Imagine yourself in a planning meeting. The team is
considering options when someone says, “How can we fail
fast with this one?”
Pause for a second... What’s going through your mind?
To many Agile practitioners, “fail fast” has positive
connotations. The expression conveys experimentation,
learning, and admission that they could be wrong. Other
people might hear this expression for the first time and
wonder, “Why fail? And why do it fast?” Others yet —
including many senior people — outright balk at it.
They don’t accept failure; they need to get it right the
Being human, we all speak imprecisely. The real issue
here, however, is our different models of the world.
One model assumes uncertainty and experimentation, seeing
failure as an element of learning; another model abhors
them, and considers failure fatal.
More generally, the same word might have positive or
neutral connotations to one person, and negative or scary
ones to another. When those people have a conversation,
the consequences include misunderstanding, conflict, and
I have built a small mental catalogue of such words. In
conversations, I check my use of words against this
catalogue. If necessary, I make my intent explicit, or choose other words. For instance, I
prefer “learning” and “trying it out” to “failing”. Allow
me to share four more words, which are commonplace in the
Sprint. Introduced by Scrum, this word is synonymous
with the Agile “iteration”. “Sprint” is shorter, rolls
nicely off the tongue, and probably comes from Scrum’s
rugby analogy. I think most Agile practitioners don’t
know rugby or care for it. They do know, however, the
more common meaning of sprinting: running very fast over
a short distance. Does your team sometimes feel rushed or
work unsustainably? The word might have some subconscious
effect on their behaviour.
Velocity. Many Agile teams use this planning concept as
a measure of their capacity to produce value in an
iteration. Other people hear “velocity”, understand it as
“speed”, and if they already misunderstand Agile as
better-cheaper-faster, they will put subtle pressure on
the team to increase it. I try to steer clear of the word
“velocity”, preferring instead “capacity” (how much time
people have for work) and “output” (how much useful stuff
they turn out).
Resources. Organizations use and manage resources to
produce value. For decades, professionals have been educated
that a subcategory of resources is “human resources,”
which can be managed as any other non-human subcategory:
counted, traded, shared, and exploited. In Agile, people
matter far more than products and processes, and the
approach is that of trust, respect, safety, and
sustainability. Most managers I know aren’t even aware
that these two perspectives exist, and don’t realize the
dehumanizing effect of this neutral-sounding word.
Games. More and more Agile coaches enjoy introducing
their teams to games. To them, “games” is code for
“structured, facilitated, and informal activities with
props for accomplishing an important outcome for the
team.” It took me a while to figure this code out; not
all teams and managers, however, have that patience.
They hear “game” in a professional context and think, “We
don’t do that.” An alternative, which is admittedly
more bland but doesn’t create misunderstandings as much,
If you’ve come across other words that trigger adverse
responses in an Agile space, send them my way. Maybe
we'll have the makings of a follow-on post! (The second list already includes the words “rituals” and “swarm”.)
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