Monday, December 10, 2012

The Importance of Language in a move to an Agile Culture (with Polling Results)

In my experience in helping teams transform toward an Agile culture, moving away from the traditional terminology and adapting Agile terminology is very beneficial.  At the same time, I have sensed reluctance in organizations in removing from their traditional language.  I believe the language you use matters a great deal if you are attempting to achieve a certain culture.  A prime example is moving from the language of certainty in a more big-upfront Waterfall culture to discovery and hypothesis driven language in an incremental Agile culture.

If you are trying to change culture, the change in language highlights that something has changed and provides folks with a learning opportunity assuming that there is true meaning behind the language and a commitment to change. It makes everyone pay more attention. If you think about it, when you travel from one culture to another, the language does indeed change.  Using the proper language helps you inform and communicate needs more effectively while a common language provides a bond within our community.

Maybe the key is to use language that is most efficient and effective for the culture you want to get to. If you want to change your culture, you need to ensure that the language is not tripping you up and dragging along its baggage of prior meaning.  When you move from a big-upfront Waterfall to an incremental Agile culture, using the same waterfall language will trip you up.

Why? Because people in the organization still think the definition of the term is stemming from the 'old' culture. Attempting to change culture is hard enough and when you have language from the old culture still around, you can be sure that those people within the org are still interpreting the language using the old world context. This can impact your success to advance your new culture. 

With all of that being said, this is the opinion of one person.  So what of the opinions’ of others?  With that in mind, I embarked on a poll via LinkedIn to gauge other’s thoughts on how important is it to use Agile terminology to get to an Agile culture.  I present you with the following results:

Within a period of a month, there were 83 votes cast along with 26 comments.  The poll results revealed that 65% percent (or close to two-thirds) of the participants felt the use of Agile terminology was either ‘Very Important’ or ‘Important’ for an Agile culture.  Another 12% felt it were neutral.  The remaining 23% felt that the use of Agile terminology was of ‘Little Importance’ or ‘Not important at all’.

In order to more fully understand other opinions, I have included a paraphrasing of some of the comments.  They include: there is a need for specialized vocabulary; there are fundamental differences amongst various practices and methods so terminology should be considered; the terminology contributes to language precision; and the words used should work for the culture.  You can see one of the threads within the “Agile” Linkedin group for specific comments from others.

Some took my examples literally.  I didn’t really mean to imply that the term ‘sprint’ and ‘phase’ are the same, but I have seen teams use those terms interchangeably.  So I do agree that one term is not necessarily better than another but that you should ensure the language you use does not get in the way of learning and advancing within your culture.   Also, I’m not clear that there needs to be a standard “Agile” terminology across the industry.  However, with that said, if you are applying Scrum, you should use Scrum terminology (and the same for XP, Kanban, etc). There is a value of having a common Agile terminology within an organization so that there can be a more effective platform for Agile related discussion across teams.  

Also a few people mentioned that the meaning is more important than terminology.  I do favor this line of thinking because there should be an effective meaning behind all terminology used.  Terminology without meaning is babble.  So yes, it is important, dare I say critical to have a well understood and clear meaning behind all the terminology used in order to gain an effective Agile culture. 

Ultimately if you are truly trying to initiate a culture change, then the language should reflect the change you are looking to make.   In this case, if want to establish an Agile culture, utilize the terminology that provides an appropriate and clear meaning which drags little or no baggage.  This will help you get to the Agile culture you may be seeking.  Cheers!

Note: another article that discusses Agile terminology focusing on the terms 'size' vs 'estimate' may be found at:


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  2. I'm with you, Mario. Babble for the sake of saying the words, is useless.... but words are tools for forming concepts. Since Agile is about a mind shift, trying to effect change without using the right tools is making it more difficult than it need be. As our parents taught us, use the right tools for the right job.

    While writing my recent book, A to XP: The Agile ABC Book, I tried to say things simply without using many terms, and found the result was bland and opaque. When I added the terminology, the whole thing came together with much more flavor and clarity. See:

  3. Thanks for your thoughts Karen. Though the flavor of the terminology, it does help create that sense of culture that we are trying to get to. Cheers!

  4. Not just about the mindset shift - the words used are an important part of learning the new way to work. We are trying to encourage people to think and continuously learn and improve...the web is a common way to find information, as are books and social media. Without a common language people will miss a load of rich information that could help them form better while I think phase is something that could be used by a team that understand the concept of a sprint (iteration is another common one) I prefer to use sprint so that all newcomers can easily go and look up information on their own :)