Loaded words

What do you do when people react negatively to terms you use to describe ideas? If you are like one clever manager I met at Software Development Best Practices, you turn around and let the team take ownership of the way they are going to speak about things. This manager of managers in a health care company recounted how he introduced Scrum into his organization. After talking about Scrum values and practices, he got pushback on the names of Scrum activities. “Scrum? Sounds like a fight. We don’t like that. Sprints? Why the goofy terminology? We don’t like the sound of it. Sounds like people are always running hard. And besides, we’re not athletic.” So he asked his group to propose alternative names. Instead of sprints, his group calls them iterations. And yeah, they know they need to be short. They are following scrum practices; they just don’t call a spade a spade. He’s convinced that they are the better for it. It isn’t so important what they’re called as how they’re applied. They’ve even renamed daily standups. And they have them mid-morning so everyone can attend (as the team’s work hours are staggered).

Another case in point. At Agile 2005, Jon Spence from Medtronic presented an experience recounting how he got his company to adopt agile practices on a project. Medtronic makes defibrillators and pacemakers. It was somewhat tricky introducing agile concepts into his organization. Jon had to tone down the edginess of the agile message. He can’t imagine the Agile Manifesto hanging in the hallways at his company. For one thing, one of its tenets favoring, “Working software over comprehensive documentation” would be highly controversial. Medtronic builds FDA regulated products that require extensive documentation. According to Jon, the Agile Manifesto would cause an “allergic reaction” at Medtronic. He said he wasn’t going to bring back copies of it to pass around (they were handed out at the conference). No sir. Those would be fighting words. And Jon wants to avoid controversy so he can focus on introducing agile practices. What proved effective was talking about delivering code incrementally with higher quality using a balanced set of practices that provide a safety net. Those were the right words to convince management. His project delivered on their promises and he and others are now spreading agile practices to other project teams.

I appreciate powerful words that people can rally around. But they don’t have to be edgy. By avoiding loaded words you can more effectively get your message across. If the agile manifesto doesn’t have the right words for your organization (and you don’t want to be branded a radical) you may need to discover different ways to talk about agile practices. It isn’t always necessary to use inflammatory words and shake people up to cause change.