Building an Agile Organization Part 1

Part 1:  What is Scrum certification? Can you count on it as meaningful in selecting people?

“CIOs need to embrace agile development as quickly as possible. Agile has the capability to transform IT-business relationships as well as have a positive effect on IT value delivery.[1]” “Getting experienced outside help … has a positive impact to achieve claimed benefits[2]” and similar findings have caused most organizations adopting agile to reach outside for help.

Many organizations choose the Scrum process to begin their agile journey. They search for people or consulting companies that have experience with Scrum to help them. They find these people at conferences, through word of mouth, or the traditional search firms and job postings. Some people are differentiated as certified, “Certified Scrum Masters.”

What is Scrum Certification

What is Scrum certification? What is a Certified Scrum Master? Can you rely on the certification to select skilled, knowledgeable people to help you?

Until 2009, the answer was usually “no.” People who were Certified Scrum Masters sometimes were highly competent Scrum Masters and consultants. However, many more were rank beginners, just beginning to understand agile and Scrum.

A Customer View

In 2006, while I was at the Scrum Alliance, I received a call from an angry VP of software development. To quote, “I was looking for a Scrum Master to help me implement agile. I had several people apply. I selected the person certified by your organization as a Certified Scrum Master (CSM). The certification from an organization that you headed clearly differentiated him, so I hired him.”

He went on to say: “I soon started getting complaints from people within my IT group and our customers. The person I hired did not understand what to do, how to form teams that would develop software. He didn’t understand how to help our customer being a Product Owner. His projects were in trouble. The team was floundering and there were no increments of working software for me to review. The customer was furious because, to him, agile seemed worse than waterfall. At least in waterfall he knew what he had to do.”

The VP told me that his new Certified Scrum Master had set back his agile initiative, causing confusion and skepticism. He had hired what seemed to be the right guy, because he was certified, but the results didn’t support his decision. His organization had acquired a bad taste for Scrum.

This VP made the assumption that the CSM certification meant the person was qualified to help his organization. He found out it only meant the person was certified as having attended a Scrum Alliance scrum master class. At the end of the class he had received a certification of attendance called Certified Scrum Master (CSM).

My Reaction

I was appalled. People asked for certification of attendance from Scrum Alliance. We provided them so they could be reimbursed. I had never expected that the certifications would be used as a means of demonstrating expertise.

There was no test or assessment to determine what he had learned during or prior to the class. Nothing about the certification backed the VP’s assumption that he knew how to apply Scrum to software development projects and problems.

The CSM Scrum certification had gotten out of hand. Organizations were expecting a certification to mean that a person was certified as being able to competently use Scrum to develop software. Instead they were getting people whose only uniform qualification was attending a class. Some were competent in Scrum software development because of their experience outside and prior to the class, but many were not.

I had released a problem on the marketplace. Many organizations needed people to help them use Scrum. In the absence of any other means, they relied on our “certification.” This outcome was creating a sour taste for Scrum.

What To Do Next

I stepped back and figured out what needed to be done. First and foremost, I knew that I had to change the proof of attendance from “certified” to “receipt.”

Secondly, I had to create a valid certification program. Only people that understood Scrum and were proficient in using it to develop software would be certified. If I was going to make progress in my mission of improving the profession of software development, certification had to mean more than attending a two-day class. Certification had to be a reliable indication of professional competence.

While heading Scrum Alliance in 2008 and 2009, I initiated work to improve our certifications. Unfortunately, to succeed in my mission, I had to leave Scrum Alliance in September, 2009, and form a new organization, Scrum.org where I would have the freedom to change what certification really meant. You can learn more about this in my blog on why I made the switch.

More in Part 2, where I describe how I created a family of new, meaningful, Professional certifications. Certifications that you and others could rely on. They measurably demonstrate your knowledge of Scrum and your ability to develop software using Scrum.

[1] “CIOs Need To Embrace Agile …”, Information Week, July 2, 2015

[2] “Agile Survey Research”, Forrester Research, Diego Lo Giudice, September 19, 2013

16 thoughts on “Building an Agile Organization Part 1

  1. A great post [I too know many who thought the pre-2009 “certification” was a key differentiator.

    One of the challenges I see today is determining *Exactly* those elements that “Are Scrum” from those that are not inherent. I have had many conversations with various people, and getting an exact answer, much less one that is consistent, is virtually impossible.

    I realize this is a different topic, but I believe there is a strong degree of correlation and this information is part and parcel of quantifying and qualifying the certification

    David

    ps: A “Marker” is *still* not a “Pen”. 🙂🙂

  2. CSM has become commodity. Very less people read scrum guide. They learn scrum in 2 days through a CST in a batch of more than 60 people so you can understand. How much time a CST can give to participant if there are 60 people in class. Passing exam is always easy task for CSM. I don’t think there is issue with CST but there is serious issues with hiring organizations and participants.Both has to verify about quality. Participants must check batch size and organization must ask for PSM kind of certificates. Nowadays everyone wants to become CSP just by earning SEUs. Participants care about certificate because hiring organizations ask for it. Don’t know who will correct this?

  3. Hello Ken,

    Thank you for sharing this historical perspective. I am on a path to be a CST with Scrum Alliance and your telling of the history is really helpful to me. (fyi: I work with Mishkin Berteig.)

    I love the work of training people to use Scrum and to understand the Scrum framework. I have loved the work that I’ve done with Scrum teams. But when I “received” the CSM in 2007 I was certainly not a master of Scrum. It took years for me to earn that place amongst my teammates — by 2012 my colleagues would describe me as a “remover of obstacles” and “enabler of self-organization”. 5 years. That’s how long it took me to feel confident that I could serve a team well…as a Scrum Master.

    In my own classes, I explain clearly to the participants that CSM is merely a verification that people have taken a 2-day class. I advise that the CSP (Certified Scrum Professional) indicates the person has actual experience in a Scrum team. Having said that, I appreciate the certification paths you’ve designed for scrum.org.

    • Totally agree! I’ve been delivering project management training for the DoD and, although I hadn’t participated in military projects, my experience in real projects (e.g. building airports, power substations, and software/hardware among others) has been the key to engage the students and deliver real value to them through hands-on workshops. One can’t do that simply by following a book. We need to veliver experience.

  4. What does it mean “reliable indication of professional competence”? What arguments or evidence is there that certifications give meaningful reassurance on their own? It seems to me ironic that our human-centric endeavour tries to reduce someone’s complex capacity to make an impact down to a certificate. I don’t think that is possible, but would gladly be enlightened by arguments and preferably evidence.

  5. A pass mark in an exam tests your ability to pass the exam in a timeboxed snapshot. Anyone who values an exam above behaviour does not appreciate “people and interactions (behaviour) over processes (exams) and tools”

    • Disclaimer: Over the years I have ben contracted to be involved in scoping, writing, or validating various Microsoft certifications. I have worked with many other companies and their certification programs also; however, I have never been “behind the scenes” with either ScrumAlliance or Scrum.org in terms of certifications

      In the vast majority of cases, a certification is an “indication of bare minimal competency”, nothing more. A lack of a certification can rarely be used as evidence that a person lacks the competency [there are *many* reasons why a person may choose not to get a given certification, even in an area where they are highly qualified]. Nor should a certification be used alone to gauge a persons ability to actually perform well in any given job function.

  6. Pingback: Building an Agile Organization Part 2 | Ken Schwaber's Blog: Telling It Like It Is

  7. Pingback: Building an Agile Organization Part 3 | Ken Schwaber's Blog: Telling It Like It Is

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