Mastery-based Learning and the Paradox of the Certification
I started in Project Management some 15 years ago.
My goal, at the beginning, was to comply with all defined policies, processes, and procedures, while ensuring the project stayed within schedule, budget, and scope. After a few years, I left this position and I started my own consulting company. This radically changed my perspective of what was important. Though most of my consulting was in hardware, my focus shifted toward satisfying the customer. Upon returning to application development, I began managing software development projects for corporate and government agencies. At first, I resorted back to my old ways, trying to manage everything through process and controls. I sought out and obtained my Project Management Professional (PMP) credential.
I surprisingly discovered that customers really didn’t care how I managed the project, as long as they got what they wanted, when they wanted it, at the price they agreed to.
I started to go as lean as possible on documentation and processes, working with small co-located cross-functional teams. The result was delivery of more value more often. It was interesting to watch other project managers not have as much success, focusing more of their attention on the process than on their customers and products. That’s about the time a colleague recommended I read Ken Schwaber’s book, Agile Project Management with Scrum. As I read page after page, I realized I had been using basic agile practices and hadn’t even known it. After signing the Agile Manifesto and embracing “formal” Scrum practices, I went on to become the Manager of Software Engineering at an online university. Since then, I’ve gone on to be an advisor to a U.S. Government Agency Program Management Office (PMO). Of those working in the PMO, I am one of many PMPs but I am the only Certified ScrumMaster.
I’m a guy, passionate about getting his customers what they want in the most cost-efficient, time-efficient, and effort-efficient ways possible. I do what makes sense to me. Additionally, I have spent the last two years coaching up-and-coming project managers (and leaders) looking to obtain a certification or credential while dispelling myths about Agile principles and practices.
How Agile has changed in terms of Ideology
It’s called mastery-based learning and the paradox of the certification. What is the goal? Are we trying to discover better ways to deliver value to our customers or are we just trying to get a piece of paper and a few extra letters after our names? Some are pursuing the mastery of performance-based objectives versus learning-based objectives (ie. getting a passing score on a certification exam versus being a good manager or leader). Let’s recognize the 800 pound gorilla in the room. It’s called the Project Management Institute (PMI) and they have a credential called the PMP® (Project Management Professional). I’m not putting down the PMI. I am both a member, and as I mentioned earlier, a PMP credential holder.
“Serve practitioners and organizations with standards that describe good practices, globally recognized credentials that certify project management expertise, and resources for professional development, networking and community.“
Unfortunately, hiring managers have leached onto the PMP credential, which should be understood as someone with an entry-level understanding of project management. Instead, hiring managers and others have elevated the PMP to a level of perceived expert. PMI does not support this but they don’t condone it either. Many people get the PMP because their final objective is a credential, not to master the art of project management and leadership. And this, I believe, is directly impacting how the Agile community works in its future.
Though I see organizations like the PMI and Scrum Alliance (SA) having members who actually want to master skills and deliver real value, certifications seem to be what motivates some people in the short term. Which is more important? Having a large membership base, having a large certification base, or having people who have mastered skills that deliver value? Well, if you don’t get a large membership and certification base, how are you going to be that instrument of change?
Where is Agile Going
Soon, there will be a lot of movement in the Agile certification space. The Scrum Alliance has their certifications, the International Consortium for Agile (ICAgile) will soon be offering memberships and certifications, and you may see further movement by PMI into the Agile space. So, are future Agile certification objectives going to performance-based or learning-based? Though you can not change the motivations of the people pursuing the certifications or credentials, those who are providing them have it within their power to steer applicants toward a road of mastery versus a dead end certification.
From the October release of the Scrum News, I read the Scrum Alliance has selected Donna Farmer as the new Managing Director. Farmer will lead the non-profit organization, working with the staff and Board of Directors to realize the organization’s vision and mission. Lately, there seems to be some turbulence in the Scrum world, after Tobias Mayer resigned from his SA staff role as creative director and renounced his SA certifications of CSM, CSP, and CST. He then wrote a scathing blog post on the whole series of events. I empathize with Tobias and what he went through. I empathize with the Scrum community, as it evolves and tries to navigate through constant change. So, Donna Farmer has admitted that she is new to Scrum. Though she is, should it matter? I’m not saying Farmer is going to be a savior for the Scrum Alliance but I want to give her the benefit of the doubt. There is a opportunity available to steer the Scrum certifications toward learning-based objectives, ensuring applicants are provided tools to help them in mastering their skills.
A recent addition to the Agile community is the International Consortium for Agile (ICAgile). ICAgile is being spearheaded by none other than Dr. Alistair Cockburn, the man instrumental in creating and steering the field of Agile software development since its inception. He co-authored the original Manifesto for Agile Software Development and among other things, served on the board of the Agile Alliance, and designed the Crystal family of Agile methodologies. Dr. Cockburn has consistently demonstrated leadership toward learning over mere certifications. Let’s take a look at ICAgile’s published goal.
“To foster thinking and learning around Agile methods, skills and tools. We understand the difficulty of balancing education and certification, so as an alternative to other certification programs, ICAgile certification is skills based and requires people to demonstrate they have learned both why (the value) and how (the mechanics) for a core set of skills.”
As a key goal, ICAgile will be focused toward learning-based objectives, ensuring applicants are provided tools to help them in mastering their skills.
Project Management Institute
Though PMI does not currently have an Agile certification, there was a huge Agile presence at the PMI North American Congress just a few weeks ago. There was strong representation by the Agile Community of Practice and a lot of curiosity, and might I add ignorance, by the average Congress attendee. I don’t find it surprising, considering there is a complete omission of the word “Agile” in PMI’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) version 4.0. But, the PMBOK version 5 is in the works. A new PMP credential exam is being release in August 2011. What will happen to the Agile community if Agile is actually added to the PMBOK? Will PMI modify the current PMP credential to include Agile or will it launch its own Agile credential?
I will conclude in saying, in order for the Agile community to continue to grow and keep true to the principles of the Agile Manifesto, certification programs should truly add value and assess the skill set as well as knowledge of the individual. As stated on the ICAgile website:
“Is Certification important? Well that is a debatable topic that can take days and months to conclude. The fact is that for some people, in some cultures, and for some organizations certifications are important and have value; that is a fact.”
I see the Scrum Alliance, ICAgile, and PMI all working to advance Agile understanding, as it moves toward further adoption in the mainstream. But, let us not forget the Agile Manifesto and 12 principles. Let us not forget to deliver value.