Tattoo artists are a profession that requires certification.

Tattoo artists are a profession that requires certification.

In a recent conversation on the Post-Agile Age with Ira Weinstein, Scrum master, architect and more, I pointed out that the end of Agile as movement did not mean that people would stop doing stand-ups, test driven development or even retrospectives, but rather the basis for adoption was no longer driven by the values and principles espoused by the Agile Manifesto. This change in the reason why people are adopting Agile changes the practices that get adopted and the value derived through Agile practices.  The discussion of a Post-Agile Age is not an esoteric exercise.  During our discussion, we examined the impact of the development of more and stronger prescriptive norms that define what is or more accurately what isn’t Agile.

Proscriptive norms describe or identify behavior that should not be performed. For example, developing a work breakdown structure with effort estimates and a project schedule would be branded as ‘not agile’ based on typical proscriptive norms within the Agile community. As a point of reference, prescriptive norms are a set of rules that define behavior. Every Agile community has defined a set of behaviors that are inside the boundary and a set of rules that outside the boundary. For example, in a recent presentation, I have asked a group of Scrum masters to list a set of good and bad Scrum behaviors. And then asked the XP developers that were in the presentation to identify the practices they thought were outside of the practice of XP and whether they would be comfortable performing those activities. During the discussion, there were several practices both camps indicated they were not comfortable performing within their team.  While this was not a scientific survey, it illustrates that boundaries exist even in highly related communities.  As Agile has matured, boundaries have become more defined and more strongly defended. Certifications are the frontline of defining boundaries for behavior.  Nearly every organization and method has one or more certification. Offhand I can name six different Scrum master certification and a huge number of other roles in Agile.

Prima facie, certifications are not good or bad.  My son-in-law, a tattoo artist, (I can probably get you a deal) is certified. He has a set of norms for good practice that provides a boundary for what he can and can’t do which include rules on sterilization and handling blood. The pilot of my recent airline flight has a license (an assumption on my part), a form of certification, that provides boundaries for her behavior and defines things they are not supposed to do (such as drinking 24 hours before the flight). Stringent boundaries serve an important purpose in both these professions. These stringent boundaries are not appropriate for all professions.  Certification ensures everyone knows what the boundaries are and establish consequences for violating those boundaries.

In my conversation with Ira, he suggested that certifications were important tools for ensuring that new entrants to the IT industry understood the basics of their profession.  Further, he posited that when new entrants had enough experience they should switch into an inspect and adapt mode to modify how they work. Point taken, establishing a common basis of knowledge is great; however we need to determine whether the unintended consequences of hardening boundaries are an acceptable side effect of syncing knowledge bases. Additionally, I do not know a certification that suggests experimenting with processes and techniques outside their core techniques and processes (I am excluding process improvement frameworks such as lean six sigma). One of the basic assumptions of the Agile movement is that teams use an empirical process (inspect, adapt based on transparency).

Scrum and XP are empirical processes.  Agile practitioners use feedback to adapt how theysz work.  In a typical end of iteration retrospective, teams are challenged to find one way they can improve how they work.  Agile expects teams to continuously perform small, low-risk experiments to hone how they are doing their jobs. Changes to how a team work are not meant to be bounded by the requirements of a certification.

Certifications are not evil. However, they do create boundaries that slow down change. Boundaries also constrain the evolution of the process.  Neither of these consequences, in the long run, are good.  The only long term good of hardening the boundaries around different types of Agile that the hardening is a flag that we should begin to search the horizon for the next movement.   During a keynote, at the Scrum Gathering in 2014 (ish), Ken Schwaber described things like user stories as barnacles on Scrum.  Certifications harden boundaries which reduce potential innovation.  I am not sure if I can conceive of Agile without innovations, like user stories or my personal favorite technique Scrumban. If overly defined proscriptive norms had existed early in Agile’s lifecycle then they might not exist.   

Planned essays in Post Agile Age Arc include:

  1. Post Agile Age: The Movement Is Dead
  2. Post Agile Age: Drivers of the End of the Agile Movement and Method Lemmings
  3. Proscriptive Norms (Current)
  4. A Brand Driven Eco-System
  5. A Lack of Systems Thinking/Management
  6. The Age of Aquarius (Something Better is Beginning)