Podcast Ep. 92: Understanding Agility Metaphors with Dan Neumann

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

Episode Description:

In today’s “solocast” of the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast, Dan Neumann is exploring the art of metaphors. Metaphors can be a powerful tool to illustrate important ideas and concepts of agility – if used well.

Dan shares the pros and cons of using metaphors in an agile setting, how to use them effectively (whatever your role may be), and how metaphors can be a really powerful tool to add to your arsenal, regardless of your organizational level or who you’re communicating with.


Listen on Google Play Music


Key Takeaways

  • What is a metaphor?
    • A metaphor is a way of using a concrete image or example to help connect to an abstract thought
    • Taking an abstract idea like agility and then comparing it to something that is very concrete
    • Metaphors help us connect abstract things to familiar ideas
    • Examples: “All the world is a stage.” – Shakespeare
  • What to keep in mind when using metaphors:
    • Be aware that we can sometimes bring in biases and/or unintended constraints that are not helpful
    • Using a metaphor may impact the way a person is looking to solve a problem
    • The way in which a metaphor is used is going to affect the way that someone is going to think about different problems
  • Common (and not-so-common) agility metaphors:
    • An 8-hour endurance race (where the goal is to see how many miles you can go in a set amount of time) can be compared to an agile software development project
    • Building a car as compared to product development (the metaphor of construction helps to connect the thought of agility with regard to transportation)
    • Agile gardening vs. agile farming (illustrates the contextual differences when you’re doing small-scale agility [the gardening] vs. commercial, industrial-scale agility [farming])
    • Sailboat (a metaphor technique used in retrospectives): i.e. “What are the fair winds that are blowing your boat across the water?” and “What are the anchors?” (i.e. what is keeping your boat moving forward to its destination)
    • Metaphors can also be used to show where agility does not make sense (i.e. you don’t exactly want a McDonald’s line worker being agile when they’re making your burger; you want the same burger every time you go there) 
    • House metaphors: “If you’re building a house, you have to build a solid foundation” and “You wouldn’t build a house one room at a time” (these can be good for user stories as well as illustrating the desire for pre-planning)
  • Pros
    • Metaphors are powerful because they cause the brain to react differently 
    • Metaphors can help teams move away from a really concrete way of thinking about a problem to a much more abstract way, unlocking new potential 
    • There are lots of different ways of using metaphors to help connect people to this abstract concept of agility
  • Cons
    • An issue with metaphors is that they can sometimes be militaristic (i.e. using military metaphors, such as those seen in “Team of Teams”)
    • Some metaphors bring in gender biases (i.e. “don’t get your panties in a twist”) – this baggage is not appropriate and brings in stereotypes
    • Metaphors about games and sports (because agility isn’t a win-lose scenario) 
    • Art metaphors – not everyone will be able to relate to the message (it’s important to be aware of your audience)
    • Imagining your team as a machine in a metaphor can bring in some constraints you don’t necessarily want

Mentioned in this Episode

Transcript [This transcript is auto-generated and may not be completely accurate in its depiction of the English language or rules of grammar]

Intro: [00:03] Welcome to Agile Coaches’ corner by AgileThought. The podcast for practitioners and leaders seeking advice to refine the way they work and pave the path to better outcomes. Now here’s your host coach and agile expert, Dan Neumann.

Dan Neumann: [00:16] Hello, and welcome to this episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast. I am your host Dan Neumann, and I’m happy to have you listening. And again, want to express my gratitude and appreciation for the folks that have listened and then especially to those who have reached out to us, whether via email or, um, any tweets that come our way. So thank you for that. We’d love to continue to receive feedback on this podcast. The topic I’ll be exploring today is that of metaphor. In a recent podcast with my colleague Christy Erbeck, I had mentioned the an eight hour endurance race that I had completed, basically the goal in a race like that is to see how many miles you can go in a set amount of time. And this one happens to be eight hours. And of course, in the span of time, from the time there’s a, a gun at the start to the completion of the eight hours, um, a lot can happen.

Dan Neumann: [01:19] You go in with a plan, there’s a lot of changes that happen. Your body responds to the new stresses it’s under at least new stresses for me. And it’s kind of a, a journey of exploration. And for me, that resonated as a metaphor for some of what we have with agile software development projects. There’s maybe a time box of delivering something within a certain period of time. We have a plan of some type, but then as we start to go along, we discover things. We learn things. We find that things we thought were going to be easy aren’t as easy, and we have to struggle through some of those. So, so for me, that was a metaphor that, that resonated. I also appreciate that there are some folks out there who, who won’t really resonate with a metaphor like that. They get stuck on the eight hour part of running and kind of go, why, why, why, why would you run for eight hours?

