The importance of Semantics and its effects on change

Last post 08:45 pm August 28, 2019
by Lauren Goff
8 replies
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05:34 pm August 27, 2019

Whenever I have worked with teams, I often try to educate them if they use the wrong terminology and in response I usually get told that the "semantics" don't matter or to stop being an agile/scrum purist. I often also teach that there is a desired state and its outcomes, and the ground reality from which we need to strive to reach the desired state and outcomes.

Some examples where I have faced resistance and sometimes aggressive pushback are: Scrum is a framework, not a methodology, Agile is a mindset, not a methodology.

What have been your experiences regarding this and how have you dealt with it?

05:48 pm August 27, 2019

I try to pick my battles when it comes to this type of thing. For instance, if the organization I'm working with is choosing to use Iteration instead of Sprint I have no problem adopting that verbiage so long as there's a universal understanding of what an Iteration entails and the spirit behind it. 

I've put together guides in the past around 'Scrum or Not Scrum' to educate on practices that people often associate with Scrum incorrectly (stories, tools, planning poker, etc.) because I was seeing Scrum and Agile being used interchangeably and I felt it was important to understand the distinction.

You could try a more inquisitive approach to try to understand the context in which others are trying to use the word. Perhaps the individuals you're working with think frameworks and methodologies are the same thing so it's 'all semantics' to them. 

05:52 pm August 27, 2019

Are the teams delivering finished work every iteration, and then releasing it to empirically inspect and adapt? If so, and stakeholders are happy with the results, then I would agree that semantics might not matter.

07:31 pm August 27, 2019

Are the teams delivering finished work every iteration, and then releasing it to empirically inspect and adapt? If so, and stakeholders are happy with the results, then I would agree that semantics might not matter.

@Tony Divel, @Ian Mitchell, I agree that if at the end of the day we are able to deliver Done Increments, and have happy stakeholders, then it doesn't matter. However, would it be considered wrong to teach this to an audience?

10:22 pm August 27, 2019

Semantics really don't matter much but at times they can help people to better understand.  I am one of those that do try to help people understand the semantics.  However I usually take their current actions to illustrate the meanings of the terms. I am by no means a "if you don't say it right you are wrong" type. But by helping them to understand what is meant by a "sprint" and why a "sprint" is important, it will help them to better understand. If they want to call it an iteration, a cycle or even a drunken stumble I really don't care.  But I will explain to them how the word sprint is used in the Scrum Guide and relate it to what is being done. 

In the end it truly is about delivery and satisfaction.  But the beginning matters very much in their ability to reach the end. 

However, would it be considered wrong to teach this to an audience?

No, it wouldn't but don't force it or you will become that Scrum Purist in their eyes.

09:12 am August 28, 2019

Above the words used, it seems important to me to have a collective understanding of the choosen  words.

For instance, when talking about what is a Scrum Master, we can refer to the Scrum Guide. Not so easy when talking about "Project Manager" or other titles.

Another issue could be to have a mix of comparable wording. Are "Daily Scrum"; Daily meeting"; "Daily stand up" ; "Daily planning" the same for us ?

When talking about Backlog, do we mean Sprint or Product Backlog ?

07:51 pm August 28, 2019

@Ian Mitchell, Personally, I can live with the terminology (semantics) people use because I can understand what they are intending to communicate. Also, you're right, it may not impact the actual delivery of value.

However, certain changes were made in the Scrum guide, for example, Backlog Grooming vs Backlog Refinement.

I am not even sure how this got associated with Scrum, it is almost interchangeably used; Scrum Events vs Scrum Ceremonies.

So does the semantics really not matter? or could it have some value in understanding the why?

PS: I am not trying to be the Scrum Police, this is more educational and to understand things from a different perspective.

08:24 pm August 28, 2019

So does the semantics really not matter?

The semantics does matter, because teams very often do not deliver finished work every iteration and release it to empirically inspect and adapt. They are yet to master agile practice. Until they do, great care must be taken about what Scrum words mean, because it is a vocabulary which describes change.

08:45 pm August 28, 2019

Do you think that the lack of a common language affects transparency? Take one example: Scrum is a framework, not a methodology. A methodology (or worse, process) can be described as a set of defined, prescriptive methods used to perform a task. A framework, on the other hand, can be thought of as a conceptual structure (essentially a set of structured boundaries) in which the team is otherwise free to move towards improvement based on experience. Does referring to Scrum as a "methodology" correlate with teams looking to Scrum to provide a recipe or a process, or are they able to clearly see the boundaries that Scrum provides, and how they can use it to improve the team's/organization's methodologies and processes? If the correlation exists, is it possible that the terminology is a contributor?

From an interpersonal standpoint, semantics can matter but so can presentation. If confronted with the terminology difference, rather than saying "Scrum isn't a process it's a framework and this is why," then it can sometimes be better to ensure that (a) you use the correct terminology and that (b) you guide them in understanding the underlying mechanisms of Scrum rather than immediately correcting them on the wording choice. The latter will usually evolve in time, especially if they think that they thought of it on their own. You can also ask them to clarify: sometimes when someone asks for my help with "Agile" I will ask them for specifics: "Sure! Do you mean your team's recent adoption of the Scrum framework, or are you referring to the tools we just bought for DevSecOps? Or the plan you had for better end-user engagement?"