Scrum Chickens and Pigs

An interesting discussion came up on the Disciplined Agile Delivery discussion group on LinkedIn. Scott Ambler asked the question, “Is the chicken and pig analogy disrespectful?” The chicken and pig analogy is common in scrum. In case you haven’t heard it, it’s based on an old joke:

A chicken and pig are talking about breakfast. The chicken says, “How about if we make the farmer a bacon and egg breakfast?” The pig says, “That idea doesn’t sound so great to me because, while you would be involved in making the breakfast, I would be committed.”

Scrum teams have used this joke/analogy for years to characterize the difference between being on the team vs. being a peripheral contributor to the team, as well as to characterize ownership and responsibility (i.e., you don’t volunteer someone else to be the pig).

The Scrum Guide officially discontinued use of this analogy in 2011, but in practice the analogy continues to be used up to the present day.

For my part, I’ve found the chicken and pig joke to be senseless since I first heard it pre-Scrum about 25 years ago. When I first heard it I thought it seemed senseless because no rational pig would EVER choose to participate in an endeavor that resulted in its death. Beyond that issue, I think the analogy is ineffective or counterproductive at many levels.

1. The specific analogy with the animals is potentially offensive to people outside the project team. What we call ourselves and what we like other people to call us are two different things. We might be OK calling ourselves pigs, but it’s a different matter if someone else called us pigs. Or when they call us chickens. Why use an analogy that risks alienating the very people it’s supposed to inform?

2. The concept that the analogy attempts to communicate is also potentially offensive to people outside the project team. Has anyone truly had success telling business partners including product owners that they aren’t “committed” to a project? Organizations LOVE commitment. Different stakeholders can be “committed” in different ways. In a healthy organization the product owners will have their necks on the line — maybe not the same way that individual contributors do, but to them it’s the same. Likewise the executive sponsor also has their neck on the line, in their own way. What good does it do to pick a fight about who’s committed and who isn’t?

3. The words “committed” and “involved” don’t mean what people who use this joke want those words to mean. The joke tries to put specific meanings on “commitment” vs. “involved” as if those are standard meanings in English, but they aren’t. When we say two people are “involved” with each other that means there’s a significant relationship, possibly even a commitment. When we say a problem is an “involved problem,” we mean that it is one that requires a level of commitment to solve. If anything, the everyday use of the terminology is backwards for business stakeholders. As an executive in the project, was I “involved?” No, because I wasn’t working on it day to day. Was I “committed?” Absolutely, because I made sure the project got the funding and other resources it needed.

4. It’s a gross exaggeration. In a scrum context, NO ONE is the pig. No one is going to die because of their participation in a scrum project. The fact that no one is the pig reinforces that there is a continuum of levels of involvement/commitment rather than a binary scale.

5. The intent of the analogy, specific animals aside, as I’ve seen it most commonly used, is to create a crude sort of us-vs-them thinking. “I’m committed, you’re only involved.” I don’t see this as helpful.

6. Use of the crude analogy hides a real, more nuanced issue, and that is the issue of clearly defining roles and responsibilities, and making sure to align accountability and authority. This is an issue at all levels in organizations, and applies just as much to other people in a business as it does to scrum team members. Non-scrum techniques like RACI charts can help with this.

7. If people really want to use analogies in this area how about:

(a) “Arranged marriage” (i.e., misalignment of authority (arranger) and accountability (arangee)). (I’m joking — I recognize there are potential cultural sensitivities on this one.)

(b) The colloquialism “Let’s you go do that.” As in, “Let’s you go fight that really big guy over there.”

(c) “You’re not the boss of me.” Unfortunately, I see uses of the chicken and pig analogy that boil down to this meaning.

(d) A hunter and a deer are having a conversation. The hunter says, “Let’s go deer hunting.” The deer says, “I don’t like that idea, because while you would only be involved, I would be committed.” (If you like chicken and pigs and don’t like hunter and deer, ask yourself what is the substantive difference between those two analogies.)

(e) Two kids are playing at recess. One says, “Let’s play coliseum owner and gladiator. I’ll be the coliseum owner. You be the gladiator.” The other kid says, “I don’t want to play that game because you’ll just get to stand there collecting ticket money while I have to fight to the death.”

(f) A wealthy trophy collector recruits a lion hunter to hunt a lion as a trophy. The lion hunter says, “You will only be involved, but I will be committed to a potentially dangerous endeavor.” The problem with this analogy is that the trophy collector can respond, “Yes, but you are representing that you have hunted lions before and are skilled in that activity. That is why I wanted to hire you in the first place. What is the point of the distinction you’re making between involved and committed? Do you want me to pay you to hunt a lion or not?”

These are all pretty silly, but I have a hard time coming up with a good replacement analogy because I don’t think the underlying concept the analogy is trying to present is healthy.

8. A more fitting analogy that goes a different direction might be something like a symphony orchestra. Everyone has their role to play, and a satisfactory performance requires everyone doing their part:

  • Each player has to play their own instrument well.
  • Each player also must cooperate with the other players.
  • The orchestra is led by a conductor with knowledge of the specific strengths and weaknesses of the players.
  • The fundraisers for the symphony must do their jobs, or the orchestra won’t won’t exist at all.
  • Donors must donate to the symphony when the fund raisers call, or the orchestra won’t exist at all.
  • The audience must attend the symphony, or there will be no reason for the orchestra to exist.

In short, I agree with the Scrum Guide’s decision to stop using the chicken and pig analogy in 2011. It’s time to move on to a more productive story.