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Mind Your Language (If You Want to be Agile)

October 7, 2019

There are four key words in the first value of the Agile Manifesto:

Individuals and their interactions over processes and tools

Most of us can spend countless hours debating the value of focusing on people and the dangers related to focusing on processes and tools.

Interestingly, in our debates we seem to be oblivious to the reference to interactions and what it truly means to social and tribal animals as we, humans, are. It seems to be an almost-superfluous addition to the value. However, its place there is fully justified.

We often describe these interactions as the way we collaborate, the bonds we create and the relationships we establish. Those are the obvious ones. Interactions also cover the hopes and dreams we share, our common goals, our fears, the taboos that shall not be talked about, our values and beliefs, the way we communicate and, because of that, the language we use.

I think we often do rather poorly with these more elusive and intangible ones.

The Organisational Iceberg showing how companies struggle when the visible formal system (what we do) and their invisible informal system (what we are) become misaligned

Why does language matter?

In ‘Opening minds’, A. Neus and P. Scherf defined the Culture of an organisation as follows:

Culture is a complex system of shared beliefs, values, language, customs, behaviors, and artifacts that the members of a group use to cope with their environment and with one another.

So language is a core aspect of what constitutes your culture and, as Peter Drucker said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Failing to understand and address the culture of the organisation is a significant cause for failure in Agile Transformations.

Why is this? First of all, because transformations are often of such magnitude that they are likely to fail. We naïvely believe that Agile is just going to work, but fail to consider what a monumental task it is to shift a massive iceberg such as our organisational culture. So, we end up touching the surface only. In effect, we limit our activities to changing the processes (picking a method), roles (new job titles) and tools. Exactly what the manifesto advises us not to do.

Secondly, it is because we don’t tackle the cultural aspects (*) that we struggle to achieve a long-lasting change. And in this, I place a lot of emphasis to the language we use.

(*) We may do this in parts of the organisation (such as delivery teams) and that’s likely to create local optimas, but that’s a different blog post…

Change the language

By now, it should be clear that Agility is a mindset. A mindset that is required (yes, required!) for working in complex systems such as knowledge work is.

By continuing to use the language of more traditional ways of working, we are sustaining the culture that is associated to it and we must end this now if we want to have a chance to succeed.

Sticker: "we are people. not resources"Every time we use the word resource to refer to people. Every time we refer to being on time, on cost or on scope rather that focusing on their equivalent principles for complexity of flow, value and fitness-for-purpose. Every time we pretend to have knowledge and certainty rather than embracing uncertainty and seeking learning. Every time we use the established terms, we are reinforcing the existing culture and, quite literally, destroying the emergence of an agile culture in your organisation.

So, what can we do? Using the Kanban change management principles, I propose to start with something along these lines:

  1. Start where you are now. So, carefully look at and understand the language you, and people around you, use. I recommend you organise a “language retrospective” to seriously consider the language and terminology you use. Inspect and adapt, right?
  2. Gain agreement to pursue improvement through evolutionary change. Redefining what language is aligned to what we want to be and what language needs to go can generate a fairly substantial conversation. Changing language can be a pretty radical and difficult thing to do. So, get some clarity about what language you all agree with and then slowly work towards developing the habit and practice of using that language. The first step can be a big change, but as Pawel Brodzinski suggests, a radical change can be the right thing to do.
  3. Encourage acts of leadership at all levels. This includes each one of us. What are we waiting for? Change starts with us (me!). If we want the world to change around us, then we shouldn’t wait for others to do it. We must be the first ones that show what is possible.

So, that’s it. Mind your language and make sure you are using terminology that is aligned and respects the mindset that you want to see emerging around you.

Words have the power to shape reality (quoting Emmi Itäranta)

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