Agile Without the Lingo

by Jean Richardson, PMP

In the intervening weeks since I attended Rod Collins’ January educational and keynote presentations to the chapter, what I witnessed that evening has recurred to me several times.  It has caused me to think about what I have learned in working with executive Agile champions in a number of organizations over the last few years.  Many of them know the terminology native to the Agile movement, but many of them do not use it, especially with their peers.  One Vice President of Engineering at a local software company told me he finds he is able to make his point with his peers and business stakeholders much more easily and clearly without using the lingo.

Last June Jeff Oltmann and I made a presentation to the Chapter on the resonances between predictive and adaptive project management approaches.  We pointed to the Guide to Agile Practices on the Agile Alliance site to make the point about the overlap between predictive and adaptive approaches.  And, the October before, I edited an article written by our current newsletter director, Jim Ure, which was a critical analysis of the new Software Extension to the Project Management Body of Knowledge.  In that document the term “adaptive” was used to describe what many agilists refer to as Agile practices and methods for managing software projects.

For years now, I have spent most of my professional time working on the problems of and adoptions of Agile, launching and coaching Agile teams, coaching Agile managers and executives, coaching Scrum Masters and Product Owners, and turning around Agile projects.  There are distinct differences between the core Agile community and the kind of community I find at PMI meetings. 

A few weeks ago after a meeting of one of the local Agile communities, I found myself in conversation with a small group whose membership included the speaker, a young and brash technical practices coach who spoke on teambuilding, two highly accomplished Agile coaches from one of the largest organizations in the state, and a couple of project managers who had some exposure to Agile and wanted more.  Of course, the conversation turned to the evils of the PMI approach to managing projects and the virtues of all things Agile.  It was a meaty conversation.  I maintained that traditional and Agile approaches have something learn from each other.  Using the case of two conferences co-convened in the same location in Europe some time back, one of the Agile coaches described what happened when the attendees of a PMI conference encountered the attendees and topics of an Agile conference.  It wasn’t quite the Hatfield and McCoys, but it was amusing and uncomfortable.

I often ask myself why this has to be. 

In Rod Collins’ educational session, he challenged the attendees to create a team without creating a hierarchy.  He facilitated the session using the same approaches I’ve seen many facilitators in the Agile community use:  he walked among the tables as he talked; he insisted the attendees sit at roundtables facing each other; he moved into dialogue with the entire group; he focused them on a topic and encouraged small group report out, which creates community; he drew solutions from the tables in sequence; he used dot voting to rank proposed solutions.  I’m not sure he ever used the term Agile in the presentation.  He used the term adaptive frequently and lean less frequently.  In conversations that evening, it seemed to me that he was sensitive to the term Agile.  But his topic and style would have done any agilest proud.  And, even more notably, the topics ranked in the top 50% of the solutions after the dot voting was complete were strategies that agilists would use:  form small teams of 5 to 7; ensure cross-functional teams; allow teams to change local work processes without asking for permission, and so on.  And I don’t think anyone in the audience used the term “Agile” during the session, though some gave me winks and knowing looks as they proposed solutions.

Agile has been considered a fad, which is interesting for something with roots so deep in the history of product development and project management.  It’s like saying wearing shoes is a fad.  And the terminology has offended some.  “Pigs” and “chickens” are passe even in Agile communities, though I find many organizations that still use this terminology.  If it works for them, I don’t raise the issue.  The game-like approach to work is a groove that is hard for some to get into, and I can sympathize with that.  And some cultural assertions around the vanity of long-term prediction or the constant focus on human development in the work context and, in some quarters, cultural standards tantamount to true anarchy—well, those are a fistful of bitter pills for some.

I find myself talking with agilists about walking their talk around engaging failure for the sake of learning.  That’s not popular.  And I cry out for more thorough scholarship on agile, which PMI appears to be willing and interested to invest in if the conversations at the Education and Research conference last July here in Portland are anything to judge by.  Some agilists grimace at me—and not in a nice way—when I raise these issues.

As a member of this Chapter, it has been interesting to watch the interest in Agile catch fire and then see it inculcated in non-Agile terms—as evinced by that educational session in January.  I wonder if I would have grasped adaptive and predictive practices and be able to wield them as well as I do now without entering the Agile community at a time when the lingo was de rigeur and PMI was a no-go zone for agilists.  I don’t know.

But one thing is certain: I was darn proud of my colleagues in that room that night.  They created teams without creating hierarchies like a house on fire.


About the Author

Jean Richardson is the Agile Community of Practice Chapter Engagement Representative for the Portland, Oregon chapter of PMI.  She is also an agile coach and project management professional with more than 20 years’ experience with clients in the Portland metro area.  Her initial agile training, the Certified Scrum Master (CSM) credential, was provided by Ken Schwaber, one of the two developers of the Scrum framework.  You can read her blog on leadership, agile, and project management at and link with her at You can correspond with her at

See her recently published InfoQ article We Need No Less Than Pervasive Leadership describing an approach to leading that supports agility.



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