Orwell on Agile

In a previous post I discussed aspects of propaganda widely used in the Agile industry.

In this post, I’m going to cover what George Orwell thought were the leading causes of unclear, vague, and deceptive writing, and, even better, what his suggestions were to solve those issues.

In the book Politics and the English Language, Orwell related what he believed to be a close association between bad prose and oppressive ideology:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of […] bombs […] can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, […]

Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air […] this is called pacification.  Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

He then states, and to me this is the important part:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a [squid] spurting out ink.

So, the relation to agile is that there is a gap of insincerity between what the writer’s real aims are (to make money selling you agile services), and what their declared aims are (to “help you” with your “struggle”), they instinctively use cloudy language to cover the fact up, which Orwell likens to a cloud of ink shot out by an escaping squid.

This leads to the pile of meaningless virtue words (such as Agile itself), “refactor” for any amount of rework, etc. It also leads to a convoluted tangle of jargon words which exist only for obscurantist reasons. Examples — which I dub “Orwellian Notation” include “gemba, kanban, Theory of Constraints” etc.

To give an example of what he described, Orwell “translated” Ecclesiastes 9:11—

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.

—into “modern English of the worst sort,”

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.

So what is the solution? Orwell listed 6 suggestions.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

#5 is why I call words like “kanban” Orwellian Notation. There are english words to describe it, yet purposefully they avoid them.

It would definitely be a benefit to drop Orwellian Notation (aka newspeak) words from discussions about software, as well as to drop the propaganda techniques from Scrum and related (Kanban) marketing.

We want our software code itself to be clear and concise and understandable; so should our prose.


About postagilist

Architect, Manager, Developer, Musician, Post-Agile thought leader
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3 Responses to Orwell on Agile

  1. I agree on so many levels to this post. We should be using simple language. I saw recently the conflict of those that make a profit from selling versus the attitudes of embedded coaches. It was at that moment that I was incredibly proud to be embedded having my own organisation’s best interest at heart.

  2. Pingback: Should “Agile” methodolgies just be called “Lighweight” methodologies? | PostAgilist's Software Architecture Blog

  3. Pingback: #NoEstimates and all that | Post Agilist

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