A Systems Analysis of CSM Certifications – Part 3: Degrading the World of Work

This is part 3 of an on-going attempt at a systemic description of causes and effects surrounding the CSM certification. Part 1, with more explanations, was called Qualification by Proxy. Part 2 was called We Want You as Our New Recruit!


Have you ever been in a situation where the expectations on you, or your team, are so high that you feel that even a pretty good outcome might disappoint? These are the situations where experienced consultants start to “manage expectations”, knowing that quality is to a large extent subjective. This is somewhat similar to what great athletes do when they feel the weight of a whole nation demanding an olympic gold. They know that when expectations are high it is easy to perceive even satisfactory results as poor.

Have you ever seen a person that is clearly inadequate for a job? Perhaps a project manager on their first assignment? Or perhaps a newly appointed department manager straight from university? Having the right people is absolutely crucial to achieving good results. This sentiment is expressed in the first value of the agile manifesto. And complementary, having the wrong people is a recipe for failure.

Consequently, having both inflated expectations and the wrong person for the job is unfortunate. In this article I will show how the CSM certification process contributes to both these things, thereby decreasing our chances of succeeding in product development.

Additional Effects of ScrumMaster Certification: Increased Risk of Failure

There are several effects that originate from the way that CSM certificates are awarded by the Scrum Alliance. In the previous part we looked at the effect of generating more CSM recruits to the courses, which will generate revenue and, as time passes, more teachers. Revenue can be used for marketing, which generates new recruits, and so on. We also discussed that the majority of the people leaving a CSM course today are either inadequate or not yet adequate to act as process leaders in a ScrumMaster role. In this part we will follow-up on this observation.

A causal-loop diagram showing two negative effects from CSM

Two negative effects from CSM


I will argue that the CSM Certification process leads to two effects, illustrated in the diagram above. Many of the CSM graduates, both the Barely Adequate CSMs and the Inadequate CSMs, are likely to be infected with an Inflated Confidence regarding their own agile competence. Their enthusiastic teachers have told them that they are ready. They have taken the course and received their diploma. Hey, they even know the secret handshake.

The certifications also lead to Unfounded Credentials. Nobody actually believes that you can assert much of anything about a person after talking to them for two days in a class room. Nobody has ever failed a CSM course. Therefore, we should admit that the credentials are, more or less, unfounded. This, however, goes against the common, and quite reasonable, belief that certificates actually tell you something about a person. Most people believe that to obtain a certificate you must have trained for longish times, with stern tutors (think: Kung-Fu Masters), and passed several demanding tests. A driver’s license for a EU moped is significantly more difficult to obtain than a CSM. Therefore, the Unfounded Credentials lead to Mislead Managers & Procurers.

The Unbalanced Confidence together with the Mislead Managers & Procurers is a toxic combination. It is reasonable to assume it could in many cases lead to Exaggerated Expectations about what the person can do and, as a consequence, Inappropriately Assigned Responsibility. In other words, we are lead to have great expectations, but we may have the wrong (or at least, unprepared) person for the job.

This is bad practice. Having the wrong people combined with inflated expectations is an almost fail-safe way of getting less Successful Product Development. This is the exact opposite of what the Scrum Alliance says it is trying to achieve.


We have seen two ways that the CSM certification process varies negatively with successful product development. In other words, as we print more and more CSM certificates, we actually lower our chances of getting software development right. Here is why:

  1. The CSM factory churns out a lot of people with rudimentary understanding of the underpinnings of agile development but with unfounded credentials and an inflated self-confidence.
  2. The certificate misleads decision makers and inflates customer and manager expectations, which increases risk of having inadequate people in high-pressure roles.

But maybe I am just exaggerating? Even if we agree with all the causal loops, there is no way of knowing how strong these negative influences are. They may be negligible. Or, on the other hand, maybe this is could be one piece of this puzzle: Why are so many of the Scrum implementations so poor? Many are simply business as usual but with morning stand-ups and some notes on a board. This is so common that it has been given many lovingly-crafted names, like Scrum-But and Waterscrum. But considering some of the effects mentioned above, should we be surprised when the results of “going agile” are disappointing?