Hello, I Am Agile – Words Matter

As the Agile movement has become mainstream, common vocabulary associated with the philosophy also has become mainstream. However, as more and more people use these words, their meaning appears to occasionally drift. This is a common occurrence in movements like Agile as people co-opt terms to appear in alignment with a philosophy without actually changing their approach and progressing beyond their prior beliefs.

But words are important, so let’s do a quick review of some of the most common misdefined or misappropriated words in Agile:

  • Scrum and Agile – Scrum is often confused or equated to Agile, but Agile is the superset and Scrum is the subset. Agile is a philosophy whose beliefs are espoused in the Agile Manifesto and its supporting principles. Meanwhile, Scrum is the most predominant Agile method in the marketplace today and is a framework for solving complex problems. Scrum supports the Agile values and principles, but is a single method. Agile is an umbrella term under which several methods can be found, including Scrum, Extreme Programming and Kanban.
  • Sprint – A sprint is a time box, 1 to 4 weeks in duration that leads to the development of a potentially releasable product increment. This goal, a slice of value that can potentially be released to users of the product, is what differentiates a sprint from simply an iteration. It is also why concepts like “Sprint 0” are not in alignment with Scrum. Since it does not produce a potentially releasable product increment, “Sprint 0” is not a sprint within Scrum.
  • Velocity – Velocity is the amount of work that a team can complete within a time box. It is used by the Scrum Team for planning purposes. It is relative to the team and should not be used to compare teams or to discuss the “productivity” of the team. Doing so leads to gaming, which in turn compromises the team’s ability to plan.
  • ScrumMaster – The ScrumMaster is a servant leader who is a master of the Scrum framework. Like the Chief Surgeon in a surgical unit, no one reports into the ScrumMaster. Instead, they use their knowledge of Scrum, as well as their neutrality, to coach the team, protect the team, and facilitate them through the Scrum process. The ScrumMaster’s team-based focus is just one of the factors that differentiates the role from that of a conventional project manager who is traditionally focused upward and outward within the organization.
  • Development Team – The Development Team under Scrum is not just comprised of software developers. It is a cross-functional group of people comprised of all of the specialties necessary to get the product to “Done.” This means that the Development Team can include technical writers, business analysts, quality assurance specialists, and people with any other specialized skills necessary to create a potentially releasable product increment.

Just as we learned early on in life, inappropriate definitions and/or applications of words can confuse, mislead, and even cause harm. Neophyte Agilists can damage the very teams and organizations that they seek to serve as they attempt to transform to a new way of working by not understanding the meaning behind a term. And then there are those who have no intention of adopting the new methodology, but need to create the appearance that they are, so they co-opt Agile terms, and just give their legacy methodology an Agile coat of paint.

Words matter, and realizing the benefits of Agile in general, and Scrum in particular, requires more than just giving the old way of doing things a new coat of paint.

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