Certification and Simplification

Al Shalloway asks why people get pushed into using simplified solutions that have certifications when more powerful and useful approaches exist. I don’t know, but have some ideas based on what I’ve seen.

It should go without saying, but: This is my view of some of the reasons from behavior I have observed. I believe there are companies and people who view matters quite differently, but I also don’t think they fall into the trap Al is asking about. I simply think this is a useful way to start the conversation based on my experiences.


A huge element of the push for certifications comes down to signaling in the economic sense. 

From the company’s perspective, there is huge value in relying on credentailing: It significantly reduces the time and effort needed to vet potential consultants. When a consultant is, say, SPC4 certified, that one signal immediately conveys a lot of information about what the person knows, the amount of effort the person had to go through to get the certification, what the person’s interests are, what philosophies and approaches the person aligns with, etc.

This similarly benefits the consultant. It provides a shorthand for what they know and who they agree with. It makes their job of selling their services easier because they can point to an industry trend and say, “I can help you do that.”

In the absence of credentialing, it requires much more effort and cost to match company and consultant. 

There is also value to the people inside the company that will be trained to carry out much of the work of implementing the chosen solution. Most approaches first train and certify the internal trainers/consultants. Since the company usually funds this effort (cost of the certifications as well as the time needed), the internal employees get a certification and its benefits on someone else’s dime.


It is easier to define the return on investment (ROI) for an approach with clearly defined boundaries and few options. If you can only do it one way, there is only one set of results you have to calculate and sell.

Further, the less there is to learn in an approach, the quicker it is to train and certify people. This keeps the initial expenses manageable, but also, critically, enables companies to see a “return” on that investment sooner.

Combined, this helps improve the ROI. This matters when selling the approach to companies who are generally under pressure to “make the numbers” and operating on annual budgets. The faster an approach can contribute to the bottom line, the easier it is to sell to the budget people.


Most of the frameworks I’ve seen won’t actually work exactly as defined anywhere. (I said “most.”) None of those take into account the real world environment they’ll be operating in, nor the fact that every implementation is trying to solve for different goals and different problems. They can’t: The real world is too messy and complex to address every possible situation in advance. 

However, following an industry standard approach is a very safe decision. It’s the modern equivalent of, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” It allows the decision makers to say they just tried what everyone else does, so the risk was entirely reasonable, regardless of outcome.

The executive that was responsible for starting the program will blame limitations of the approach for any failure to achieve the benefits promised. Instead, they’ll point to the gains made and say they made the best of the situation they reasonably could, then move on to their next effort.

The consultants will blame the company for not changing as radically as needed, or that the company simply needs more experience to get the benefits desired. The consultant will be gone long before it becomes clear the approach would never work as defined.

No one goes in with the intent of blaming others, of course. Everyone goes in optimistic that this time will be different, this time it will really work right. Still, people are very good at finding ways to avoid blame. This setup allows them to shift the blame if the need arises.

Stakeholder Interests Align

You'll notice here that all of the key stakeholders get to align on the use and value of simple approaches with credentialing. Everyone is (more or less) happy!

Left out of this, of course, are the poor people who have to work within the environments the decision makers are creating. But they don’t make the decisions or pay the bills, so their voices aren’t heard.

No one is approaching this with malicious intent. Much of this is simply a result of the system companies and consultants operate in. Companies need advice; consultants want to provide it; both sides need to find a way to meet their goals while making money. The system pushes people toward these behaviors.

Everyone involved is acting rationally based on their mental models and the system they’re in. It would be fascinating to build out a better model of the system and see how it could be changed for the better.