Do you speak Agile? A retrospective

2 December 2020

When you go abroad, do you try to learn the language spoken in the place you are visiting or is it too difficult, so you end up sticking to what you know — your own? In this project, it feels like we’re learning a new language, that of Agile as this methodology comes with its own set of terminology.

New words like ‘drums beats’, ‘ceremonies’, ‘discovery phase’, ‘alpha’, ‘hypotheses’, ‘user research’, ‘sprints’ and ‘ideation’. When we first talked about having a daily stand up… Rhod Gilbert sprang to mind! Luckily, we’re working in a supportive environment where the CDPS team is helping us understand not only the way of working, but the language too.

Amusing and confusing

The internal delivery teams meanwhile are sometimes amused by the terminology, usually being quite light-hearted with the different terms. One email we have had from one of the internal delivery team highlights this, ‘…just going through all the documents and using a dictionary to work out what some words mean’. When we had our internal delivery team kick-off meeting with the expert squad, the first thing they noticed was the language and how confusing it was. They were used to using a different method for service improvements and redesign and started trying to fit the Agile terminology into that process. Luckily, there is some similarity. But it is not always possible and where there is similarity in concept, the actual method and presentation may be different, and this can become confusing.

To become fluent, like all languages you need to use it as much as possible, knowing that while you’ll make mistakes, you’ll get better over time. Working as project managers we’re often the link between the external support and the internal delivery team. We need to translate the fluent speakers into plain language for the non-native speakers. Not being fluent ourselves means we can risk missing the meaning or the detail at times

As part of the expert squad team, we’ve been encouraged to be open about this and to challenge back to make sure we’re all on the same page.

Are you picking up the ‘lingo’?

We’re about 9 weeks into the project and are finding ourselves getting up to speed with the new ‘lingo’, using it with between ourselves and with the CDPS team. We’re trying not to use the language too much with our internal project teams right now instead finding our own plain language way of getting across what is needed and where we are. For example, we don’t talk about ‘ceremonies’ we have project meetings or catch-ups and we’re not saying we’re in ‘alpha phase’ but are thinking of possible solutions to improve the service.

Does the new ‘lingo’ matter?

So, does it matter that there is a new language associated with Agile? Well, we think it does. It can initially create a barrier between the service staff and the project team. If there is a little reticence already with a service team, then this barrier may not help motivate them to actively take part. That barrier could create alienation and those people that work in the service and who are crucial to the successful understanding of the situation, the creation of solutions that will work, and the implementation of change could tune out. So, in our minds there are two possible solutions. The first would be to teach them the new language of Agile. The second would be to dispense with the language altogether and to use plain language.

1. The first option involves spending time with the internal teams going through the processes for Agile in detail and probably including a translation tool or glossary of terminology. Going through the method with an internal team is a must, and we did this in our initial kick off meeting, but to get au fait with all the terminology takes a bit longer than an hour or so! Also, there’s the argument there will be another method for making service improvements that will come along in the not-too-distant future so why learn a new language only to have it replaced in a few years’ time with another one?

2. The second option is to ‘dump’ the technical language and stick with plain English. But then we asked ourselves, does learning a new language give us any advantages? We’re lucky that between us there are a few different languages spoken and when discussing this amongst ourselves we realised that learning a different language often gives us insights into another culture or way of looking at concepts. This adds to our creative ability and allows us to think about things in a slightly different way. So maybe the more we’re exposed to new language and concepts the more we increase our creative ability and ways of approaching problems or situations?

We’re really enjoying the project, the expert squad are patient, knowledgeable and very supportive, the internal delivery teams are actively engaged, the communications are excellent, and it’s a worthwhile area to focus on for helping service users. And the more we use the new Agile language the more it is becoming part of our language.

Approaching the issue of language

So, one lesson to take away from the project is to consider in advance of running a project how to approach the issue of language. Don’t shy away from the discussion with those involved in the project. It maybe that it’s decided to embrace the new terminology, or the decision could be to use plain language. Maybe do both and co-create your own glossary, going through the terminology used in Agile and asking the internal delivery team what words they wish to use.

The most important thing is that the concepts behind the language are explored and added to our library of ways to look at problems and improve services.

Blog post by:

Mandy Butcher — Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council

Nita Sparkes — Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council

Mark Sharwood — Torfaen County Borough Council

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