A Systems Analysis of CSM Certification – Part 1: Qualification by Proxy


This article is the first of a series of articles that will compose an analysis of some causes and effects surrounding the Scrum Alliance Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) certification. The CSM certificate is given to course participants after taking part in a two-day ScrumMaster course.

Please note, this is not an analysis of Scrum or agile methods in general, nor of just any certificate. This focuses on the CSM certification only. What makes this certificate special is that it is not grounded in any real knowledge about the person who receives it. I am interested in studying the short- and long-term effect of this behaviour.

Ron Jeffries made one analysis of this, which I found inspiring. I recommend reading it to get a different view from mine.

She’s a Model and She’s Looking Good

I want to employ a systems perspective for this and model these forces using Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs). You can tell a lot from these simple diagrams and they are great vehicles for discussion and learning. I am certainly no expert in creating CLDs so please forgive me for any beginner’s mistakes.

The important thing is that I want to approach this in a systemic way. By that I mean, that I don’t want to take the CSM apart and see how it works. Instead I want to look at the world around it; the forces that contribute to its existence and its consequences. Only then can we draw conclusions as to its role, if it is fulfilling its purpose, and if that purpose is even worth pursuing.

A CLD is mainly a diagram focusing on the interactions between elements. The elements are the nodes in the diagram. The interactions are arrows between the nodes symbolising cause and effect. Here is what you need to know:

  • If something X influences something else Y in the same direction we draw an arrow from X to Y. That means that if the X increases, Y increases (but probably not by the same factor). It also means that if X decreases, Y decreases as well. Sometimes you see an “S” by the arrow meaning “Same”, but I decided against that because it makes it harder to read.
  • If more of X leads to less of Y then X effects Y in the opposite direction. This is indicated by a small “O” by the arrow.
  • If there is a significant delay between the cause and effect, we draw two perpendicular lines on the arrow. These are generally interesting relationships, since the effects can be hard to discover but cause major effects.
  • We may then analyse the diagram and draw conclusions. We may look for loops in the diagram, either those that reinforce effects or those that balance them out.

That is all you need to know to understand this article. If you want to learn more on Systems Diagrams, here is an introductory article.

Analysis: Demand for ScrumMaster Certification

Let us start slowly by looking at the demance for the CSM. If there was no demand for certificates, there would not be a market. Where does this demand come from? Are they just lazy? Or just stupid? Here is my analysis:

Diagram showing some causes for the existence of a CSM certification

Causes for Demand for CSM Certification

Most organisations have a strong Cost Focus. Each department have their budgets and they strive hard to keep costs down. Most organisations are very lean and mean these days, which often includes having barely enough employees to get by. In time, this will lead to a demand for Qualifications by Proxy since people don’t have the time or the energy to do this themselves.

Another factor is what I have called the Analytic Mindset. A part of that is a quite mechanistic view of things. People are viewed as components in a great machine governed by a process. In a machine, a part is replaceable and should even be replaced now and then. In this view, one person can be replaced, more or less easily, with another person with the same qualifications. The papers you carry are more important than who you are. Hence, Qualifications by Proxy is encouraged.

This process is further fueled by the general Outsourcing Trend today. Many businesses consider employing people and hiring consultants/contractors to be outside their core competence and should therefore be outsourced.

Since we generally do not trust our proxies completely we will require proof and papers to allow applicants through our doors. This is one form of transition cost associated with outsourcing. I have labelled it Hiring Bureaucracy in the model. Certificates fit perfectly into this way of thinking. Since certificates are in demand and the founders of Scrum wanted to promote this new product development work model (Establishing Scrum), they decided to start issuing certificates. When I took the CSM course in 2004, Ken Schwaber clearly stated that although he was against certifications, he played their game. The purpose was to get good people inside and start changing things.


To sum this up, if businesses continue to focus on costs, outsource most of the work, and view people as resources, there will be strong forces working for certifications in general. Of course, this does not imply that this mode of operations is particularly clever.

Two additional thoughts:

  1. The demand for certifications is not caused by individuals. The general trends in business and society and the prevailing mindsets lead people to believe that this is the best way we know how to do this.
  2. If we want to decrease our reliance on certificates, some ways would be to work on changing the mindsets of people, especially concerning focus on costs (budgeting), the view of people as interchangeable resources and the rosy depictions of oursourcing.

That was easy, right? Well, it was just a warm-up. Next time I want to study some effects of the CSM certification.

One caveat: This is a model of reality – not reality itself. It is based on my view of things. I have excluded things that I found were irrelevant for the current analysis. Your model would probably differ. Nevertheless, I have tried to keep it relatively unbiased.

3 thoughts on “A Systems Analysis of CSM Certification – Part 1: Qualification by Proxy

  1. Pingback: A Systems Analysis of CSM Certification – Part 2: We Want You as Our New Recruit! « Den bloggande terriern

  2. Joakim – this is a good attempt at trying to model what is going on with the CSM and certification in general.

    I have questions that I would love to see you consider in this series.

    What might happen if there was no supply to this particular demand? Ken (so far) resisted creating Scrum 2.0 when there was demand for that (thank goodness he didnt, can you imagine the certification nightmare!). So resistance to demand is possible. The SA could *stop* doing certificatio – there are after all only about 120 CSTs.

    There are 100,000+ CSMs and I am not at all convinced that they have changed very much in the world of work The changing of mindsets takes individuals talking about what Scrum can do and more importantly, demonstrate its value. We have 100K+ who *should* know. Why are they not talking or why is their message not being heard?

    Businesses have and will continue to be about profitability and survival (notice this is not the same as sustainability), you are right when you say there is a ‘Cost Focus’ and that system itself is perhaps very dysfunctional. The inputs into that system are NOT just money and hard resources. People and what they are about is also extremely important, but more business than not recognise this.

    New systems have sprung up as a result of the CSM nonsense and these have created dependency which will make reform of CSM and certification very difficult.

    Whilst I appreciate your consideration of the CSM with the lens of Systems Thinking, maybe reducing the introduction of new ‘terms’ may make this more widely appreciated.

    well done.

  3. Pingback: A Systems Analysis of CSM Certifications – Part 3: Degrading the World of Work « The Blogging Terrier | Den bloggande terriern

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