What does it mean to be a “professional”?

Can we as agilists ever measure up to the standards set by the original professional bodies formed for the legal, medical, accounting and other professions?

31 May 2024

Can we as agilists ever measure up to the standards set by the original professional bodies formed for the legal, medical, accounting and other professions? 

In 2024 HMRC (The UK Government’s Tax Authority) listed 3,040 approved learned societies and professional organisations for the purposes of tax relief on their professional membership fees and annual subscriptions. The only reference in the list to “agile” or “agility” is that of the AGILE Physiotherapy with Older People network, which is a part of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy. 


I am currently completing some CPD (Continuous Professional Development) courses, which I am required to do by the ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales) to maintain my membership of this professional body and my professional status as a Fellow of the Institute. One of the mandatory courses is the ICAEW Ethics CPD Course. 

I thought I would share some of the insights I have learned or been reminded of, the elements to help us agilists move forward on the topic of professionalism.


Seven characteristics of a profession 

The first exercise asks us to place (drag and drop) a number of occupations into one of three categories, “Profession”, “Not a profession”, and “Not sure”. We are then asked to consider why we chose the categories we did. The text then points out that if we are unsure of the answer, it may be because many occupations are considered ‘semi-professions’, rather than ‘full professions’. 

We then review the 7 characteristics of a profession which help explain why Law, Medicine and Accountancy (to name three) are considered by most academic experts as full professions. 

  1. Knowledge & Skills - There is an extensive set of high-level, specialist skills based on a theoretical or intellectual kind of knowledge base. 

  2. Education & Training - To acquire the knowledge and skills to qualify involves a long period of training, resulting in formal certification of competence, continuing professional development (CPD) and, perhaps, some form of licence to practise. 

  3. Judgement, not just rules - The application of the knowledge and skills often requires the use of judgment in a wide range of circumstances, not simple application of rules, however complex those rules might be. 

  4. Self-determination - There is a degree of independence and self-regulation, with control over the knowledge base, setting of entry standards and criteria for membership, and responsibility for the disciplining of members. 

  5. Private benefits - The fifth characteristic notes that members benefit from being part of a successful profession. There is often a high level of personal, social and financial reward. 

  6. Public interest - However, the sixth characteristic reminds us that along with these benefits come responsibilities that help build trust and a strong reputation. A profession is expected to go beyond self-interest and serve the public interest. 

  7. Code of ethics - A key tool for serving the public interest is a code of ethics for members to follow, a code which demands more than ordinary morality and the law.   


The house of agile professionalism 

The Institute’s course then explains that the 7 characteristics constitute pillars which support the “House of Professionalism”. One pillar is “Competence”, the other pillar is “Ethics”, and the roof on the house of professionalism is “Trust”.  

We agilists know how important trust is. We also know how it can be elusive, especially when fellow agilists don’t appear to behave in an agile way. 

The course goes on to say: “Only through the trust generated by competent members behaving ethically can the house of professionalism stand strong.” 

In an age when some are saying that “Agile is dead”, and many are scrambling to “Agile Reimagined” or “Beyond Agile”, it may be that what we need is for trust to be generated by competent practitioners behaving in the public interest so that the house of agile professionalism can stand strong. 

The recommended reading for the first unit of Module 1 includes a link to a statement about professions by eminent accountant, Lord Benson. In the House of Lords in 1992. (HL Deb 08 July 1992 vol 538 cc1198-234). 


In it he describes the value and importance of professions to the country and society. He references the professions which emerged in the 1800s and says: “They were established on the basis of an unwritten social contract. By insisting that their members should be properly qualified and by enforcing discipline, the professions said that they would ensure a service to their clients and ultimately to the public which was marked by competence and quality. In return—this was the other half of the social contract—they would be free from day-to-day interference and not obliged to compete in the commercial rat race.”  

Lord Benson’s conclusion is that the professions “…are indeed the best judges of how to respond to their clients on the basis of their competence and training; that the maintenance of quality in the services that they provide is at the heart of the role of the professions…”, and that government should not over-regulate, but allow them to self-regulate. 

All of which sounds like something I would welcome for the agile Community. 

“Well, what is the problem?” I hear many of us ask. Are we not all professionals?


Truly agile or not? 

The following two observations concern me about our (agile) profession. 

Observation 1: A growing number of frameworks is inevitable in a world where we seek certainty and a magic formula. However, we still need to be able to call out which frameworks are “heavy”, and which are “light”, and agree that the most competent agile practitioners do not need to follow a framework. Many (including me) would argue that practitioners should not be following a framework if they are truly agile unless they can demonstrate that the use of it is leading to the best possible and most effective outcome. The main problem here is that proponents of a given framework, on the whole, speak about their chosen subject with the passion and conviction of the converted. But it is the curiosity of exploring widely and experimenting that is an important tenet of being agile. 

Observation 2: While working on a project for the UK Government (whose Service Manual advocates agility for software delivery https://www.gov.uk/service-manual/agile-delivery), I noticed there were a number of large consultancy firms involved. All of them had signed up to the requirements that we deliver following agile principles and methodologies. None of them had an accurate or clear understanding of what it meant to be agile, and they all exhibited alarming agile anti-patterns, while telling me that what they were doing was agile. 

All this brings us neatly to the content of Unit 3 of Module 1 of the ICAEW Ethics CPD course.


Aristotle’s 18 Virtues 

This Unit focuses on what it means to an accountant to be professional. We are reminded of the 5 Fundamental Principles of the ICAEW Code of Ethics: Integrity, Objectivity, Professional competence and due care, Confidentiality, and Professional behaviour. We are then invited to consider them in the context of Aristotle’s 18 Virtues, some of which are mapped to the Fundamental Principles. The impact of this is to help us contemplate more deeply the meaning of the Principles as we consider how well our behaviour and thinking matches up to them. 

For example, the Principle of Integrity is matched with the Virtues of Straightforwardness, Honesty and Truthfulness. 

What then follows is a self-assessment asking us to rate ourselves against these linked Principles and Virtues. 

The important lesson here is that research shows us that we as individuals tend to view ourselves as significantly better than we might be. The course points out that we are subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect which shows that people with low ability in a task tend to significantly overestimate their ability. 

The Unit concludes with the paragraph: “So, if you have rated yourself highly, is that because you really are ethically competent? Or have you been subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect? It’s hard to know, one way or the other – but it makes you think.” 

We in the agile community may benefit from the Continuous Improvement suggestions from the ICAEW with regard to how to develop our competencies. As well as personal reflection, we should consider placing ourselves within a professional body which can help guide us. 

I think the Agile Business Consortium is that Professional Body, and we should do everything we can to support it. 


Read more of Alistair’s blogs on Agile Finance here:  

Finance should NOT be the enemy of Agility! (agilebusiness.org) 

Agile Financial Reporting: Enabling Timely and Accurate Decision Making (agilebusiness.org) 

Please note blogs reflect the opinions of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the recommendations or guidance of the Agile Business Consortium.


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