Thursday, July 7, 2022

How Equivocation destroys Agile

"Scrum engages groups of people who collectively have all the skills and expertise to do the work and share or acquire such skills as needed" - What does that even mean?

This is just a door-opener for one of many equivocation fallacies which are destroying the entire "Agile" space. Let's dig into it.


We're talking about "equivocation" when a term is used in multiple inconsistent ways, which thereby invokes false images in the minds of the audience. A simple example of how quickly this can get out of hand: "White Supremacy is racism. Since the White House is also White, it's also a sign of insitutional racism." - it's clear that the term "White" means two different things (in one case, a mindset - in the other, a description), but it's already hard to get the thought out of our heads.

Equivocations in the "Agile" space are much more subtle, thus harder to spot, but potentially no less damaging. So, let's get into some of the equivocations that are permeating "Agile." (and I purposefully don't dig into how "Agile" itself doesn't have a single definition people would agree on)


Based on Investopedia, "A customer is an individual or business that purchases another company's goods or services. Customers are important because they drive revenues; without them, businesses cannot continue to exist."

And yet, we have this concept of "internal customers" popping up left and right.

The first Agile Principle reads, "Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software." So, every Agile team needs a customer - and who's that customer for most agile teams? Well, they deliver Business Support Systems, so they say that "Business is our customer!" - circular logic based on the Investopedia definition: the business is important, because without it, the business can't continue to exist. Does that make sense?

It doesn't even end there: Modern software is complex. In larger companies, we often see platform teams building platforms that other teams work on. These say, "The other development teams are our customer!" - how much more profit would we make when we get more and more development teams asking for services from our platform team while nothing in our company's relationship with the open market changes?

To quote Wikipedia, "Leading authors in management and marketing, like Peter Drucker, Philip Kotler, W. Edwards Deming, etc., have not used the term "internal customer" in their works. They consider the "customer" as a very specific role in society which represents a crucial part in the relationship between the demand and the supply. Some of the most important characteristics of any customer are that: any customer is never in a subordination line with any supplier; any customer has equal positions with the supplier within negotiations, and any customer can accept or reject any offer for a service or a product."

The equivocation fallacy is a dual use of the word "customer," in one sense meaning "entity on whom a business depends as a source of revenue" - and in another sense meaning "entity consuming the outcomes of the work done by a group of people.

Why is that a problem? Demand.
When interacting with the open market, we would like to maximize demand - that is, we would like to have more customers constantly requesting more of our product, and more features from our product - to get them addicted for more, more and more. That enables growth, and makes our company sustainable.
On the other hand, internal demand is undesirable, because it diverts resources away from serving the real customer: internal entity A doing work for internal entity B means that B must spend time with A, which B doesn't have for the customer - and A must spend time to do something for B. That costs money. This money isn't profit any more, and the time B spends with A is profit not generated: internal demand costs twice. We therefore would like to minimize internal demand.
Equivocating "customers" to include both internal and external people opens the doors for a destructive game: maximizing internal demand. It makes internal service teams feel good about themselves and their work, while the inner proceedings bleed the company dry of critical resources.

By clearly differentiating between "customers" as "those who will determine whether they will pay for what we do" and "consumers" as "those who need what we do," we avoid this pitfall.

We won't go as deeply into other equivocation fallacies - just teasing what they are, and the damage that they're doing.


I chose that little quote from the Scrum Guide as an opener on purpose, because we hear very often that "developers are the experts, trust them."

The equivocation fallacy: Scrum requires developers to be experts in order to function properly. Many Scrum folks argue that being a developer means they're an expert.

This harms the developers when they don't get the support they would sorely need, and it harms the company when the team doesn't perform properly.


Actual Owners, according to Investopedia, are "a person or entity that receives the benefits of ownership." (emphasis added)
However, when you look at Scrum's Product Owner - how often are these individuals the real beneficiaries of the stuff they allegedly "own?" They have a bunch of accountabilities and responsibilities, but rarely own anything.

