What’s in a Word?

Imagine yourself in a planning meeting. The team is considering options when someone says, “How can we fail fast with this one?”

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 first time.

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 rejection.

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 Agile space.

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 stuff they turn out).

Resources. Organizations use and manage resources to produce value. For decades, professionals are 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, is “activities.”

If you’ve come across other words that trigger adverse responses in an Agile space, please send them my way.

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