Semantic Diffusion

Recently I was on a conference call with several Agile practitioners and the person who usually facilitates the meeting – let’s call him Peter – wasn’t able to be on the call that day. He asked another person to run the meeting for him. As the call got started, the person covering for Peter said, “Peter asked us to self-organize today so let’s get started”.

I winced just a tiny bit when I heard that. Was it necessarily wrong to use the term ‘self-organize’ in this context? Maybe not wrong, but it’s a good example of what Martin Fowler calls Semantic Diffusion. Martin says, “Semantic diffusion occurs when you have a word that is coined by a person or group, often with a pretty good definition, but then gets spread through the wider community in a way that weakens that definition. This weakening risks losing the definition entirely – and with it any usefulness to the term”.

I’m sure some of you might think, “Oh please, get over it. It’s just a word”. To that I say, it’s not just a word, it’s an important word, and an important concept as well. In fact, it’s so fundamental that it’s one of the 12 principles of the Agile Manifesto, “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.” A self-organzing team, when faced with a new challenge, figures out how to organize themselves and their work to accomplish the goal. There was no challenge and we weren’t architecting or designing anything. We were just having a simple meeting.

So I encourage you to use words carefully, lest they lose their important meanings.



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