of an employee look like in a lean and agile organization? Usually this question is raised by ScrumMasters first. Soon Product Owners and developers are going to ask the same question because it is inevitable, and as logically as it may seem, the answer appears to be counterintuitive at first.

The career path we know

In a hierarchical organization you can pretty much follow two career paths. First, the path of a manager. This basically means that you take over responsibility for what the people you manage are doing. You set targets, allocate budgets and so on. The second career path is somewhat like becoming a domain expert. Steps on that specific ladder are for instance junior developer, developer, senior developer. With growing seniority the work you need to accomplish becomes more sophisticated. The amount of domain knowledge that’s needed increases.

Why making a career?

I don’t want to talk extensively about the motives that are connected with a specific career path. However, I don’t think that one can discuss career paths without briefly looking at the positive aspects associated with making a career. I strongly believe that these motives will remain the same in lean and agile organizations just because they seem to be deeply rooted in human nature. Making a career usually means that you receive more power to design your own working environment and to bring your very own ideas to life. It moreover means that your status within the organization increases. All human beings strive for status. And last but not least you usually earn more money when you make career.

Why ‘making a career’ changes

Although the two described career paths have some flaws, they worked out fairly well for quite a long time. So what has changed, why are we asked about what a ‘new career path’ looks like more and more often? After the lean movement at the beginning of the 1990s, when layers of the hierarchy have been removed in order to improve the profitability of organizations, we now face yet another lean movement. Companies are challenged with ever-accelerating changes of customer and market needs. To be as swift as the customer, companies installed cross-functional product development teams that are accountable and responsible for the market success of a product. Companies removed organizational complexity by removing matrix structures and merged two responsibilities: operational responsibility for running a product and tactical responsibility for developing a product.

This changed the role of the manager dramatically and sometimes significantly reduced the number of managers needed. Moreover this cross-functional approach requested a collaboration model that aimed for equality within teams and refused to make strong distinctions between development functions or seniority. This allowed to reduce the number of handoffs and smoothed the flow of work which resulted in a dramatic decrease of time-to-market and increased product profitability.

These new team, organization and collaboration structures led to the question: What are career paths going to look like if the lean way of working and delivering will become more and more popular?

T-shaped people and the broad T-career

I assume that most of you are familiar with the concept of T-shaped people which is widely used to express the skill profile of people in Scrum teams. Basically, the concept explains that employees in a cross-functional team should have a deep functional knowledge in at least one specific domain and should also have broad cross-discipline competencies in order to seamlessly connect and work together with team colleagues.

Making a career in a lean and agile organization now means that employees don’t climb up a ladder anymore. They rather walk from left to right on the horizontal bar of the mentioned T. This does not mean that you can’t choose to be in a manager’s role for some time. However, becoming a manager does not mean that you will be a manager for the rest of your life.

In a lean and agile organization we think of a career more in terms of different roles you can choose across your professional lifespan rather than of positions you are aiming for as a foundation for the next position. This leads to a more fluid career that lets employees move across different nodes of a network rather than up or down a ladder.

Let’s look at a developer in a Scrum team. His career path could include software development in different development professions and different programming languages or different products across the organization. It could also include taking over the role of a designer, a tester, or an architect. Career then also means to not stand still but constantly adapting and learning instead. Learning includes new domain or functional or methodical knowledge. Learning and using the knowledge to create more knowledge and to swiftly create new products or services will be the priority in the professional lives in a lean and agile company.

Mastery, autonomy and purpose

Daniel Pink famously identified three motivators for human beings: Mastery, autonomy and purpose. These three motivators are well supported in a lean and agile organization: People strive to achieve mastery. This goes along well with the model of the T-shaped employee. A lean and agile organization allows an employee to achieve mastery in one or more functional domains. By working in a cross-functional product delivery team which is accountable and responsible from end-to-end – from idea, to delivery until operations – the degree of autonomy increases. Employees will more often have the feeling that their contribution matters.

This can lead to a sense of purpose. In a lean and agile organization voluntariness is a key ingredient to facilitate employee engagement and contribution. If people have the right to choose where they want to contribute this will lead to a working environment that lets employees feel the purpose of their work. Consequently it might even lead to the point where they choose a different working environment, e.g. a different product, if they don’t feel the purpose of their current work anymore. This potentially reduces employee fluctuation. Whenever employees are allowed to switch between working environments within the organization they don’t have to search their sense of purpose in another company.

Greg Rakozy, Spiral Jetty – unsplash.com

The role of status and power

I am convinced that delivering value to the customer and thus to the organization will increase someone’s status over time. If companies focus more and more on the ‚outside world‘, status increase will be granted if an employee helps to deliver value to this outside world – independently from job titles or formal positions in the organization. In a lean and agile organization people will feel valued for what they do and not for who they are in the hierarchy. Employees will feel the power and ability to shape their working environment and to bring own ideas to life within the structure of the organization.

Teams, as the smallest organizational unit, will be accountable responsible for constantly changing or maintaining the product or service throughout its whole product or service lifecycle. The decisions along this lifecycle will no longer be made by some far-off and often personally unknown authorities. It is the team that makes the decisions. This includes shaping its own working environment, the choice of tools, methods and processes. Everything has to support value delivery.

With these possibilities in the hands of teams, power is no longer bound with some chosen few. It is distributed among those who deliver value to the outside world. In that sense it is not necessary to climb up a hierarchical ladder to gain status and power.

Compensation and benefits in a lean and agile company

It is not possible to talk about careers without taking compensation and benefits into consideration. This seems to be a tricky topic because it might imply that people work for money or even that rewarding performance in knowledge work by granting a big paycheck is somewhat helpful. When I think about compensation and benefits in a lean and agile organization I truly believe that money just has to be payed in an appropriate amount to simply take this important topic out of peoples’ heads. Money is not a motivator in knowledge work. So don’t try to abuse it as one.

Furthermore, for most of the employees money will be no longer the equivalent for the status they have. Money and status symbols might lose their attraction over time as soon as mastery, autonomy, purpose and maybe a balanced life can be achieved within the current job. Moreover I assume that money will no longer be closely related to hierarchy. It will be related to the value teams deliver for their customer. This leads to the need for continuous performance. It might even lead to the point where the amount of money people get floats over time and does no longer just point in one ‘career‘ direction. And I guess this will not be a problem at all.


In a lean and agile organization there still will be a career path. Employees are longing for some kind of change over time and they want to achieve mastery, autonomy and purpose. These goals will likely be more fulfilled in a horizontal career path than in a vertical and hierarchical career. The change that we currently see in so many organizations will profoundly impact the way we perceive employment careers and this will most likely be for the good for most employees.