Pigs, Chickens, and Asses

by Jeff Langr

September 15, 2008

In Scrum, those “not accountable for deliverables” (emphasis added; see Jeff Sutherland’s article) do not get to talk during certain meetings. Pigs (product owners, ScrumMasters, and “the team”) are accountable for the success of the project. Everyone else is a chicken, because they’re not accountable for the project. Their opinions are distracting and thus damaging to the project.

Thus customers–people who ask for and pay for the product–are not part of the team, nor are the people who manage humans on the team. In Scrum, these people are absolutely not part of what we’re trying to accomplish, and they are to be silenced during parts of the development process.

Of course I understand why the rule exists. There’s always a loquacious manager or sponsor who wants to hear their own voice, or worse, insist that the team work “their” way. Understandably, we should want to minimize such distractions.

Unfortunately, the remedy goes too far, substituting command and control for the core agile value of communication. The rule is borne out of excessive personal bias: In the above-linked blog post, Sutherland says, “Whatever we call them it should have a negative connotation because they tend to sap productivity. They are really suckers or parasites that live off the work of others.”

Gee, how do you really feel?

Some distaste between management and development is normal, but this stance isn’t at all helpful. Knowing that deeply caustic bile is part of the foundation of pigs and chickens only affirms my belief that it’s a damaging practice.

XP embraces the wonderful value of courage. The simple XP solution would seem to be: Ask the disruptive people to stop. Talk about it. If you can’t figure out how to do that, you have more serious problems that a contrived rule is not going to solve.

People are not chickens. Calling them such is demeaning, even if you have a cute, cloying story to back up your attempts to control. A simple statement or two can make things clear: “This meeting is intended to help ensure continual progress on our commitments to delivery. Discussions around that are welcome, no matter who you are. Attempts to be a back-seat driver should be taken offline to our Scrum Master ™. We’ll let you know if you’re detracting from our goals.”

Ultimately, it should be obvious that any rule that silences a whole class of people is not in the spirit of agile. We should welcome contributions from those even remotely involved in our efforts. If they come at the wrong time, we can gently ask them to talk about it later. Sometimes the best ideas come from those who are not accountable.

This posting won’t keep people from insisting on the rule of pigs & chickens. That’s ok. The next time someone calls you a chicken, let them know that there is a new animal in agile. It’s the ass. The ass is the person who dictates how things must be. They are stubborn, controlling animals. Perhaps the best thing to do with an ass is to give it a good swift kick.


J. B. September 17, 2008 06:38am

Jeff, I agree with you and applaud this article; however, I think we do need a Novice Rule to follow while we tend to the larger issue of “why does Tony insist on hijacking our Daily Scrum three times a week?” I think “Only these people may talk, and those other people must wait until the meeting is over to raise their concerns” constitutes a valuable Novice Rule for groups in disarray to try to follow when they start trying to put Daily Scrum to practice.

The “chickens” and “pigs” thing is just too often hurtful to be widely useful. The irony is that to get away with calling each other “chickens” and “pigs” generally requires a level of trust that groups use the Novice Rule to try to attain: trust that everyone will have a chance to speak, trust that everyone will honestly discuss how their work is going, that kind of thing. Calling each other “chickens” and “pigs” early on sours the development of that trust relationship.

I’m glad “chickens” and “pigs” works for some, but after I told that story twice and saw the looks on people’s faces, I stopped.

Jeff Langr September 17, 2008 08:50am

Thanks JB. Sounds good to me–-learn and do rules for a while until you figure out when you can break them (and the implications of breaking them).

mBria January 19, 2009 04:11pm

Jeff —

Just got referred to this post Kevin Schlabach, he left the note on the extremely similar themed message I blogged yesterday.

In summary, my post says (not literally of course) “I agree with you!”

The “ass” is a great, and appropriately lighthearted addition to the story. Love it.

Of course, I’m glad to have the opportunity to also see J.B.’s [as usual] insightful counter-point on the topic. And to think, the irony, I basically first learned XP from JB! 😉

While it is fair to say it might help in some ways, as a Novice Rule, the real punch-line of my entry is sorta the counter-counter-point that it injects too much of a largely irreversible negative “us vs them” undertone into the culture to be worth the possible benefits.

Anyway, just wanted to say great article!

ps// in case you’re interested, my posting [[ linked material deleted ]]

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Jeff Langr

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Jeff Langr has been building software for 40 years and writing about it heavily for 20. You can find out more about Jeff, learn from the many helpful articles and books he's written, or read one of his 1000+ combined blog (including Agile in a Flash) and public posts.