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Agilest Advice: Struggles and Vocabulary

BLOG NOTE: Dave Slaten is a Principal Consultant at Scrum Inc. Tom Bullock is our Chief Storyteller. Every now and then they talk shop in an effort to share the latest learnings and ideas from the field.

“Tom, this is Dave. I’m trying an experiment, my friend."

That is how the recording began. Dave Slaten is spending much of his time working with a client in London. So he decided to start an audio diary to document some of the learnings he captured on site. The first entry came with this key question:

“What’s the difference between an impediment and an interrupt?”

Think about that for a second. The answer may seem obvious to those of us well versed in Scrum. But is it?

Perhaps more importantly, how would you describe it to those new to Scrum in a way they could quickly grasp? 

Scrum has its own vocabulary. The list is not long, but it exists. This vocabulary, if used correctly, can increase both communication speed and efficiency. But Scrum specific words can also hinder communication between Scrum Teams and non-Scrum teams and become a barrier for those just learning the framework. Or as Dave put it, “We have a lot of vocabulary misses with this team.”

That’s where his audio diary picks up.


Dave has been launching teams for our client in London. “I have three operations teams that are up and running,” he explains, “and we’re trying to get a fourth team to figure out how and if Scrum will work for them.”

That team works in customer service for a global financial services firm. “They are the folks that get called on the telephone or sent an email whenever something isn't right for the client.” They are dedicated to maintaining a good relationship with each of the more than 1,000 clients in their individual portfolios. “I tried to get them started with a Daily Scrum. Let’s just see what it feels like to connect as a group for 10 or 15 minutes each day, sync up and find places that maybe we can help each other.”


Upfront, Dave noted the highly reactive nature of this team. So at their first Daily Scrum, he asked the Team Members for their impediments. “What I'm after,” he explained, “is anything preventing you from accomplishing what you need to accomplish today? And let's make that visible so that other people on the team can help out or we can get it raised through the escalation channels.”

But the team wasn’t making any impediments visible.

So Dave “went on a mission to try and craft a better question for this team in the Daily Scrum.”


Dave hypothesized that the problem centered around the perceived meaning of three words; Interrupt, Impediment, and Escalate.

Words that many Scrum practitioners easily understand, but new Team Members may not. As Dave sees it, “An interrupt is something that we couldn't plan for and it's genuinely not associated with the Sprint Goal.” Things like the production line are down or an emergency has occurred and we’re the only ones that can deal with it.

Whereas an Impediment is “something blocking me from going down the path that I need to go down in order to achieve my Sprint Goal.” Escalation is used when an impediment can’t be fixed by the team and so it needs to be made visible to those who can fix it.

But all of these words meant something different to the Scrum Team Members Dave was coaching. “They saw their Sprint Goal as clearing all the issues raised by their clients.” Something you want a customer service team to think for sure. But this view changed their understanding of the words impediment and interrupt.

If, for example, the phone rang with an important new request from someone other than a client. The Team saw this as “preventing me from removing the problems of the client that I was working on. Therefore that phone call is an impediment rather than an interrupt.”

As for the idea of escalation, Dave says “they saw this as something they did all day long. Raising questions or other issues up this flagpole and that. It was part of their regular process.”  Fair use of the word, but not one which fits with the general focus of escalation in Scrum.

Learning this, Dave changed the focus of the Daily Scrum questions to this: “Aside from your daily work list, Is there anything that you might need to escalate soon?”


“Well, the good news,” Dave states, “is we got the Daily Scrum down to 15 minutes and we added the caveat when we ask the question that the answer 'no' is perfectly acceptable.”

But that’s not the only gain from his experiment.

Context matters in just about everything. Scrum was designed to be an adaptable framework. Coaches and Trainers have to be as adaptable. As Dave puts it, “We have to be careful of working the correct vocabulary and phrasing into space where it achieves our objective without making them relearn words that are already ingrained in their culture. Where they have other meanings.”

When you find a gap in understanding, don’t be afraid to change up the vocabulary. To refactor questions. To even use the terms and names already in use. Labels don’t matter in Scrum, outcomes do. Don’t get hung up on a word.

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