Language Matters (Reflecting on Common Agile Terminology)

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Language Matters (Reflecting on Common Agile Terminology)

How you use language is important. When using Agile terminology, make sure your language isn't putting you into false dichotomies.

· Agile Zone ·
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The balance of businesses and society has rapidly shifted from industrial (often physical) labor to digital (often virtual) activities. Our real-time, globalized world of information and technology is, besides full of options, also a dazzling and baffling era. The world feels less predictable than ever before. A majority of our problems no longer reside in the ordered stability space (hmm, if they ever actually were). Many endeavors happen in the complex novelty space, the space where there are more unknown than known variables that impact the endeavors.

Complexity, Important variables

The shift to the complex novelty space

The impact is huge. Our past focus on industrial efficiency and utilization fails us today. It removes all slack and room to maneuver. The need to be adaptive is more needed than ever. Hence, the value of the Agile paradigm. Indeed, in hindsight, the Manifesto for Agile Software Development (2001) did introduce a new paradigm, a new set of beliefs and values, a new worldview. Scrum, being a clear and actionable definition of Agile, heads the pack with the third Scrum wave that is rising.

With the increased adoption of an Agile way of working, often through Scrum, important changes spread; principles and ideas, but also language and terminology. At the same time, Agile has turned into an industry in itself, or is used by industries that claim work resides in the ordered stability space. Inevitably, along comes the tendency to mimic, isolate, copy, paste what is perceived as popular and profitable. The new language and words are copied, but are embedded in a bigger setting of old, industrial thinking. The words get disconnected from their intent, meaning or feeling.

Rigor is required in morphing towards an Agile way of working. The real challenge is not even just to sense whether the words we intuitively use, still apply or are remainders of the industrial paradigm. We need to remain conscious about the continual evolution of insights, and how this is or is not expressed in our language. Unknowingly we may grind, grow complacent. Alongside the increasing adoption of Agile thinking, the space in which we operate keeps evolving. Much like agility has no end-state, language shouldn’t have an end-state either.

We discover better ways to express our intents than blindly re-using the language that may be seen as common, even in Agile:

Language Matters

  • Do you recognize how teams need to be 'high-performant,' and such high-performing teams must be built? A team, however, cannot be constructed by an external force. Nor is a group of people necessarily a 'team.' A team is a cohesive collective of people working towards common goals and objectives, thereby jelling and overcoming resistance, internally and externally. A team is what emerges through intense collaboration. Performance arises from such intense collaboration. Rather than aiming at high performance in itself, often hinting at productivity, facilitate collaboration. Foster an environment, clear the way for people to interact, to share, to disagree. Highly collaborative teams will perform.
  • 'Maximization,' even unintendedly, has a smell of infinite expansion, endless growth. As does 'continuous improvement.' It leaves an impression of unlimited accumulation; more, more, more. Where is the room for reflection, adjusting, changing direction, adapting, maybe even turning back? Consider optimizing what you do. Make the best of what you have, of what you are able to do. And while doing so, in order to do so, regularly adapt. What works today might not work tomorrow. More changes than remains stable. Continuously adapt and optimise the value of your work.
  • Many inhabitants of the environments in which we operate are discovering that in the complex novelty space more changes than remains stable. Exact, detailed, upfront, long-term predictions no longer work. At most we strive for 'predictability'; forecasts based on the past reality. I prefer reliability even more, the fact that people and teams are reliable and transparent in the hard work they do. It creates awareness that it is all about discovery, discovering what is needed to make the best possible progress towards hopes, goals, ambitions, and vision.
  • Technically, Scrum says an Increment should be releasable no later than by the end of a Sprint. For many organizations, that already represents an incredible leap forward, let alone the ability to have releasable versions of a product even sooner. We can raise the bar even beyond that, set a new dot on the horizon. We can share the expectation with teams and organizations that Increments are expected to be not just 'releasable,' but be valuable. Consider what you are defining as Done. An Increment, by default, is potentially valuable, as value is an assumption that can only be validated by releasing and gathering feedback.

Mind that language, when not blindly mimicked, expresses your mindset and beliefs. Reflect on what became traditional Agile terminology in the meantime. Move away from false dichotomies that don’t reflect the reality of iterative-incremental discovery; eternal growth, success vs. failure. Mind your words. What you say can and will be used against you.

agile ,agile adoption ,scrum ,terminology

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