Being Agile #2: Define Your Terms.

Words Matter. 


I have High Functioning Autism.  I was diagnosed last year at the age of 46.   I had spent the preceding 45 years wondering what the hell was wrong with every body and why they were all mental.  It came as something of a relief to realize that it was me that is bonkers, not them!  I see Autism as a super power, not a problem.  I think faster than many mere Neurotypical people, I can carry more concurrent thoughts than many Neurotypical people.  I can do this because my thought processes do not use idiom (figures of speech) they use the minimum literal language possible.  My conversations can seem blunt because I have absolutely no interest in visual cues (I try and act like I do, but I don’t think it comes across as very sincere).  I prefer conversations to use the minimum number of words to communicate the maximum about of meaning and not be cluttered with social cues because trying to understand them slows my thinking down.

In short: 

Say exactly what you mean and mean exactly what you say.  Please get to the point., I’ve got stuff to do!

(I’ll give you eye contact if you like, but that slows my thinking down because I have to guess when it is Neurotypical timing to look away, or blink, which is exhausting.  I also have to devote processing power to avoid being distracted by counting your eyelashes or suppressing the need to tell you exactly how different your ears are.)

My Neurodivergent perspective is almost always an exaggeration of the Neurotypical condition.  What matters to me, will probably make a difference to many others too.  I simply feel it more, particularly when the anxiety of adopting or learning about a new process or principle is involved.

Why Words Matter:


They affect the way we make meaning of the world and affect the way we think and feel.

  •  A study in the US explored the legislative behaviour of the US Congress, looking at the impact of text and context on chances of Bill making its way through Congress and actually being enacted.  In every case, a Bill that used clear unambiguous language in a clear context was more successful than one which relied on inference or abstract words.  (Nay, J.J.)
  • An Italian study explored the difference in the speed of cognition when presented with either an ambiguous instruction (using an idiom) or a clear instruction (literal) for the same task.  That study showed that those given the literal instruction reacted faster in all cases. (Cuccio et al.)
  • A Dutch study looked at the negative impact that people have to words which may be considered to be taboo, such as “moist”, or “crevice”.  Apparently the negative reaction is bigger if one is unfamiliar with the word.  Its also speculated that the actual structure of the word or its meaning can also have negative impacts on the users. (Thibodeau P.H.)

So it’s reasonable to conclude that Plain Speaking is more effective than ambiguous drivel.  It’s also reasonable to conclude that words that jar with people, either because of the way they sound, or their meaning are problematic when trying to get people to engage with a concept.

The words you choose can make life easier or harder.


Once a word is known and used regularly, take for example the word “signature.”  It’s commonly understood by the majority of people to be the thing you do on paper with a pen to show you have agreed to it.  Its unique to you.  My last employer used to use “digital signatures” on letters & policies – but they actually meant a “digital image of your signature”.  Meh.  It was hardly secure or legally valid!  The other “digital signature” that people are familiar with is when they give their “signature on a digital device“, when accepting a parcel from Royal Mail.  Which is farcical when you think about it, I don’t know about you, when I sign those things, I have resorted to some kind of flourish in the general direction of the device.

Now I’m wrestling with trying to enable people to understand a digital signature as something digital that uniquely identifies them as being who they say they are in a digital service and enables them to sign a legal document, effectively sealing a contract that could be worth millions of pounds.  Watching Users trying to make sense of that is gut wrenching.  People are trying to apply what they currently understand of digital signatures, which still relates to their pen, to a process that ultimately requires them to enter a code sent to them in a text message.  It is blowing their minds.

If we could call it something else, something without the legacy of meaning, life would be much easier.  Except we can’t because the law dictates that the document must be “signed” to be legally binding.  So Round and Round we go……

Using an existing word, with all its baggage  was observed in a film starring  Eddie Murphy: A Distinguished Gentleman.  The premise is that Murphy, a confidence trickster by trade,  realizes that he shares the same name as a recently deceased and much loved Caucasian Senator.  He decides to stand for Senate with no policies, and rely on the former Senator’s strap line: “Vote for the name you know.”  He even reuses the former senator’s campaign collateral.  He wins his seat without anyone seeing his face and then in true Hollywood style, every one lives happily ever after….. This is Name Gain – he gained because he shared a name and could use it to enable people to engage quickly and easily with his message.


