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The power of words

The “agile” world seems to have devolved into a cloud of buzzwords and catch phrases. People repeat them without giving much thought to what the words might actually mean. They say things like passion and commit and fail, and they threaten to hold you accountable.

When agilists say these things, they understand one another perfectly well. They have internalized the deeper meaning of these “standard” agile buzzwords and catch phrases.

But it is not plain English. It is jargon.

What does a normal person hear, when the agilists speak their magical incantations?

The P word

What happens when you tell professionals they are expected to have passion for their work when their work consists of changing the same 5 paragraphs over and over again in a 35-year-old COBOL program; or shoe-horning else blocks into 15-year-old Java code in which the entire application is hard-coded in the no-arg constructor of a Spring-loaded bean; or responding to an endless series of disconnected, context-free requests for minor configuration tweaks in an instance of Parasoft, Siebel, PeopleSoft or similar; or manually copying data from a CICS screen into an Excel spreadsheet once a week?

Because that’s what the day job looks like in a large corporate IT environment. It looks nothing like a single-team start-up with the freedom to download whatever tools happen to strike their fancy; a team that controls their own delivery pipeline; a team that actually has access to their customers or users. It looks nothing like an idealized “agile” situation.

This is what happens when you tell people they’re expected to be passionate: They feel inadequate. They feel it’s impossible for them to muster up any “passion” for their work.

And here comes their friendly neighborhood agile coach, telling them (well, implying, anyway) that if they don’t have passion for their work, they’re a Bad Person. Agile requires passion. Agile demands passion. If you don’t have it, you’d better fake it, and fake it convincingly.

When you consider the implications of the English word, “passion,” you realize it’s far too large a word for one’s day job. People have passion for their family, their faith, their country. And that’s exactly as it should be.

So, if we don’t need passion at work, what do we need?

Interest.

Professionals ought to take enough interest in what they do for a living that they read about new developments in the industry; keep up with upgrades in their own tools; learn new programming languages, new testing skills, new automation tools; participate in (or start) internal communities of practice or lunch-and-learn series at their company; occasionally attend a local user group meeting. They ought to be interested enough to care about how their software is used, and whether it meets people’s needs.

If you’re interested in your work, then that venerable COBOL application becomes a laboratory for improving the design of the code; that hacked-up Java god class becomes a canvas where you can practice the art of refactoring; those third-party application platforms become challenges in achieving continuous delivery…puzzles to solve; that repetitive manual task becomes an opportunity for automation.

If your emotional attachment to your day job doesn’t rise to the level of passion, don’t worry about it. It’s okay. It only means you aren’t a lunatic. (At least, not for that reason.)

The C word

Every agilist knows that “agile” and “Scrum” are not just two words for the same thing. And yet, almost every agilist thinks about, talks about, and implements “agile” in terms of Scrum. Very few of them can even conceive of “agile” without Scrum.

And when they talk about agile, they almost always get around to saying that a Scrum team has to meet its Sprint commitments…or else.

That word, “commitment,” was removed from the Scrum Guide circa 2011. Jeff and Ken realized that people were taking the word literally, according to its plain English meaning. That isn’t what was intended. The misunderstanding was driving undesired behaviors.

In plain English, when you commit to something, it means you are going to set aside everything else in your life to achieve it. You will die in the attempt to meet your commitment, if it comes to that. It means, literally, that you elevate your work assigments above your own family, your own faith, your own country, and your own health. Anything short of that doesn’t qualify for the word, commitment.

People were doing that in the name of Scrum. People were suffering nervous breakdowns, divorce, and worse. At best, people were working unsustainable and unhealthy amounts of overtime. People started to hate their jobs. Word got around the IT industry that “agile” meant long hours and sweatshop working conditions. Word got around. Agile? Scrum? Just say “no.”

So Jeff and Ken modified the wording in the Scrum Guide to reflect what they had really intended all along. Teams forecast the amount of work they will be able to complete based on empirical observation of past delivery performance. It’s a forecast, not a commitment. It’s an approximation, not a promise. And no User Story is worth sacrificing your family, your health, or your sanity. Ever. Period.

Now, if only we can get all those agile coaches to stop saying it.

The F word

Agilists love to fail. When you challenge them on the subject, they say they really mean they love to learn, and they learn from failure. So you ask, do you fail a lot? And they reply, of course not! We use agile, and agile spells success! So you ask, how much are you learning, then? And they reply, what are you, some kind of asshole or something?

If people want to learn from the outcomes they achieve, why don’t they just say so? Can’t we learn from any outcome? Why does it have to be a “failure” outcome?

If you can ever get an agilist to keep talking to you after you’ve questioned their dogma, you can delve into these questions. When you do, ask them to define “failure.”

Expect a long-winded answer that almost, but not quite, addresses the question. In most cases I think you’ll discover “failure” means “the outcome was different from what we wanted.”

Well, doesn’t that play nicely into the agile notion of embracing change? It’s an outcome, but is it really “failure?”

I think not.

So, just continue learning from all your outcomes, as you did before the agile coach showed up.

The A word

Do the words accountable and responsible mean the same thing?

No.

Accountability is imposed on you by someone else. It’s a six-syllable word for “blame.” It’s a way to shift blame onto others for negative outcomes they don’t control, so someone can avoid the heat. That’s why it’s usually expressed as part of the phrase, “hold accountable.” Someone is accountable. Someone else does the “holding.”

The desire to hold teams accountable stems from a Tayloristic, Theory X mindset about employees.

Responsibility comes from within. It’s a normal part of being a professional. Responsibility keeps professionals focused on the achievement of goals, the satisfaction of stakeholders, and adherence to ethical standards and goverance requirements. It requires no effort on the part of managers.

The recognition that professionals will behave like professionals when they are treated as professionals stems from an agile, Theory Y mindset.

Responsibility is part of what Daniel Pink wrote about in Drive, when he named the key motivators of creative, professional people: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Take your pick.

Conclusion

In Genesis 1:3 it is written: And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

Words have power. Choose them mindfully.

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