I had a conversation today that many of you have probably had a t some time. Not necessarily this conversation but one that is a parallel experience.

I overheard a discussion that had a Tester talking to a new Developer in our company. The conversation included “we work with fixed scope projects”. That statement made my ears open up and my response centre kick into gear. So I challenged my colleague on his statement. His response – “we know what that means here, we use it in a general sense”. I couldn’t leave it here, I was still curious and also wondering if maybe I could make him think a little differently.

I ask “which of those words do we use in a general sense?”.  The response “Well you know, we all know what it means”. “I’m not sure I do. My understanding of fixed means it is locked down. My understanding of scope is what we intend to develop. To me that means our projects do not change scope, at all, from start to completion. Can you remember one of those?” It turns out my colleague really couldn’t recall a project fitting that profile. So I asked again why we would use language that doesn’t reflect reality. Again I get the response “but we all know what it really means”.

My colleague has a mortgage on his house (like most of us). I asked him if he was to fix his home loan rate would he see that as having a specific meaning or a generally understood meaning. Would he be OK if the bank decided to increase his interest rate above the fixed rate because they believed fixed was generally understood to mean the rate could move? Suddenly there is a change in the meaning of fixed, “No I wouldn’t be OK with that, it’s fixed”. “So does fixed have a different meaning between the two contexts?” I ask. “Not that I can think of” comes the response.


Then my colleague offers up the following. “So what we really have is current scope”. Mentally I punch the air. “Given that what we start with is not what we end up pushing out, current scope seems a fair description”. The conversation finishes but I can see my colleague tossing the conversation through his mind. I’m happy because I’ve challenged someone to think differently. My colleague might decide, after further thought, that I’m full of crap. He might decide to reconsider other “things we all know what it means”.  I hope he does but that’s his choice.

When I do stuff like this I find it interesting. There are generally two kinds of reactions.

1 – this is cool, let’s discuss

2 – stop being so damned picky, you know what I mean

That second reaction annoys me a touch. If people want to take that path then it’s their choice. I’m all for choice so I’m not rallying against that. The annoyance is that “we all know what it means” causes endless problems in specifications. It causes needless error when people just assume a word means something because “it can only have one meaning”. There are ways and means of minimising this type of error, many seem adverse to listening  or reading attentively enough to enable questioning possible ambiguity or misconception. Perhaps others just don’t see this thinking and analysis as part of their job. Some years back I was leading a team of testers that really did not value the importance of clarifying statements, getting a deep rather than shallow understanding. I introduced a challenge – find ambiguities in the daily newspaper. We found some absolute classics, had a lot of fun doing it and reinforced how language can be quite deceptive. Suddenly (well not suddenly, over time) the group became better at finding areas of “weak understanding” because they were aware of what they might look like (we spoke about things other than ambiguity) and why they might be important.

It might “only be words” but those words carry meaning and they carry a cost.Not just dollars but reputation and client satisfaction.  Shallow understanding is easy “we all know that”, deep understanding requires work and effort, questioning, critical thinking. Anyone can paddle around in the shallow end. Be different.

Thanks for dropping by.