Most people find literal terminology comforting. Take the marketing campaign of Ronseal, it was reassuring and left many people choosing Ronseal varnishes over others.  Why?   “Because it does exactly what it says on the tin.”

Remember Orange? (Now EE), they deliberately chose a brand name which was ambiguous to reduce customer anxiety relating to technological terminology, coincidentally it allowed the brand to diversify without needing to rebrand.  BT Cellnetyell_consignia_royal20mail became O2 in 8 years later, in 2002, because their name was holding their commercial success back.  The deliberate choice of ambiguous brand names at a time of massive technological change allowed the businesses to be flexible because their name did not define them.  The name bore no relation to anything to do with technology so….they had no preconceptions to undo, just a blank canvas to teach their users about their brand.

Royal Mail is and always will be the people who deliver the post.  The Group including ParcelForce, Royal Mail and the Post Office was rebranded as Consignia just after 2000, as the Government put in place to allow Royal Mail Group Plc to operate with more commercial independence – most like with an eye to privatization.  As far as I can tell, selling off the Royal insignia is quite a touchy subject.  So Consignia was the vague brand chosen to replace it.  Well the idea tanked and Consignia was abandoned in June 2002.  Why? Because the Royal Mail just is – it has meaning and legacy and tradition behind it and the public know exactly what it does.  Teaching the public the meaning of a nebulous term like Consignia would have taken a huge resource.  This time the name worked against the organisation.

Some names help the concept gain traction.  – Name Gain

Some names drain the concept of its potential. – Name Drain.

If you choose words which are commonly in use with well established meanings as a short hand for management processes in your organisation, then you should not be surprised if those processes loose their focus when they move from the niche group who are heavily invested in the idea and understand the purpose of the process, to the less invested and more complacent mainstream group who avoid  engaging with the purpose and process in order to skip to the common parlance meaning of the name you gave to the process.

For example, a really clever guy came up with a theory of learning to describe the range of the skills a learner needs to achieve their potential.  Its known as VAK – Visual Auditory and Kinaesthetic Learning. (Flemming, N.)  Instead of becoming a well understood theory, it became a misinterpreted excuse for avoiding learning anything.  (The Kinaesthetic element is not about moving around while you learn, it’s about learning in context, the movement is coincidentally related the context of the learning, not the end in itself.)  If you are curious about what the theory is actually about, you can find it here.

How does this relate to Agile?


There are three terms which immediately spring to mind as suffering from Name Drain:

Stand up:

The purpose, as far as I have been able to gather is for each team member to update the team on what they achieved yesterday and what they intend to achieve today and to share any issues which might prevent them from achieving their goals. 

Standing up is a device to keep the meeting short by making things uncomfortable and quite possibly has its origins in the confines of the space in small start up offices.  It would be hard to give it a short name, but I’m arguing that the instrumental nature of the word stand up does not lend itself to mainstream change management and take-up.  Do people fail to engage with the purpose because their lazy or possibly reptilian brain uses the dictionary definition to hang a rough interpretation of the purpose?

Show and Tell:

Isn’t that what kids do in their first few years of primary school? 

How does that construct affect the planning and preparation for what should be an important Sprint Review?

Are irreverent or affectionately ironic terms baking Name Drain into our processes?


This is a meeting to Reflect upon the past sprint and plan to adapt, learn and improve for the next sprint.  What impact do activities like “more of” and “what went well” have? This should be, as far as I can tell a Team Improvement Meeting.  Where the team looks for ways to improve, which might mean learning a lesson from the past, or it might mean trying something new.  This is actually Reflective Praxis, a concept I am very familiar with from my days as an Academic in Education.  Reflection is a concept which suffers from Name Drain. 

People conceptualise Reflection as being like looking into a mirror, and essentially a passive act.  Reflective Practice actually involves looking hard at what you did and applying concepts of Continuous Improvement so that improvements can be found and implemented.  It is the heart beat of making the team as agile as the services they develop.


Perhaps Name Drain may make the process of Being Agile harder for those who are “immigrants” in the Agile world.





4 thoughts on “Being Agile #2: Define Your Terms.

  1. Pingback: The power of words – think Ronseal | The Grinch Manifesto

  2. Pingback: Part Three, in which the market understood & the size of the sales problem is explored | The Grinch Manifesto

  3. Pingback: Being Agile: Cargo cults – Doing without Understanding. | Grinch Manifesto - Feel the Love

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