Analogies and agile

I love analogies. Ask anyone I work with and they’ll tell you that I’m obsessed with them. I use them all the time to help clarify an idea or a problem or to simply encourage people to think differently. Analogies help level the playing field. If you’re having a conversation with a group of developers, accountants, medical students and footballers, it’s likely that talking about something in one of their respective domains will alienate the other groups. Using an analogy based on something that everyone can relate to can break down these barriers to gain a common understanding.

Some of my favourite analogies that I’ve used recently;

  • “Cutting your beef in half”
    This analogy comes from a story about a young man who after living with his parents for years moved into his own house. The man (Let’s call him Fred) decides that it would be nice to invite his mum for Sunday lunch – to repay her for all of the meals she had prepared for him. Whilst Fred was preparing lunch, his mum observes him cutting a perfect joint of beef in half before seasoning and putting it in the oven. Fred’s mum asks, perplexed, “Why did you cut that lovely joint in half?”. Fred replies, equally perplexed, “You always cut the beef in half, I’ve seen you do it hundreds of times!”. Fred’s mum smiles and replies “that’s because I have a small oven, and a large joint won’t fit! Your oven is big enough to fit 2 joints in!”.Fred did a very human thing. He became so conditioned to seeing how something is done, he copied it without question. I’ve used this analogy a lot in my role, and it’s reassuring to hear my team say things like, “hold on, are we cutting our beef in half here?”. The team see that we need to question why something is done in a certain way before arbitrarily copying it. #win
  • “Touching the red chair”
    This is a similar to the “beef halfing” analogy above and although I’m not sure how real it is, its great analogy. It’s about being aware of our predisposition to conditioning. The story goes; 5 monkeys in a cage are presented with 2 chairs – a red chair and a green chair. When a monkey touches the green chair, they are rewarded with a banana. When a monkey touches the red chair, they are sprayed with cold water (poor monkey). After some time, the monkeys learn not to touch the red chair. This is where the experiment gets interesting; The scientists introduce a new monkey into the cage. Swapping out one of the conditioned monkeys. The new monkey observes the other monkeys only touching the green chair and sees the corresponding reward. The monkey copies what the others do instinctively (monkeys like bananas!). The scientists continue to replace monkeys one by one until none of the monkeys in the cage have ever touched the red chair. None of these monkeys know why they shouldn’t touch the red chair!This happens a lot in my role.I see people (not monkeys) touching the green chair. Doing the same thing, redeveloping a feature, following the same old process, based upon little else than “it’s what we’ve always done.” We should touch the red chair from time to time! It won’t always be cold water!

Using analogies in Agile 

During your next retrospective. Ask each member of the team to describe a situation that occurred in the last sprint using only an analogy. Then ask the rest of the team to guess what they really mean. I’m sure that there’ll be a few suggestions that would not otherwise be mentioned!

If you’re an agile leader, a coach or a scrum master, touch the red chair and get some practice crafting analogies. It’s a useful tool to have in the toolbox!

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