The equivocation? "Being a beneficiary of" and "Being accountable for."

The consequence?
While on the one hand, an owner can do whatever they please with their property, they tend to have a self-interest in maximizing their benefits. Without this self-interest, an Owner can merely minimize the effort they have to put into whatever they are supposed to "own."
Similar things apply to other forms of "Ownership" - process ownership, code ownership, system ownership or anything else: let people reap the benefits of whatever they're supposed to own, or it's going to backfire.


Investopedia defines "Value" as "the monetary, material, or assessed worth of an asset, good, or service." In the "Agile" space, however, there's a notion that a Product Increment is the value produced by the team
That's a confusion of cause and effect: If the Product Increment has value, then the team has produced value. But merely because the team has produced an increment, it doesn't mean it is value - it could be that it actually has a negative value.


Not specifically an issue of "Agile," more a confusion in the entire IT industry - "value added activity" is an activity that increases the value of a product or service. Analysis, design, documentation, testing and support do not create any assets. They are therefore "non-value-added activity."
The equivocation in software development is that all these activities are also value-adding, since they're contributing to the creation of value.
Careful: Just because an activity is non-value-adding, that doesn't mean it's not required. It just means it's not increasing the value

Think of it like this: If you do more of activity X, does the company's total value go up? If not, then X is a non-value adding activity.

The issue?
We would like to maximize our share of value-added activity, and minimize our share of non-value-added activity. By equivocating, for example, testing, to be a value-added activity, we paint a picture that testing is something we should do more of, because hey, it creates value. No. It doesn't: It's an activity necessary to create and maintain value, but all other things equal, more testing doesn't mean we're delivering more value.

Value Stream

One of the latest fads that came up with SAFe is the "value stream." It's been around since the early days of Lean (although the concept was already used by Henry Ford around a century ago.)
Yet, if you'd ask how SAFe's "Development Value Stream" is different from a Software Development Lifecycle Process, people might not know how to answer - "Isn't a value stream just a high level process?"

That's the equivocation fallacy of value streams: Whereas a value stream is defined as "the set of value-added activities between customer need and realization of value by the customer"- when we modify the meaning of "customer," "value" and "value-add," then it is nothing other than a process.

The problem?
Clearly optimized value streams are make-or-break for the success of any business. Everything is subject to an organization's core value streams. Processes need to optimize around them. When we can't discriminate the two any more and locally optimize a support process at the expense of our actual value stream, we endanger the whole company.

Closing remarks

Equivocations make improvement difficult, because the thing we're talking about may not be the thing we're talking about. Let's get clear first what we really mean when we're talking about something, remove the equivocation, find a proper label that means what it says - and improve on the things that are hidden in plain sight by using the wrong words.


  1. Having years, literally, of writing under my own name about language abuse in business discussions, I am simply riveted to your article here, curious about what triggered it now, and for the next 24 hours you have Most Favored Nation status in my head. -- Malcolm Ryder, on LinkedIn

  2. In the world of commentary, that one above should be framed.

    Thank you for this article. It's thought provoking and I believe a worthy topic with those who fancy transformation activities (such as myself). -- EJ Henson

  3. It's a good article and you've kick started some discussion that really need to be had and rarely are. The customer one especially. That one is WAY more complex and nuanced however. For a decent treatment I think you need to go much deeper. When I studied marketing, we were taught that there were at least 5 or 6 people involved in many purchases (who wants it, who finds it, who agrees to it, who orders it, who pays for it, who consumes it, who disposes of it, all can be completely different people! Which one is the customer??). You could also go into the difference between customer and consumer (kind of related to the previous point but not always), the difference between paying for things with money (commercial software) and paying for things with non-monetary things (e.g. social media, which we do pay for but with our time and data / privacy instead of money). Just the customer equivocation could / should be a 2000 word article in itself. Maybe I will write one! :)