Dan Neumann: [02:22] And so they possibly can’t get past that, um, that mental hurdle of just really being unable to relate to somebody who would want to run for eight hours just to see how much ground they could cover. And so we’re going to explore some of the, the pros and the cons of metaphors and, um, give you some ideas maybe for how to, um, how to use them effectively in whatever your role is, whether you’re an agile coach or project manager, whether you’re leading a company as a chief executive. Metaphor can be really powerful period, regardless of what level you’re at and who you’re trying to communicate with. And one of the interesting things I came across as I was doing some prep work for this episode was an article called how the brain finds meaning in metaphor. And it was a study conducted by university of Arizona researcher, Vicky Ley, and Vicky was looking at how the brain physically responds to metaphor. Some people had a previous had previously attempted to explore this using, um, a technology called magnetic resonance imaging. Um, the, the problem with that is that FMRI requires that the blood flow change in order to see a change in the image and your brain’s firing much faster than the blood flow changes. And so, uh, this person then, uh, Vicky, she decided to look at the electrical signals going on in the brain. And it was pretty cool that while they were using, um, EEG machines to watch how the brain responded and using metaphors that involved physical movement, the brains motion centers would light up at the same time. So even the thought of using, um, using a physical motion in a metaphor caused the brain to light up in its motion centers. So to give a concrete example, you know, if you’re talking about a body guard who maybe would bend at the rod, she says, and then using the metaphor, the church bent the rules in her example, both of those would cause the brain to get excited in the areas that are related to motion. So it’s kind of cool just to look at the, the fact that these aren’t, these metaphors are, are powerful and that they actually cause the brain to react differently.

Dan Neumann: [05:11] And so what’s a metaphor. So metaphors are ways of using a concrete image, something really specific to help connect to an abstract thought. So, um, I believe it was Shakespeare’s that all the world is a stage. So trying to generate a, a concrete picture of that, what that might be. Forrest Gump said, life is like a box of chocolates. So trying to equate this abstract concept of life to a box of chocolates, which apparently you never do know what you’re going to get. So taking this abstract hard idea, so something like agile or agility, and then comparing it to that is that is very concrete. One of the metaphors that I believe a lot of agile folks have seen is the metaphor of building a car as an example of product development and Henrik Nyberg has an example that has a knot like this, that starts with the wheel on the left and eventually getting to a car. And he says like this, where it has a skateboard and then a scooter and a bicycle, eventually a motorcycle, and then ultimately a convertible car. So that metaphor of construction helps to connect the thought of agility with a couple of different scenarios around transportation. And it’s really important that when we think about metaphors and when we use metaphors that we realize that the metaphor we’re using is going to affect the, the way that people might look to solve a problem. There was a, an article called metaphors are not just literary techniques. They’re a psychological technique. Uh, the, the author of this study, um, shares another study from 2011. And when these researchers talked about a crime ridden city, um, they, they did it in a couple of different way. One, they, they described the criminal element as a beast preying on innocent civilians and then as a, to a separate group, they basically presented that same city. And they talked about, uh, violence is a plague on the city. So it disease metaphor versus an animal metaphor. And interestingly then the participants in the study came up with different ways of trying to address the crime in the city. So if it’s an animal, then you need to control that animal. You might need to capture that animal, et cetera. Whereas if it’s a disease, then the solutions tended to be more, more healthcare oriented, looking for a cause trying to treat the disease as opposed to, um, well, it might be more of a capture type of metaphor or capture solution if you are an animal. So the way in which metaphors are used on the specific metaphors that are used, are going to affect the way that people are going to think about different problems. And so that’s something to keep in mind, as you are using metaphors to help people connect abstract concepts to, by using a very concrete example.

Dan Neumann: [08:57] Well, some of the metaphors that maybe you’re using or have used one of my colleagues at Quincy Jordan did an agile conference presentation on agile gardening versus agile farming. And in this extended metaphor of the conference talk, that he was sharing the contextual differences that you see when you are doing very small scale agility, essentially a gardening like, uh, the, the small plot that I’ve attempted to, to grow some vegetables in, in my backyard versus commercial industrial scale farming, which I live in Indiana in the United States. And we have a lot of farms. Once you get into the, the outskirts, the very rural parts of the state and these things are, are massive. And so the same techniques that might apply when you’re gardening certainly are not going to apply when you are at an industrial scale. One of the other popular metaphors in agile is that of the sailboat, especially a technique for retrospectives where the, the team is asked to and they physically do sketch a sailboat. And then they’re asked, Hey, what are the, what are the fair winds that are blowing your boat across the waters? And then what are those anchors? What are those things that are keeping your, your boat for moving forward to its destination? And so, instead of just asking the team, Hey, what’s working, what’s not working. What should we do different the metaphor of a boat, and what’s the sunshine. And I’ve seen people build this metaphor out to have all kinds of things in it, pirates dragons, rocks, shoals, you know, dangerous waters, et cetera. And those different mental constructs can help team members move away from a really concrete way of thinking about a problem to the, to a much more abstract way and, and really unlock some new potential. Metaphor can also be used for examples of where agility does not make sense. One of the examples I use when I’ve been doing some training classes and no offense to McDonald’s, I ate there at least once yesterday, but I don’t want the person in the back who’s working at McDonald’s to be getting agile when they make my two cheeseburger meal, I want them to make the burger roughly the same way that it’s always been made. And I want the fries, I want the soft drink, and I want it to come out in a consistent presentation. That type of work, that type of problem isn’t best solved with agility, at least from my perspective. So I think we get the chance to also look at metaphor as a way of connecting people to where agility makes sense and where it does not make sense. There are also some challenges with metaphors. This was brought forward in a paper, um, that was titled through their own words, towards a new understanding of leadership through metaphors. And one of the challenges I see with metaphors is a lot of times they are they’re really, they tend to be militaristic or, um, well, we’ll leave it at militaristic for now.

