The True Value of the CSM


I was on a call with one of my Agile colleagues the other day and he mentioned that there are now over 300,000 Certified Scrum Masters.

Should I be excited about this fact?

While this is a great marketing achievement for the Scrum Alliance and I would guess it to be profitable for some folks, is having so many good for Agile and Scrum?

It is with some sadness that I must now admit that it is not.

My experience, especially over the last few years as Scrum has mushroomed and CSMs have been minted at a breakneck pace, is that the CSM certification has done more harm than good.

The first problem I have seen with the certification deals with organizational change. As someone on the front lines of transforming organizations from waterfall to Agile over the last 6+ years, I have seen how the CSM becomes a barrier to actual organizational transformation.

Instead of making substantive changes that will allow for proper implementation of Agile, why don’t we throw all of our project managers in a two day course to become CSMs! This will certainly do the trick and no one will be able to blame us should a transformation not take place.How could we be at fault when we have paid so much and lost some much productive project management time to this two day training?

To give someone two days training without giving them the tools to actually implement what they have learned is insane. Better then that, we have the upper management folks take the two day training and then try to implement in their environments. If people in positions of power actually had to learn and implement Agile then I would expect a great amount of pain would be avoided.

The other problem I have seen is being overly confident. While most would agree that two days of training does not make one an expert, any coach who has been around has seen people who, not knowing anything about Agile on Monday, can take a two day course and feel that they are experts on Thursday.

I guess that certification has a way of doing that to people. If you give them a piece of paper that says they are a Scrum Master, they tend to believe that they are one. I don’t consider myself to be the most obtuse person in the world, but I know it took me a couple of years of doing real, day to day, Scrum Mastering before I really knew what I was doing. For some reason a good number of CSMs appear not to follow the Dreyfus model.

A closely related point is one of competence. Those CSMs who are not overly confident are in many cases woefully unprepared to run a Scrum Team and they are honest enough to admit it. Besides, what can you really learn in two days? You certainly may be able to talk to the talk, but given that many of these new Scrum Masters are members of the lagging, lumbering, inflexible, command and control companies, their two day experience is even less effective.

Agile and Scrum are powerful. In inexperienced hands, it can cause more harm than good.

I have also seen issues with the quality of training. I suppose that as much as the Scrum Alliance tries to ensure that instructors are the most competent, there are bound to be incidences on the road to 300,000+ CSMs.

For example, I have run into a great number of new CSMs that have told me that Scrum tells us that we should not look beyond our two week iterations. That long term planning is somehow evil. Of course, this is not true. If it were, what would be the motivation for businesses to sign up? One reason that businesses are reticent to sign up for Agile is that they are seduced by the false predictability that waterfall provides.

Agile and Scrum certainly have a lot to say about what is possible in the future and teaching that it does not is wrong. Of course, it might be that these CSMs have merely misinterpreted what they have been taught, but I have found this perception so prevalent with new CSMs that the fault must lie in the CSM course.Maybe it is taught, maybe it is misinterpreted often, and maybe it is tough to learn in two days makes no difference to me. You are certifying someone’s knowledge in cases where large gaps exist.

All of this would not be a problem if people trying to transform to Agile Scrum understood what a CSM really is. Unfortunately, this piece of paper that certifies you have stayed awake for two days and have understood basic scrum concepts as measured by a very simple (as in no one ever fails) test means something to others.

I have seen it used to weed out people during hiring process. I have seen people to give it much more respect than is due, thinking that someone is competent to be a scrum master merely because they have a CSM.

Maybe we should start making the certification really mean something or give it a different name.

What do you think?

Larry Apke

One Reply to “The True Value of the CSM”

  1. Here here! Nothing worse than a hollow certification. CSM is an introductory course and without experience it means nothing.

Leave a Reply