Sometimes art is a metaphor and sometimes it is something else.


Clean Language’s pedigree is from psychotherapy and has found a home in coaching. It is also a valuable tool for discovering information about work products. As product managers, product owners, and stakeholders interact with the world and then describe a set of wants and needs they use metaphors. Metaphors are communication shortcuts that need to be explored. For example, product visions are often metaphor magnets. Most vision statements are considered internal and proprietary, therefore, they are hard to find (NDAs keep me from sharing the ones from companies I work with). Apple’s vision statement, according to Mission Statement Academy, is “We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products and that’s not changing.” If that statement was an input for building a product backlog there are several metaphors that would need to be explored so they can be converted into features and user stories. Clean Language is a way to get people to realize and describe what they know, what they think, how they feel while reducing bias in the results. Using clean language to identify and record requirements and needs follows the standard format for asking clean language questions with a few twists.

As we have noted earlier, the basic format for using clean questions is: 

  1. Acknowledge the speaker’s statement
  2. Use a joiner word (typically and or that)
  3. Direct their attention to a component of the metaphor
  4. Ask the question so they begin to examine the meaning of their metaphor.

When using clean language questions as a requirements definition tool, the focus needs to be on the product and how stakeholders interact with the product. I generally begin with sequence-related questions.  For example, part #4 in the format noted above can include:

  1. And what happens next? (thinking forward in time)
  2. And what happens just before X? (thing backward in time) 

Building out product attributes can leverage questions like:

  1. And where is …?
  2. And is there anything else about … ?

Each of the 20 or so standard clean language questions can be used to generate needs and requirements even though sequence and attribute questions are my go-to favorites. 

One of the interesting uses of clean questions as an assessment tool is that the questions can be used to identify the rules that the organization says it follows and the rules it really follows. Assessments often find a difference between espoused and practiced theories.

Clean language removes bias and removes egos from questions. They reflect back on the person talking about their needs and wants (from a product perspective in this case) exposing missed assumptions and ideas that weren’t considered.

Admonitions For Using Clean Language Questions For Requirements:

  1. Establish a safe place to explore what is needed.  No question is stupid.
  2. No one should feel bad if holes in the requirements are exposed that can not immediately be addressed (this is actually a win).
  3. If you find yourself giving advice or talking to fill in the gaps based on what you think the person you are talking to means . . . you are doing it wrong.
  4. As you gather data, you are assuming that the person answering the questions already knows how to fix their problem and just doesn’t know how to access that solution yet.
  5. Keep questions clean . . . consider a cheat sheet or script.
  6. Practice separating what’s observed from your opinions on the topic otherwise you are injecting your own bias.
  7. Most agile practitioners are not trained psychologists, counselors, or psychotherapists — don’t go there.

A request …

Jon M Quigley and I are getting ready to roll out a book club to discuss some of the classic books that framed the quality, lean and agile revolutions. How do you name a book club? We don’t have a clue and need your input. Can you answer two questions by Friday 14th February? It should take a minute or less.  

Questions? Let either Jon or me know!