The Gift of Time, the Relative Rule, and Clean

I bought The Gift of Time at Agile 2014 conference. It is a nifty tribute to Gerald Weinberg written by many of his admirers (Fiona Charles, James Bach, Michael Bolton, Esther Derby, Bob Glass, Naomi Karten, Tim Lister, Johanna Rothman, and Dani Weinberg) for his 75th birthday a few years back.

I read Michael Bolton’s chapter, called ‘It’s all Relative’ on the flight home and was amused to find here several references to Jerry famously using the reply ‘Compared to what?’ to search for more information from his interlocutors (to their great surprise).

Michael Bolton who at first was really surprised by this question, then came to realize its incredible usefulness, and created the aptly named Relative Rule:

A description of something intangible, as ‘X’, really means ‘X to some person at some time’.

In software, that rule can be applied to so many concepts; quality, purpose, done, tested, etc.

Having just presented on Clean Language at the Agile2014 conference, I mused that Jerry’s ‘compared to what?’ was a relatively ‘clean’ question – one extremely useful to software development field that can be used along with the standard clean questions from David Grove that I taught in my workshop.  In clean questions, we have the core questions  ‘(and) that’s X… like what?’  to get more information about a word. We also have ‘(and) what kind of… X is that X?’  Additionally, we have, ‘(and) is there anything else about X?’  There are other questions about size, location, resource, time, significance.  [X is a word or phrase, taken verbatim]

The notion in Clean Language is that you cannot assume to know the meaning someone else prescribes to a word, phrase or fact. Only the person who uses the word has the context/meaning of their word precisely.

The underpinning of the clean language mindset is that we don’t interpret words using the ‘generally accepted’ definitions of words in daily use, but rather inquire further using clean questions as to the nature of the meaning for the person using the word.  Of course in a software development setting, we couldn’t do this all the time nor to every word we encounter, but we can strategically apply it when there is ambiguity. (In the case of clean language therapy, the whole session would consist in fact of clean questions)

Next time I present this topic to a software development group, I will add Jerry’s question to the arsenal as a special clean question of Jerry’s.  And I’ll spend a bit more time talking about Jerry’s life work – summarized so nicely in ‘The Gift of Time’.

I did ask my audience at Agile2014 how many of the 60 attendees were /NOT/ familiar with Jerry Weinberg. I was stunned and really sad to see about 3/4 of the audience raise their hands.

Hopefully I gave my audience not only the gift of clean questions and listening, but an avenue to more exploration via my very brief mention of Jerry’s influence on me.  I certainly think sharing more about Jerry’s life and work could benefit the software development community greatly.  And I will certainly attempt next time – incorporating some clean questioning exercises for scenarios one might encounter at work.

P.S. And it isn’t altogether surprising, btw, that both Jerry Weinberg and David Grove (discoverer of Clean Questions) studied with Virginia Satir…. that line of influence still intrigues me.

Explore posts in the same categories: Clean Language, Conference

One Comment on “The Gift of Time, the Relative Rule, and Clean”


  1. […] I won’t dwell further here on the case for #NoProjects – Grant made the case quite well in his piece “What’s Wrong With the Project Approach?”. Maybe you’d like to consider the relative (dis)merits of “projects” – compared to what? […]

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