In their book, Mind Lines (2005), Hall and Bodenhamer observe that the more language veers from the sensory-based data from which it’s derived, the more “meta” and confusing it tends to become.
To abstract you must generalize, often deleting and distorting the underlying specifics that were ultimately the basis of your claims. (Image adapted from Hall & Bodenhamer.)
At best, abstraction can help explain complex ideas. Often, it’s a smokescreen. Either way, you make the listener work harder to make “sense” of what you’re saying. Hall and Bodenhamer give a fascinating example:
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
Confusing, isn’t it? It’s a passage from Orwell’s 1946 “Politics and the English Language.” It parodies academics for what Andreski (1972) later described as their defining feature: “pretentious and nebulous verbosity.” As he put it, academics “jargon-monger” in order to secure prestige (and tenure) with the least cost and mental effort to themselves.
Now, here is the passage Orwell was translating into “academic speak.” It’s actually Ecclesiastes 9:11 (KJV)! Note the amazing difference:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
The first passage, Orwell’s, is not only confusing, it’s as though the very life has been drained from it—it’s been “abstracted” away. An unfortunately common form of this vampirism is “nominalization,” the creation of imposter nouns or adjectives.
Nominalizing is the act of taking an action or process, stripping it of its movement, and treating it as frozen in time (Freeth, 2016). This is often done by adding a suffix, such as “ity,” “tion,” or “ism.” A famous example from NLP is the word “relationship.” A relationship is not a concrete thing—it’s something people are DOING and FEEL.
As Sword (2012) writes for The New York Times, nominalizations should be considered “zombie nouns.” They’re formed by cannibalizing other parts of speech and are themselves sort of…“undead.” Lawyers, academics, and bureaucrats love them, she notes.
They enable people to sound smart without saying much or sharing actual details. She offers her own example:
The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.
This single sentence sounds lofty. It contains seven(!) nominalizations, but notice it never states exactly WHO is doing WHAT—and that’s the point. It lacks what matters. (And yes, the word “nominalization” is itself a nominalization.)
The classic “test” from The Structure of Magic is to ask if you could, at least in principle, place the “noun” in a wheelbarrow (Bander & Grinder, 1975). If you can’t, it’s likely a zombie noun, and you should want to get more specific.
Interesting, isn’t it? When you use vague terms like “value,” “customer,” “productivity,” “outcome,” or “strategy,” you leave things open and abstracted. People can and will attach myriad meanings to what you say. The result is often what I call “illusory alignment.”
In general, the vaguer the term, the more listeners must HALLUCINATE what you likely mean. They’ll do this, of course, by substituting their OWN meanings and assumptions; but, that’s not dialogue—it’s projection. It’s like a famous exchange in A Night at the Opera. Groucho tells Chico about the sanity clause in his contract. Chico laughs. “…you can’t fool me,” he says. “There ain’t no Sanity Clause!” They think they’re having a conversation when they’re really talking about completely different things.
Don’t think this is always accidental. Like politicians, executives LOVE them some zombie nouns, almost as much as they love metaphors. They sometimes prefer to make their statements without sharing many actual details. This frequently works against them, by the way. As Michael Grinder (2009) notes, when executives make statements that don’t divulge real information, when what they say are things employees already know, employee trust in executives GOES DOWN. It feels like manipulation.
Consider some common executive speak: “We will increase innovation and market disruption to escalate value….” “By being both agile and customer-focused….” What does that MEAN? If you thought, “Nothing really,” you’re correct. (For kicks and giggles, check out Wardley’s business strategy generator, where you can click on the screen to generate random nonsense business strategy statements.)
Returning to the title for today’s post…. Can we finally admit it? AGILE IS A ZOMBIE NOUN. And it’s a particularly troublesome one at that. As with any zombie noun, the Devil is in the details. Consider, for example, the sad fact that what most executives think “agile” means (and pay consultants big dollars for) is what most agile experts call “fake agile.”
The abstractness of the term is not lost on all the Manifesto coauthors. As Dave Thomas (2012) has complained, “forming an industry group around the four values always struck me as creating a trade union for people who breathe.” As he puts it, saying you need to “do agile right” makes as much sense as saying you need to “do orange right.”
His solution though doesn’t help. As he famously put it, “agile is dead, long live agility.” Notice this ignores that “agility” is just another nominalization! To get out of the “wheelbarrow” above, to return from the lifeless land of the undead, you must start DEFINING YOUR TERMS in sensory-specific ways.
Stop talking like a bureaucrat and start sharing actual details—WHO, specifically, will be doing WHAT, specifically? HOW does one increase agility? Well, according to the Manifesto, agile is about software product teams. Increasing their agility is to increase their ability to pivot, their freedom of choice, their decision authority. And how, specifically, do you do this?
The Devil is in the details. You can agree to use the same vague words as other people. Big whoop. The power lies with who gets to define what they actually mean for your org.
Andreski, S. (1972). Social sciences as sorcery. London, UK: Andre Deutsch Limited.
Bandler, R. & Grinder, J. (1975). The structure of magic I: A book about language and therapy. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, Inc.
Freeth, P. (2016). Coaching excellence: Move beyond coaching models and learn to create powerful change. Birmingham: CGW Publishing.
Grinder, M. (2009). The elusive obvious: The science of non-verbal communication (3rd ed.). Battle Ground, WA: Michael Grinder & Associates.
Hall, M. L. & Bodenhamer, B. G. (2005). Mind lines: Lines for changing minds (5th ed.). Clifton, CO: NSP: Neuro-Semantics Publications.
Sword, H. (2012). Zombie nouns. The New York Times. Retrieved on January 23, 2020 from: https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/zombie-nouns/?ref=global-home.
Thomas, D. (2014). Agile is dead (long live agility). Pragdave. Retrieved on January 27, 2020 from: https://pragdave.me/blog/2014/03/04/time-to-kill-agile.html.
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