The danger of some less-obvious buzzwords

It’s not new to say that buzzwords in the agile world exist and continue to grow.  We hear the words stand-up, demo, sprint, TDD, Scrum Master, Kanban, velocity, retrospective, and so on, everywhere, let alone the word agile itself.  

There are also ‘buzzimages’ in the agile world.  The most common I’ve found is the never ending arrow:

Any process, practice, methodology with that symbol must be agile and must be a winner!

These are examples of the obvious buzzwords.  These are the cliches in the agile world and the answers to questions like what do you think of when you hear the word agile?

There are a few others that are less obvious but they can be extremely dangerous in an agile transformation effort.  

I was scrolling through YouTube looking for an agile related talk to watch and came across an older man in the thumbnail of a video titled, ‘A Practical Approach to Agile’.   Now, I risk being accused of being prejudiced, but my immediate thought was the older man is probably a traditionalist and the video would actually encourage a lot of anti-agile patterns. I didn’t watch the video so I don’t know anything about him or its content. I wanted to understand why my reaction was the way it was.  I realised it was the word practical.  It’s a word I’ve heard used a lot to justify hesitation towards adopting true agile behaviours.

I’ve been in many situations where suggestions like establishing cross-functional teams, the usage of actionable metrics, and the crafting of tangible Sprint goals are knocked back with, ‘we need to apply agile practically’, or ‘we need to be realistic.’  

It’s difficult to argue with someone that says something needs to be done realistically and sensibly.  How can you argue that doing something unrealistic, illogical, and irrational is better?  You can’t.   The problem is, these are becoming buzzwords in the agile world to justify a company’s fear of progressing in its transformation.  Usually this results in very little change and very little benefit gained.  

Agile transformation will continuously challenge organisational norms and standards and very often will require difficult changes.  This is where the real challenge in a transformation effort comes, making difficult, sometimes radical changes.  It’s in those situations where these subtler buzzwords are used the most because it’s easier to resort back to old methods than it is to change. But frustratingly these words are being said more and more often with less and less evidence to support them.  The buzzword itself is enough to justify the decision and is rarely challenged.

So how do you work with these buzzwords?  Well, just as change targets (those who are changing to be more agile) have the right to challenge the louder buzzwords such as agile, scrum, sprint, and story points, an agile advocate has the right to challenge the quieter buzzwords.  When a change idea is turned down because it is not realistic, the real meaning of realistic should be questioned.

Buzzwords will always exist but it’s important to understand the meanings behind the buzzwords so that they can be justified.  If you suggest a development team work in sprints, do you really know why or is it because you’ve heard it’s a good idea?  And therefore, if a development team dismisses working in sprints because it’s not practical, does it really know why it’s not practical or is it just afraid of change?

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