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Why is the Agile community still calling you ‘chicken’?

If you’re part of the Agile community, chances are you’ve heard of ‘The Chicken and the Pig’. There’s been plenty of criticism of the business fable which many see as irrelevant in web development today. But the reality is that pigs-and-chicken thinking still goes on in our industry. 

If you’ve somehow escaped ‘The Chicken and the Pig’ fable, congratulations! The story goes that a chicken approaches a pig about opening a restaurant called ‘Ham and Eggs’. The pig turns down the offer saying that, with its ‘bacon’ on the line, it would be committed in this initiative, whereas the chicken would merely be involved.

The story – which was once included in the scrum framework – is used to explain the differing levels of stakeholders participating in a project. At a first look, it seems like a fairly innocuous and effective way of illustrating the difference between commitment and involvement in the context of scrum, which is the framework we often find most effective for our own projects here at Inviqa.

Image by Yanado

For a scrum project, the product owner, the scrum master, and development team are considered people committed to the project, while customers and executive management are considered involved. Understanding the difference can be useful in determining how the team is organised and agreeing effective processes.

But all too often the story becomes a divider between developers and managers. It creates a ‘them and us’ mentality. Across my substantial years of web development experience, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a snippet of conversation with this coded message: ‘You don’t really understand, because you’re a chicken. Your ideas are not really valuable or credible, because you’re not as essential or as committed or as valuable as a pig (like me)’. 

Of course, those conversations weren’t always intended to convey that message. But for all you neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) fans out there, ‘the meaning of your communication is the response you get’. And the response from the belittled manager, in this case (though probably unsaid), is: ‘You think you’re more important than me, so I guess we’re not really on the same team’.

Many people before me have explored the toxic connotations of the pigs-and-chickens metaphor, but for me it boils down to an issue of respect (or lack of). Because if pigs-and-chicken thinking is used to disparage the viewpoint of managers (and other ‘chickens’), it’s both disrespectful and unhelpful. 

I like to think of this ‘respect’ issue in the context of another Agile construct: self-organised teams. Without going too deeply into a subject that is ripe for a future blog (I’ll get round to that one day) one central theme in highly-effective, self-organised teams is the notion that job titles become irrelevant. 

Pigs-and-chickens thinking is unhelpful and harmful to Agile teams

In such Agile teams, team members work out who is best-placed to perform each task, and therefore every individual gets to wear many different hats depending on the project needs at any particular time, in any particular context. For me, this is a very liberating and egalitarian concept. It really fosters the idea of teamwork without the issues that are sometimes prevalent when status and ego can get in the way. 

It follows then that the pigs-and-chickens idea, applied in an inconsiderate manner in the context of a self-organised team, can only be a destructive force. Because, after all, we’re all committed. I can’t think of a better example of commitment than a scenario where, at any given minute, you could be wearing any hat, so long as that hat is right for the team goal in mind. This approach fosters respectful collaboration and real teamwork – a refreshing antidote to the pigs-and-chicken approach.

Here at Inviqa I get to work with the most capable software engineering group I have encountered across my career. I believe one central theme of their success is the all-pervasive, mutual respect shown by fellow team members in their various endeavours. All contributions are valued highly, and it’s the complementary talents of designers, testers, leaders, analysts, and engineers, working together – either in a self-organised or rigorously-directed way, dependent on the context – that results in harmonious working relationships – and consequently, excellent outcomes and happy clients.

It’s true that there are exceptional individuals who can wear all the hats (I’m privileged to work with some of those), but those individuals are rare and they’re rarely aware of their unique talent. The last thing they would wish to do is point out that their efforts are somehow more valuable than those of other team members. That humility is at the heart of their success. It earns respect and engenders trust and cooperation.

So does asserting the distinction between the committed and less-committed achieve anything positive? If you’re still wedded to the pigs-and-chickens story, ask yourself how’s that working out for you – and, more importantly, for your team. Does it help your team work together as one to find solutions that deliver value for your clients?

Once and for all, let’s abandon our feathers and our snouts. It’s time to show respect for our many diverse and equally valuable contributions. 

The pigs-and-chicken thing, in 2016? Let it go.