Don’t you speak Agile…

People use jargon and terminology in every walk of life; we only have to look at the medical profession as a case in point.

Terms are a shorthand for more complicated ideas and technical details; this is the power of terminology, allowing people in the know to communicate, debate and advance their understanding in a fraction of the time it would take to spell things out clearly such that a lay person could understand them. On the flipside, though, terminology and jargon can alienate its users from those very same lay people, making them appear inaccessible and cliquish. If you come across an agile team you will most likely encounter a whole set of new jargon, terms like: “user story”, “velocity”, “sprint”, “iteration”, “scrum master”, “WIP”, “burn up”, “burn down” and other expressions that you might not have heard before.

The thing to remember is that these are just words, labels that sit on top of ideas and concepts. These ideas and concepts, in turn, sit on top of principles and values. In other words, the terminology is only as valuable as the things it represents. If you are trying to change the way your organisation works and organises to improve its agility then you need to get past the jargon, to understand what sits underneath – to the practices, principles and values. Otherwise, one of two things might happen:

  1. People look at the new terminology and feel repulsed by it (“I did stories at school, I’m a grown up now”) and close their minds to the potential benefits in learning more about the why, how, when and what behind the jargon.
  2. People set off with good intentions of giving agile working a go but unconsciously adapt the new terminology to fit the ways of working, thinking and organising they are more comfortable with, leading to confusion and disappointment.

My advice is don’t let the terminology spook you, and certainly don’t reject the underpinning ideas, concepts, values and principles because of the words people use to describe them. Get to know the terms, what they really mean, and start to understand the bigger picture they fit into. A good place to start this process of getting to grips with agile terminology is the A-Z of Agile Practices put together by the Agile Alliance.

If you complete this arc of understanding the practices behind the labels and how those practices fit together as part of a core set of principles and values, then you will hopefully start to see and adopt the mindset that underpins everything we describe as agile or lean; at that point you are in a great position to throw away the terminology you don’t like, or abandon the practices that don’t fit your circumstances.. but only after you’ve taken the time and made the effort to understand what they represent and why they are used.

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