What’s in a name?

Don’t worry, this post isn’t about Romeo and Juliet – it’s about the ongoing discussions around using the “A” word (Agile), whether the way a team works is Scrum, Scrumban or something else, and whether it really matters what we call it.

I can be a stickler about using words and phrases correctly, but I also know when I’m beaten. For example, “literally” means “in a literal or strict sense; really; actually” – it does not mean “figuratively”, the opposite of literally … except now it does because so many people have misused the word. It makes me literally makes me cry (no it doesn’t) but I know language evolves and so must I.

When it comes to a term like Agile, I wish people would learn its meaning and use it correctly but influential people (e.g. executives) and organisations (e.g. consultants) use it incorrectly, unfortunately people listen. When the people at the top of an organisation say “We are Agile” but clearly aren’t, who is brave enough to correct them? Especially as these tend to be large orgs that still rely on command and control to enforce the company line. But it’s not always the execs fooling themselves – often they have paid a lot of money to big name consultancies to advise them, but the consultants know they get repeat business by not rocking the boat, so they tell the execs what they want to hear. Just cross out some of the old department names and use the new SAFe names, you’ll be Agile; here’s my invoice.

Sadly there have been so many poor experiences with Agile (or should I say “Agile”) that people have become afraid of the word. At least once a week I see an article saying “Agile is dead” or “Don’t use the A word” because the term has been so abused. I’ve seen Agile coaches change their job title to “Change Agent” or “Organisational Improvement Coach” or even “Process Optimization Specialist”. The problem (well, one of the problems) is that you need to be inside an organisation to help it change, but if they shy away from the word Agile then how can you even start to be engaged? (Change your job title, I guess.)

Then we come to the Scrum Master role, which seems to be almost universally taken to mean “meeting organiser” and “impediment remover” – it’s no wonder many companies have removed the role when they see it like that. Even renaming it to “team coach” doesn’t really help because that’s seen as the manager’s remit… but how many managers have the skill and/or time to do that? Especially as the role of Delivery Manager seems to be on the rise, that sends the clear message that their focus is on Delivery, i.e. you will be measured on how many widgets your team can push out the door.

Words matter; titles matter; what you call something or someone indicates how well you understand and appreciate it/them.

Having said that, I’m now going to argue the opposite 🙂 Does it matter if the way a team works is called Scrum, Scrumban, or something else? To anyone outside the team, I would say it doesn’t – let the team find what works best for them, given the constraints and requirements placed on them. Within the team I believe it helps to know not only how you work together but where those concepts come from. If you’re on a team that says they do Scrum, then you should be able to look up Scrum and understand how the team works, in the same way that if they say they do trunk-based development then a quick Google and some reading should help comprehend that approach. The complication comes when they say “We do Scrum… but we don’t do retrospectives” (perish the thought!) or something like that, but even then an annotated diagram is probably enough to make that clear.

Does it matter what the team call it? To most people, I would say no; to the team, I’d say it’s more important to be clear about how you work (team working agreements, explicit policies, etc.) but using the correct names where applicable would also help.

To those consultants and organisations who insist on misusing Agile terms for their own benefit, I say “A plague on both your houses!” 😉