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Wanting to move to Agile? Certifications are useless.

Published on: 2014-11-02

A couple of days ago, I read an interesting article about how Agile certificates are actively destructive to the Agile community. One of the most important points he made was this: because Agile certifications aren't sufficient to prove whether you are an expert or not, companies that hire certified "experts" to launch their Agile efforts will fail, and therefore believe that Agile is not a valid approach. While I agree with most of what the author said, he missed an important point. There is a significant difference between being able to lead an Agile project and helping a company with an Agile transformation. To see why, we need first to look at what a certification does and doesn't cover.

What certifications show

Good certifications generally show an individual's skill with a particular subject, i.e. whether they understand the terminology and theory about that particular approach or technology. Even the best technology certifications, though, typically do a poor job showing an individual's knowledge of a particular subject, i.e. whether they can make the necessary adaptions to the approach or technology to solve the problem at hand. (A further discussion about skills vs. knowledge can be found in an earlier blog post about age discrimination in IT.)

Why skills aren't enough

If you are in an organization that already is using Agile to great success, plugging in someone with the skills to get started but without the knowledge to lead may not do that much damage. Existing processes and co-workers will often be enough to overcome knowledge deficiencies. But Agile, at its best, is a cultural change, not a procedural one. The minute you start trying to make Agile a procedural change within your organization you've failed. Instead, Agile is more about increasing collaboration and maximizing flexibility than following a process. (For an explanation why, please read my post about the subject from earlier this year.)

Why this can be a difficult cultural change

A manager's job is to ensure that his or her people have what they need in order to succeed. Most managers I know achieve this by doing two things: making sure that their people have the processes and procedures in place to do their job predictably well, and creating and monitoring metrics that demonstrate their team's effectiveness. Adopting an Agile culture makes these two goals extremely difficult. How can you create processes when you're trying to increase collaboration with outside teams? How can you measure success when maximizing flexibility makes monitoring time and scope, the two most common IT project metrics, obsolete?

The other significant challenge that teams face when moving from Waterfall to Agile is that Agile projects have immeasurably more uncertainty. With Agile, scope is always changing, responsibility is shared, and there is no "definition of done". Selling this to a group of people who have a (false) sense of security with a fixed-scope, fixed-budget project can be overwhelming to say the least.

All these sound like Agile skills. What's missing?

If you try to implement Agile in these environments, you're going to run into significant challenges from other people who, either intentionally or unintentionally, sabotage the change effort due to their own discomfort. To get through this, you need a change management expert who can create the sense of urgency necessary to get people behind the change effort. You will have much better luck achieving a transformation with a change management expert who is not up on the latest Agile frameworks than an Agile expert who is not familiar with managing people through a change.


If you are starting, or planning to start, a transformation within your company to a more Agile mindset, don't worry too much about Agile certifications. You want someone leading the project who has done it successfully before. If, in the case of the original article, you're in HR and don't have the skills to evaluate candidates, then get references and hire the people who have already achieved what you're looking to do. Then let the certification be a tie-breaker in case you really need one.

This article was originally posted here and may have been edited for clarity.