Shared Vocabulary

Joe —  Tue 15-Dec-09 — Leave a comment
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I have found that if you want to change an organization, do not dismiss the importance of a shared vocabulary. These purposeful words can often turn out to be very simple ways to express complex concepts – concepts that represent a common understanding developed among the members of a team. Let me give an example.

Conscious-Competence-Matrix.png

This grid is often called the Conscious Competence Matrix. It describes the sequential states that exist in learning and mastering new ideas. As a quick summary, learning starts in the fourth quadrant (Q4), known as “I don’t know what I don’t know”, proceeding to “I know what I don’t know”, “I know what I know” and ends at Q1, “I don’t know what I know”.

I feel it is important for everyone on my team to understand this important concept and how it plays into their decision making and attitudes about knowledge acquisition. When I originally taught this, I consciously reiterated the Q1, Q2, Q3 and Q4 labels. For the next couple of weeks it felt like the time when I got that word of the day calendar and I tried to interject it into any conversation possible. Yes it is a little contrived, but it works.

After about a month I overheard someone say to a team member “This is a Q4 to Q3 problem. In order to reduce risk we need to focus on discovering what we don’t know as soon as possible and then we can figure out what we need to learn about all of these new Q3 items.”

How cool!

The key here is that the receiver of the message instantly recognized the complex concept with only one letter and one number. It was simple to communicate because they shared a simple vocabulary. Imagine how cumbersome it would have been to try and explain it without these labels.

And we all know that the simpler something is, the more likely it will be used.

Today’s Question:
Do you purposefully build a shared vocabulary or is it the natural byproduct of your work environment?

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Joe

Posts

  • http://www.andrewfuqua.com Andrew Fuqua

    Shared vocabulary is a SW Dev best practice espoused by extreme programming. So, yeah, we purposefully build a shared vocabulary, but that vocabulary centers around the business that we are modeling in SW. (Like E. Evans’ Domain Driven Design.)

    Outside of that, a shared vocabulary in my companies have developed as a byproduct, periodically punctuated by a few specific exceptions which are usually driven by some business initiative.

  • Joe

    Cool, I had completely forgotten about the Extreme Programming modeling of shared vocabulary. What was the intent of XP designers in doing that?

  • http://www.andrewfuqua.com Andrew Fuqua

    Shared vocabulary or a System Of Names helps programmers communicate with the stakeholders and with each other. Communicating with the subject matter experts is self explanatory. I’ll talk a little more about the programming side…

    It critical to have a common vocabulary when you have collective code ownership and pair programming. It also helps in the design of the software. To paraphrase William Wake in XP Explored, naming something well gives you power over it. Otherwise, no one will understand the code.

    This supports a larger concept: a system metaphor. Guide all development with a simple shared story of how the whole system works. A vision. An analogy. (e.g. “this program is like an assembly line in that it…”)

    This influences the design and if done well “future design changes will tend to follow a convergent path.”

  • http://forwhateverreason.net Tim

    I’ve found that my world works better when we allow these types of things to grow organically. Given, I’m working with a team in more of a support role, so we have different requirements. Still, I sense resistance to forcibly-introduced vocabulary. Perhaps it’s just my team, or maybe it’s my own hard-headedness. I just find that if you force it too much, you end up with jargon rather than vocabulary.

  • Joe

    Good point, Tim. You’ve definitely got to be careful and use it sparingly. I find it is better if reserved vocabulary is utilized more for abstract concepts.