Dan Neumann: [12:14] So military metaphors is certainly one of the places, uh, where we see, uh, metaphors entering the business community. You see it in the book team of teams where it’s the metaphor, the extended example of, of military battles and how the United States military in particular, had to respond to changing threats as they saw them. There are also, um, different types of metaphors that, uh, it can bring in, in gender biases as well. So when you’re talking about, um, this is an example where a person was cited and they said, Oh, they have to do something to keep the little women happy. Or, um, I think in this example, they, they talked about getting or whatnot in a twist. And so this very male and female notion of, uh, being brought into and gender biases brought into metaphor. So it’s more of a cautionary note on the way that metaphors are used and constructed can, um, can carry with it a lot of, of, of baggage and a lot of contexts that’s not appropriate or, or is going to reinforce stereotypes.

Dan Neumann: [13:35] So there’s military metaphors. That was one of the examples. You’ll also see metaphors about games and sports that get used a lot. Um, of course, agile is not a win, lose proposition like you ended up with in sports. And so sports metaphors may not be the most appropriate when game related metaphor is, is checkers versus chess. I’ve, I’ve seen that used, I think it was in a movie where it was advocating for longer term thinking, whereas checkers, maybe doesn’t have the, um, the longterm strategy that chess match does. So that could be an analogy. Art metaphors come to mind in a recent episode with my colleague Christy Erbeck, we ended up talking about, um, the scrum master and looking, I think it was a Scrum Master role and them being a conductor or a Maestro of an orchestra. And for me though, that metaphor broke down due to my, my high school band director experience and I think I mentioned in there and they kind of got lifted on my chair by my ear. And it wasn’t because I deserved it or it wasn’t cause I didn’t deserve it. I should say, I probably did. I was probably be on a smart aleck. Um, but for me though, the, um, the image of band director or orchestra conductor or Maestro, um, then potentially breaks down at that. So be aware of your audience and then another type there’s a couple of different types there’s machine metaphors. So if you are envisioning your Scrum team as a machine, as a, as a car, an engine, and you know, how many cylinders, how big is it, et cetera, that can also bring with it, some constraints that you don’t necessarily want as opposed to being a, um, well, you could have an organism, maybe it’s a free living animal. That’s trying to get stronger as opposed to a machine that’s subject to all types of external manipulation. So lots of, lots of different ways of using metaphor and connecting people to this abstract concept of agility. So that’s one place. I see it looking at organizations themselves as different ways to describe the organization, to paint pictures of it. Oh, see, there’s a metaphor too. So painting a picture of the organization, I’m curious what metaphors other people have had. Have you, have you experimented with metaphors would love to hear ones that have worked well. I’d also encourage you to reflect back on metaphors they’re using, what might you unintentionally be bringing into the conversation that you don’t want to, and maybe thinking of some alternatives and again, a specific one, there is some of the, the war metaphors, the sports metaphors that set up a win/lose scenario. One of the examples related to agile and unintended consequences is oftentimes when we’re talking about starting a Sprint, so doing Scrum and starting right away, the, the analogy that gets used the metaphor is people will say, well, but if you’re building a house, you have to do a, you have to build a really solid foundation and you have to, um, you wouldn’t build a house one room at a time like, like people sometimes think of a user story. Um, and so bringing in the building a house metaphor shows the desire to move towards having a lot of, a lot of pre planning. And in reality, our software worlds are radically different than, than house building. We can change the color of the house through an attribute. If, if we want to continue with that metaphor, we could, instead of having a copper plumbing, we could switch to plastic plumbing with a configuration. So software is so much more easily changed. And the, the ability to configure so much more radically different than physically building something that, um, it’s really encouraging to come up with a better metaphor than building a house. So I will, uh, look for and be very interested in some potentially different metaphors that people are using. So metaphors help us connect to abstract things to familiar ideas. So we’re trying to express abstract ideas through familiar concepts. Being aware of them that sometimes we also bring in biases or unintended constraints that aren’t helpful. And so I’ll be curious, let me know what metaphors have you used, what have worked and encourage you to try out some new ones. Thank you for listening. And we’ll be back next week and I will have a guest.

Outro: [18:51] This has been the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast brought to you by AgileThought. The views, opinions and information expressed in this podcast are solely those of the hosts and the guests, and do not necessarily represent those of AgileThought. Get the show notes and other helpful tips for this episode and other episodes at agilethought.com/podcast.


Stay Up-To-Date