Steve Fenton

Time to say goodbye to chickens And pigs

So the famous story goes that a chicken and a pig decide to open a restaurant and the chicken suggests to the pig that they call their establishment “Ham and Eggs”. The pig responds, “That would mean I would be committed but you would just be involved.”

Cue canned-laughter and widespread adoption of chicken and pig roles in Agile teams everywhere. Pigs are allowed to talk at the stand-up and chickens aren’t. That’s the rule.

But the rule sucks.

If someone is interested enough in the stand-up to attend and they need to ask a question because they don’t understand something – they shouldn’t be inhibited from doing so. What would you rather they did – send an email? Just not ask? Disturb you later on with the question? We want to encourage face-to-face communication don’t we?

The stand-up meeting is probably the very best time for them to ask their question. The people who are interested in the answer are there. The people who can supply the answer are there. Other people who are there will potentially learn something. Muzzling chickens has no value. If the question is way off topic, or would take too long, it can be deferred until after the stand-up and addressed by a smaller, more focussed group – just like when a “pig” asks something that isn’t quick to answer.

If you want to solve a problem at the stand-up, teach the verbose-talkers how to cut-down on their time-hogging. You’ll gain back ten times the amount of time you might lose if a “chicken” asks a question.

I got some great feedback about this article and wanted to address the comments, because they are good.

Chickens can speak at the end of the stand-up (i.e. they aren’t stopped from speaking, they just need to wait for their section).

This can work (and as was correctly pointed out you need to do the right thing for your organisation). I see this as a compromise. One of the better formats for a stand up is to walk the board from right to left. If we are talking about story-x and someone has a question about story-x, it could be the best time to talk about it.

The other potential pit-fall to having too many rules about who can speak is that it can inhibit communication – especially (but not only) if the rules are unclear or start to leak out of the stand-up. This can be especially true if anyone has ever been over-zealous with the “shut up, you’re a chicken” routine.

The stand-ups I join at the moment involves around 22 people. We have eased off on the chicken and pigs comedy road-show and the whole stand-up is over in less than ten minutes, including occasional questions from people who “aren’t stakeholders” (except they are really; because they care enough to turn up).

So you need to do the right thing in your situation, while remembering these principles:

  1. Don’t make people feel uncomfortable
  2. Don’t create an environment where people don’t communicate
  3. The stand-up is primarily about communication (as are many artefacts of an Agile process)

You may also want to find out more about Ron Westrum’s research on Organisational Culture. Organisations that communicate better perform better.

Westrum’s research emphasizes the importance of creating a culture where new ideas are welcomed, people from across the organization collaborate in the pursuit of common goals, where we train people to bring bad news so we can act on it, and where failures and accidents are treated as opportunities to learn how to improve rather than witch-hunts. – Continuous Delivery, Culture

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