Product Management Marty Cagan

The CSPO Pathology

Fair warning that this and the next article will be a tough read.  It was a tough one to write, and I expect for many of you, it will be a tough one to read.  But in my view, we as an industry are suffering from a pandemic, but unlike COVID, there is no vaccine for this one.

I spend my time working on closing the gap between how the best product organizations work, and the rest.

Yet it is no secret that the majority of product teams and product organizations in the world (“the rest”) are not strong.  The majority are not empowered, the majority of talent is underutilized, and the majority have product managers that are effectively little more than overpaid backlog administrators or project managers.

I’ve written pretty extensively about the various forms of weak product teams and weak product managers – especially in product vs. feature teams, product vs. project teams and product vs. delivery teams.

But while these articles may describe the problematic behaviors, they don’t really tackle the more fundamental question of why?

What I want to address specifically is why our industry has such a high proportion of weak product managers and product leaders. 

By “weak” I mean people that either do not understand how to do their job, or are for whatever reason not capable of doing their job.

While there are doubtless many reasons, as I see it, there are two very clear and distinct pathologies for these weak product managers and product leaders.

In this article I’ll discuss the first, and in the next article, I’ll tackle the second.

The CSPO Pathology

The fastest growing pathology I see, especially outside the US, is people confusing a product owner (the role on an Agile delivery team) with a product manager (one of the three critical competencies on a true product team).

My understanding is that there are well over 100,000 people that have become Certified Scrum Product Owners (CSPO).  Nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I’ve encouraged countless product managers to get this training.  

But my experience empirically is that for the vast majority of these people, the CSPO course has been their only formal training in preparation for their job as product manager.

What’s more, the person that trained them how to be a product owner is almost never a proven strong product manager with experience from a strong product company.

Rather, they are usually some form of an “Agile Coach” that offers various certifications in several Agile delivery processes.

These people are confusing the rituals of a delivery process, with the skills and responsibilities of a major job on a product team.

It is just as ridiculous as saying you can train some random people in Scrum, and expect they are now ready to serve as skilled software engineers.  Or expect they are now skilled product designers.

Of course, if these would-be coaches pretended that their training could prepare a designer or engineer, nobody would be fooled for a minute.  But because the product role is so poorly understood, and because a focus on process is such a tempting proxy, for many people and for many companies, they have literally come to believe that this is what product management is supposed to be.

And it’s getting worse.  Some of these people that have never actually done the job, or even seen it done well, have gone on to write books and articles on product ownership and product leadership, run product conferences, and even start their own product schools and “product-management certification programs.”

Now this would just be an irritating but relatively minor issue if the managers of the product managers could effectively coach and develop their people, as they are supposed to be doing.

But the problem in many companies is that so many of these managers have never done the job themselves, or even seen it done well.  So, they are forced to depend more on the training than they would otherwise.

Of course, there are exceptions.  For example, I have long encouraged people to get their CSPO training from Jeff Patton because I know he knows the difference.  And I’ve met a few others that know what they’re doing too.  But most don’t, at least if you are going by my opinion of who knows what.

Over the past several years I have gradually but consistently been turning up the volume on this problem, but there is such an entrenched industry at this point that there seems to be real resistance to acknowledging the seriousness and pervasiveness of this problem.

But the fix to this is not that hard.  Sending product managers to a CSPO course is fine, but it is not in any way a substitute for training as a product manager.

So how to train your product managers to be able to do their job?

Our first choice is always for the manager to coach and develop her product managers herself.  But this assumes she has been an experienced and strong product manager herself.  If not, then she can work with a strong and proven product or discovery coach.  Or, a strong senior or principal product manager can help coach.

Failing that, there are good options where you can send your product managers for actual product management training.  Just be sure you do your research, and make sure the specific instructor is herself a proven product manager, or ideally proven product leader, with real experience from a strong product company.

Unfortunately, the CSPO pathology continues to spread, and continues to spawn new variants, some of which are even more deadly to innovation (e.g. SAFe).


To be clear, I’m not arguing that a CSPO certification is bad.  I frequently recommend product managers take that simple course to learn their responsibilities as part of an Agile team.  

And I’m certainly not arguing that Agile is bad, as I’ve been an advocate for Agile methods for delivery for nearly 20 years (although hopefully everyone reading this knows to steer clear of the fake agile nonsense out there).

My wish is that shining a light on this issue will cause leaders to reconsider the influences on your product people, and whether they are truly meeting your needs.  I’m hoping you’ll decide you would rather join the ranks of the best companies.

I’d like to thank Chris Jones, Jeff Patton and Marcus Castenfors for their review of drafts of this article.