Blog: The Certification Economy: Embrace It or Reject It?

The “Certification Economy”: Embrace It or Reject It?

I recently saw a map trying to represent all of the Agile-related certifications that exist (as of 2019) and was blown away. I knew there were a lot of them, but the visual took it to a whole new level for me. Every Agile-related job posting I see has a requirement for one or more certifications. The “Certification Economy,” as I call it, is very strong. So, should we continue to embrace it, or reject it?

The Benefit of Certifications

I agree with the argument some have made that if the process gets people to attend some training that they otherwise might not be exposed to, then it’s a positive thing. I cannot argue with that, although I could throw in a few caveats.

  • Exposure to learning*
  • Demonstration of knowledge and/or skill**
  • Consistency***

*Exposure to learning is great, assuming that what is taught is not harmful (which some is) and that it is helpful (which some is not). I do agree that the certification process can introduce people to ideas and methods they weren’t aware of before – that can be a good thing (for the moment).

**Demonstration of knowledge and/or skill is great, assuming the certification is more than just passing a written test (which anyone can do based on memory). A test doesn’t really indicate competence. And the renewal of certifications, for the most part, demonstrates the ability to pay the fee more than one’s capability.

***Many want the consistency of a framework and to have everyone following the same practices and using the same tools, but that’s actually an Agile anti-pattern. It seems like what you would want, but it’s actually not Agile to do so.

The Downside of Certifications

I have a theory… In order to get the proverbial Agile foot in the door, early compromises were made to make Agile more palatable for traditional organizations. These compromises have become the norm – despite the divergence from the true intent of Agile. It makes me wonder what problem were they trying to solve “going to” Agile in the first place?

I spend a few chapters in my book breaking down the data and experience that back up the assertion that what many are calling Agile is not Agile, and why. I call this the “unintentional intentional distortion of Agile,” perpetuated by the “Certification Economy.”

Best Practice is an Anti-Pattern

In the “Certification Economy,” there is a strong focus on learning and doing very specific frameworks and practices. Scrum and SAFe® offer a plethora of trainings, certifications, and coaching specific to their tools and methods. Despite allowing for some variation, frameworks, for the most part, are there to keep practices consistent. Again, it sounds desirable, but is an Agile anti-pattern.

Frameworks help teams coalesce around new ways of working. The argument can be made that structured frameworks help teams learn how to work differently by providing a consistent cadence and methodology to what they do. I cannot disagree with that. The question is, which practices are “best”? Continuous improvement is a core principle of the Agile mindset, which means best practices are a moving target and represent something different to each team. The only way to have consistency across your processes, practices, and tools for every team is to mandate it – to force it. That is not Agile. In fact, it might be a roadblock to Agile transformation.

Standardization is an Anti-Pattern

I suppose it is easier to teach everyone the same thing and force the same practices than it is to find coaches capable of helping each team find what works best for them in their unique contexts. Unfortunately, easier is not better.

Transforming what you do and how is never ending. Transforming why you do what you do – how you think about work – that becomes your rock-solid foundation. Think about your business. Is it fair to suggest that your goal has (or should have) always been to be able to identify, produce, and deliver the next right thing? Have you always wanted to be able to do that well? What about your methods to achieve that goal? Have they changed over the years? Hopefully the answer is “yes.” This is a good thing, actually. You should change what you do if what you are doing is not the most effective and efficient way to do the next right thing. That is the point – your why outlives your how – Mindset Transcends Methodology™.

The Intent of Agile is Distorted

Organizations love to buy neatly packaged “solutions” that promise to fix their problems. Many believe that merely implementing standardized tools and practices will bring a whole new level of success. If everyone would just get certified and follow the best, standardized practices, all will be well – they rationalize. And there is no shortage of companies willing to sell those “packages.” I have come to believe that organizational obsession with buzzwords, frameworks, and certifications are ultimately the reason why organizations fail to achieve true organizational agility in whatever they do.

Rampant distortion and misuse of Agile has led some coaches to say that Agile is dead. It is not so much that they no longer believe in what Agile represents. Listen to the values and methods these coaches embrace and what you hear will be Agile. Rather, they believe that the word “Agile” is so abused, misunderstood, and misapplied that the term is no longer effective – confusing. It is true, what many call Agile today is not Agile. I do not believe running away from the term is the solution. Whatever we call it next, the “Certification Economy” will monetize it, and distort it.

Pursue Timeless Agility

Pursue Timeless Agility instead. Timeless Agility is the outcome of a mindset that transcends methodology. It consistently allows you to effectively and efficiently identify, produce, and deliver the next right thing.

Scale What Matters

Instead of another prescribed framework, tool, or methodology, Timeless Agility is a destination achieved by scaling the Agile mindset more so than scaling standardized “best practices.” It is an organization-wide agility deeply rooted in the true meaning of Agile. It is a methodology-independent approach to work across the enterprise. Each team is enterprise-aware yet capable of following whichever practices work best for it to deliver the next right thing within its own context.

The bottom line objective of Timeless Agility is to always be able to do the next right thing, and then become better at delivering those right things. This involves more than just development teams. To be able to always do the right things, your organization will need to shift from solely focusing on “Agile” practices at the development and delivery team level and refocus on an enterprise-aware organizational agility.

What you do matters; why you do it matters more.

Yes, your teams need to learn better ways of working. Sure, using some frameworks will probably help, if held onto loosely. Of course, people don’t know what they don’t know, so training gives them a starting point. All understood. But why are they doing what they are doing?

Organizational agility is a way of thinking and approaching work that requires more than just learning “Agile methodologies” within a development team. It is about how quickly your organization can successfully deliver the right things. Your entire organization plays a role in determining what the right thing is and then supporting the ability to deliver it. Rather than seeking to transform how everyone works, first transform the thinking around why they do what they do and why they do it a certain way. The why has to be aligned in order for the organization to achieve true agility. This is why management is so critical to this process.

Create a Coaching Culture

To me, Agile is more about a cultural transformation than anything tied to specific practices. The values and principles of the Agile Manifesto, which many seem to want to throw out these days, are more about culture than anything else.

Timeless Agility is about developing a mindset that transcends methodology; that embraces a way of working that will stand the test of time. It is about internalizing core values and principles for what to do, and why, more so than learning how to do specific practices or using specific systems which come and go anyway. The goal of Timeless Agility is to never again be at the mercy of the latest trends in methodology, paradigm shifts, or the constraints that accompany them.

To achieve all this, you need a coaching culture. Our approach is three-pronged:

Conclusion

I’m not saying all certifications are bad and not worth having. As an industry, however, I think people put far too much value and emphasis on them. Whatever it is being taught and certified will likely come and go. Sure, it’s useful for a time, but why not put more time and energy into what is more timeless? 

Learn more about the book, Pursuing Timeless Agility: the Path to Lasting Agile Transformation

With this book, you will:

  • Learn the mistakes of “common wisdom,” and how to avoid them
  • Identify which mistakes you are currently making
  • Understand management’s role in Agile transformation
  • Learn to transform the right things, for the right reasons
  • Redefine what success looks like; develop success measures that matter

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