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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Naming Issue

Naming Issue post image

There is something I see over and over again whenever people are discussing different methods. I go here with very generic “method” label on purpose as I don’t want to limit this to agile and lean world only. People pay much attention to the choice of words when they describe their ideas.

Let me give you an example. Recent Al Shalloway’s post discussing MMFs starts with a distinction between MVP (Minimal Viable Product), MVF (Minimal Viable Feature), MMR (Minimal Marketable Release) and MMF (Minimal Marketable Feature). I don’t want to go into this discussion, but the simple fact people use all these different definitions proves that they really care about wording.

I’ve made similar observation listening to David Anderson describing why he chose specific terms to describe his concepts and what changes he’s going to make in his next publications.

I see this pattern even when people appreciate a specific choice of words someone used to share their message.

And I don’t get it.

OK, that’s not that simple. I understand why people pay so much attention to naming. They try to communicate their thoughts as precisely as possible. They try to describe their message in a detailed and clear way so everyone gets it. Cool. That’s perfect.

Yet still, I don’t get it.

Here’s why. I’m not a native speaker. I can communicate in English (or so I hope) and have even advanced discussions on subjects I’m interested in. At the same I don’t understand all the nuances of the language, something which likely comes totally effortlessly for natives. It basically means that, despite the effort of our thought leaders, I sometime just miss the point they addressed with putting so much attention to naming. It’s just lost in translation.

When we are on translation, well, the problem is even worse. Whenever I speak publicly or train in Polish (my native language) not only do I struggle with my (lack of) understanding of nuances of English language used in sources but also with translating the message precisely enough. Unfortunately vast majority of these nuances is hardly translatable which makes the situation pretty bad.

Of course I can’t say for every other language in the world but I wouldn’t say Polish language is that special, so my wild-ass guess would be that many others non-native English speakers face similar issue.

In such cases my solution is to use any name which seems sort of suitable but add a longer explanation. The name itself isn’t that important. What is important is the meaning people attach to it, which by the way, we have only that much control over.

And that is why I don’t really get this striving for perfection in naming.

I see the right explanation of whichever words we choose to use as way more important challenge. I can say capability, or throughput, or thingamajig. As long as people know what hides under the name it’s going to be fine.

This is by the way something I realized a couple of years ago on a session dedicated to translating Agile Manifesto to Polish. Even though probably we all understood the same values we found it really hard to put it into words of our native language in a way that was satisfactory to all involved.

My realization was: “Whatever. As long as people understand the values wording doesn’t matter that much.”

My appeal to thought leaders: whenever you are fine tuning the naming, remember that there are many people who just won’t get the difference. Good explanation is way better than good naming.

And we still suck at explaining even basic concepts.

You guys may think this whole translation thing is a non-issue and maybe for you that is correct. Remember though there are big parts of the world where English is neither the only nor the first language people use. It’s worth to remind about that from time to time. So I do.

in: communication, project management

9 comments… add one

  • Mark Kennaley February 20, 2012, 5:30 pm

    Your observations are very accurate.

    The problem we have is that everyone is attempting to compete and differentiate by using ever- changing labels and tags. This branding has until now been devoid of an underlying model that enables all this jargon to be integrated. That is until now. When one places these terms into the context of what part of the socio-technical system they realize, they become unambiguous. I have successfully identified the components of said socio-technical system and are now rallying folks who want to end all the name dropping for competitive gain. And this integration was not performed using inprecise blogware, tweetware bookware or the like. It was done in software – what a novel idea! If interested to learn more about the implications, check out http://www.fourth-medium.com/sdpa_demo.htm.


  • Josh Nankivel February 20, 2012, 6:19 pm

    Great points Pawel. I think this is why communicating concepts through visuals is so much more powerful than trying to put them into words alone. I think both are needed in order to do a good job. Because it’ s not just a language and translation issue… we all have our own subtle interpretations and associations with words.

    I did a training on Kanban a little while back, and instead of trying to put things into words, I just used a kanban board as my presentation. I mapped the value stream of my presentation and moved cards along with the points I wanted to talk through. And because I was actually demonstrating the concepts visually, (I hope) everyone who takes the training will understand Kanban concepts very well.


  • craig brown February 21, 2012, 2:28 am

    110% with you. I’d go so far as to say names are a distraction and impediment to true learning.

