Monday, March 5, 2007

Much Ado About Animals...or, Animals & the missed metaphor

I have been having or listening to several conversations lately about animals.

In Scrum, we have the idea that the ScrumMaster has some characteristics of a sheepdog. Some of us also talk about chickens and pigs. Mike Vizdos uses that metaphor a lot on his site (

As it would happen, my wife, knowing nothing about all this, went out and bought four steel sculptures: a large pig, a baby pig, a large chicken (perhaps a rooster), and a chick (I guess). I will post pictures soon.

Surely this all is not without meaning.

It seems that everyone has been reading Aesop lately. And we're taking our Aesop quite seriously. And perhaps we should.

On using metaphors. Usually metaphors rise from the subconscious to communicate. They make ideas concrete. But my metaphor may not be yours. Just as your attempt at humor may not make me laugh, or make me laugh today. If my metaphor doesn't get through to you, I'll try to say it a different way.

Please don't overuse my metaphors. Only with permission can you extend them. They only come out to play for a brief time, partly because so many want to extend them too much, which makes them brittle and almost useless.

The sheep dog metaphor
Some people are concerned about the woof woof that is sometimes used at the end of the Certified ScrumMaster course. The woof woof is of course alluding to the sheepdog characteristics of a SM. And what can be wrong with protecting the Team?

Well, some people feel that the woofing is like a secret society. Or it seems, in their cultural context, silly and demeaning. (I did not have this reaction, so perhaps I do not do it justice. Nonetheless, I am sympathetic with those who don't "get it" about the woofing.) They feel that the woof starts to create an Us vs. Them feeling.

To me the woof woof is mostly comical, and I fear we can easily get overly involved with a whimsical thing and miss the more important issue.

To me there is a much more useful tension in the idea/feeling of Us vs. Them. A key issue and a key dilemma.

Let me unravel it a bit, as the thread goes through my mind, and then you all join in. So, let me start by saying why I think Us vs. Them is not useful. And then by explaining why it is useful, necessary and inevitable.

Why not useful. To me, to explain this we start with the idea that we are all God's children. (You humanists might prefer "we are all human, with certain unalienable rights".) However much we travel in the dark, we all can come back to the light at any moment. It is not useful to demonize. It is not useful to put people in "bad" categories. (Those who can't woof, those who don't get the woof. Those who woof; those that think the woof is good.) While some actions may indeed be bad, telling a person they are bad usually does not help them stop doing the bad stuff and start doing more good stuff. Why create an enemy before you've met the person?

As an example, I call myself a recovering waterfallic. By which I mean to imply that I have compassion for all who only part get agile, since I myself know that I relapse from time to time from the best ideas in agile. Notice that I don't call others recovering waterfallics, although my guess is that I have talked to quite a few recovering waterfallics, in de Nile and elsewhere.

Most of us are of a mixed nature. Putting the bad out there (in some one else) keeps us from seeing the bad within.

Why useful. Isn't this obvious also? It is so humanly natural to form up in teams. It is embedded in our genes that we must know "our" people and distinguish them from those "other" people. It is also so comforting to identify our enemies within the agile movement. Helps us form our own identify and find friends ("the enemy of my enemy is my friend"). Comforting, and oh so human.

Our language is rife with all kinds of dualities. Light/dark, up/down, good/bad. Ad infinitum. And they are necessary. We often need those simple binary choices so we can move on quickly. If we had to really think about everything, we'd be in quite a pickle. Clearly there are people who don't get agile. We each can identify types of people who are, on average, pretty unlikely to get agile very quickly. Our brain takes a couple of impressions and naturally starts making categories.

And there are indeed instances where a person has hurt the team. We have to identify those persons sooner or later, and do something about it.

The Resolution of Romance (Wynton Marsalis)
If I had a simple resolution to this continuing dilemma, for this tension, I'd be a wiser man than I am. I don't even have a complex resolution. We must have Us vs. Them. We can never have Us vs. Them. Ummm?

Seems to me just recognizing that we have this dilemma is a start. So, let's have chickens and pigs. Let's have a sheepdog to keep the wolves away. But remember, these are Aesop stories for children. We humans are often a tad more complex. And, as Ken Schwaber said, the important thing is that we do more thinking for ourselves, about what our current project situation really is. At least from time to time.

Let's also remember that from our enemies, even in this discussion, we can always learn something. One of my favorite blessings is "May you be blessed with good enemies."

+ Joe Little


Anonymous said...

Nice writing, and good points.

Don't worry about the humanists. "God's children" can be taken as a useful metaphor.

I'm looking forward to your next posting. Until then, just between Us insiders: woof.

Anonymous said...

My woofer doesn't work well, so "bow wow" indeed.