Agile Adoption: Language Matters – Clarity And Context Is Key To Reducing Complexity

Agile Adoption: Language Matters – Clarity And Context Is Key To Reducing Complexity

Insights | 13 September 2016

It’s easy to hate jargon. Who hasn’t chuckled at some point at the caricature of the person in the office who is always taking things “offline”, addressing the “elephant in the room” or sticking metaphorical “pins” in things to be considered later?

But there are different kinds of jargon. Some jargon can be highly inclusive. To know it means you are an insider. You are part of a team with a unique culture. Sometimes it helps us work faster and explain concepts more quickly.

Perhaps a better word for this so-called “good jargon” is “shared language.” Without a basic set of common assumptions about what we say and what we mean when we say it, communication easily breaks down.

For PMOs seeking the competitive advantage that is greater business agility, paying attention to how your team uses language can be like uncovering a hidden asset.

Effective communication can be a powerful driver of business agility, according to research by consulting firm McKinsey & Company. They analysed surveys of more than two million respondents and 1,000 companies to see what factors made businesses better able to cope with the speed of change and innovation needed to compete today. Highly agile companies earned high marks in three highly communications-heavy management practices:

  • Top-down innovation
  • Capturing external ideas
  • Knowledge sharing

So how can you better leverage shared language to articulate a project’s vision into the kind of concrete reality that motivates people to do their best work?

Seek Balance

The first step is to make sure everyone on the team understands the jargon or language that will be employed throughout the project and to ensure no one is using jargon — even if understood — to make simple things more complex. If you can say something simply, it’s always best to do so. And not just to your team. PMOs and team leaders may need gentle reminders to keep clarity at the forefront of all their communication. In our “PMO Trends Report 2015: Adaptive Challenges and Opportunities” executives specifically asked for better business insights and forward-looking lead indicators from PMOs in “non-technical jargon.”

Context is Critical

A new, high-profile project is not the place to start introducing a lot of new jargon to your team. One popular misconception about highly agile companies is that stability hurts and speed wins. Not so says McKinsey researchers. Companies that were successful in combining speed with stability had better organisational health scores than those who could not pull off this combination. “…[P]art of what makes agile companies special is their ability to balance fast action and rapid change, on the one hand, with organisational clarity, stability, and structure, on the other.”

When introducing new concepts, be sure to explain clearly what will and will not change, and detail exactly how the project fits into the absolute bedrock of your corporate culture and goals. If it’s not possible to articulate this in a shared language that every level of the team can understand, it might be a strong signal to reassess your approach.

Know Your Audience

When the communications stakes are particularly high, such as when integrating agile methods or elements into blended environments, it pays to be particularly watchful of language. If people are using variations in jargon or presenting information in a way that alienates or frustrates their audience, it’s unlikely to lead to project success. Simply put, people are more likely to resist or become overwhelmed if they are bombarded with terminology they don’t understand.

Leaders Go First

A key goal for all leaders is to make sure, again, that everyone is on the same page language-wise. The worst possible outcome is for a highly trained and trusted team member to fail on a project and then come to you, utterly confused, saying, “But I thought this is what you asked for!”. It’s incumbent that the leaders in an organisation in a state of change be “honest, forthright and direct with their employees and communicate with greater frequency,” according to research from The Economist.

Plan Ahead and Support Often

Deciding upon what terms will form the basis of a project and its communications may seem like a bit of planning overkill, but it’s never wasted effort to think through not just what you plan to communicate to the team, but the language you will use to do it. And remember, the newer the material, the greater the need for support.

Authors Hassan Hajjdiab and Al Shaima Taleb of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at Abu Dhabi University recommend teams learning agile concepts for the first time should focus on:

  • Extra training, coaching and “championing”
  • Cross-team validation of the new practices
  • Assessing “agility in terms of agile values”

So, less about terms and definitions, and more about values and validation.

Assume Nothing

Richard Branson, the incredibly successful British entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin brand, has famously copped to not knowing the difference between net and gross profits until someone in a corporate boardroom sketched it out on a piece of paper for him. Not everyone on your team is going to be this open about a knowledge gap, if at all.

Ensure every possible acronym or “term of art” (words or phrases where the meaning is very specific to a profession) is explained in full somewhere where the team can access it privately, such as a wiki or as an appendix to a presentation. You may inspire many silent thank yous.

In all, taking proactive steps to make sure your language and approach is pushing everyone ahead, not leaving them mired in confusion, is how to create a team language that will be a business asset now and in the future.

For more information on scaling agile for business agility, general advice on agile adoption, or more information on our agile coaching and/or certified workshops, phone us today on +65 6818 5771.

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