  • Derek Neighbors February 22, 2012, 1:07 pm

    It has very little to do with naming. It generally has to do with one of two things.

    1. Positioning. If you create the “category” you are in a significantly better position. So if you are coming to the game late. Tweaking and giving a new name helps you be the category leader. Minimum Viable Product already taken switch it to Minimum Marketable Feature with a few minor distinctions and voila.. You created the category, wrote the book. profited.

    2. Distinction. There is something fundamentally allergic about concepts in an existing name. To distance yourself from those concepts, a new name is mandatory (or changing the thought leaders of the current method). See Free Software vs Open Source Software as an example.

    I think #1 is silly and should be avoided. I think #2 has practical application, but probably falls short more often than not.

  • Pawel Brodzinski February 27, 2012, 2:38 pm

    @Derek – I still think there’s another one: trying to as accurate as possible. At least this is my interpretation of things in several situations. Sometimes you can’t just address naming issue to one or the other (see: David Anderson’s capability versus throughput).

    Anyway, reason doesn’t really matter as the effect is similar.

    You’re right however about one thing. If the motivation is profit-driven my rant is pointless as it addresses the wrong problem.

    I do have a bit more optimistic view of humanity and I believe most of the time it is beyond motivations you point. If that is true, I might help to set the focus right.

  • Derek Neighbors February 27, 2012, 4:06 pm

    The situation you are describing sounds like option 2. The person is worried about being as accurate as possible (perfect) because they are deathly afraid of there being misunderstood by the wrong word.

    I am not sure in all cases “profit” is the motivation, but I often think “ownership” is. I am not sure this is a negative view of humanity. As human’s we are often stupid in our behavior. We get over this by being exceedingly human and accepting our irrationality while learning how to overcome it for the greater good.

  • BobD_Austin March 9, 2012, 2:23 am

    Good post, Pawel.

    I think you are right that at least part of the motivation is accuracy (or maybe more accurately, precision … see, now I am doing it). But I think positioning, control, etc. is usually the dominant motivation. It is a very old concept that the right to name something implies ownership. Long ago I and my software development colleagues came up with a catch phrase to describe the “thought leaders” in our company who were trying th “build the brand”. “Whenever in doubt, create new terminology.” That may not have been fair, but it fit the evidence.

    On another note, as a non-native speaker of Polish (or really almost a non-speaker) I can identify with your struggles. And they are much worse with abbreviations. On the other hand, I have found that as a non-native reader, I often gain insights from the word roots or cognates from other languages that actually help me understand the distinctions being made … in some cases better than native speakers who take such linguistic constructs for granted.

    In any case, I am involved in the software localization business now, and would like to point out a further implication of this search for perfection. To the extent that the search results in an evolving set of terminology, the downstream translation efforts for all the places where the product 9or service) are supported should also be considered. You cited your experience with training, but consider it from the perspective of a multinational company trying to support users in many countries. In that situation the burden is not on the individual trainer, but on the content creator. Less creativity would be a welcome cost reduction approach.

  • Tobias Mayer April 8, 2012, 8:59 am

    This is a good post, and it helps me to understand the non-native English speaking perspective.

    I don’t think this word-challenging/changing is about accuracy though, and I hope it is not about “owning the new term”. That would just be sad. To me it is not even about the word itself, but what the word carries, as baggage from past use, if you like. In that sense I think I’m aligned with Derek’s #2 point here.

    When I challenge a term, like ‘training’ (as I did in my recent post) what I am challenging is the mindset around the word. Language does drive thinking, or perhaps more accurately it cripples thinking, hold ideas back in a place in which they may no longer belong. It is important to call that out when we see it.

    People may (probably will) continue to use the term “training” even after reading my post. But perhaps they’ll think more about what it is they do, and have different conversations with clients and participants around goals. Perhaps.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 9, 2012, 3:07 am

    @Tobias – The point I see in challenging terms, especially so widely used terms as “training,” is that it creates stir, thus makes people thinking more consciously about the meaning they attach to the terms. From this perspective your writing is both important and valuable.

    At the same time I find it a bit too radical, at least for me. I prefer to discuss the successful approach to reach people with agile concepts (for lack of a better words: ways of “coaching” them?) instead of debating the meaning on specific words.

    Personally I’m perfectly fine with your attitude toward “training” and even though I don’t share such strong feelings against any term I treat it as a good starting point for an important debate on how we introduce agile among different organizations.

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