Dropping Batons, Boiling Oceans & Other Agile Training Metaphors

Recently I received an email from a student in one of my agile training classes with the following quote: “...these days it’s all dropping batons and boiling oceans here.” In that one sentence I knew exactly what he was trying to communicate.

Baton dropping is a metaphor for keeping the work flowing instead of keeping people busy. The comparison goes that when work is blocked, it is as if we are running a relay race and the baton is on the ground rather than moving towards the finish line.

Boiling the ocean is a metaphor for trying to do everything on a large scale rather than doing a little bit of something on a smaller scale. After all, it's far easier to boil a cup of tea than it is to boil the ocean (which you most certainly will never achieve)!

Metaphors & Agile Training

Anybody who has attended one of my agile training classes or my conference or user group presentations can attest that I am very fond of using metaphors. Why? Because they work! I find that with a simple metaphor I can quickly explain an agile principle or concept in a concise, easy-to-remember way.

For example, I did a recent blog posting on why it is important for companies to adopt all 11 strategies that I propose for agile portfolio management, rather than picking or choosing a few. The metaphor I use to communicate this concept is “This Ain't No Cafeteria.”

That metaphor might be kind of silly, but it reinforces an important concept: The 11 principles self-reinforce and you won't get the full benefit by picking and choosing only the ones that appeal to you. (Check out my presentation on Agile Portfolio Management or Chapter 16 of my Essential Scrum book if you want to go deeper into this topic.) After that blog post I received a number of communications from people who said, “I can't seem to get my management to agree this ain't a cafeteria and we need to embrace them all.”

People really latch on to useful metaphors—they become part of the everyday vocabulary of the team or company.

Hard to Train Without Them

A few months ago I realized how important metaphors have become in my Scrum and agile training classes. My use of them is so deeply ingrained in how I describe agile concepts that I feel hampered if I am not able to leverage them. That’s why I try to introduce them early and use them frequently.

I also noticed that much of the discussion within the classroom very quickly adopts the metaphors. They are sticky in the sense that once you hear them, they stay with you. I think that is an important characteristic of a good metaphor: It provides excellent clarity in the intended area, and even if you only hear it once, it is easily recalled and applied.

Also, good metaphors are viral in that they very quickly pass from one person to another once they get used. So, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that so many people take the metaphors back to their teams and companies and use them day to day.

Learning More Metaphors

Short of taking one of my agile classes, where can you learn more about the metaphors that I use? First, my Essential Scrum book makes liberal use of many of the metaphors I discuss in my training courses. Have a look at Chapter 3: Core Agile Principles for a description of many of them.

Also, some metaphors are described in other blog posts. In particular:

In my Agile Portfolio Mangement presentation I use a number of other metaphors as well.

Did you take an agile training class from me or attend one of my conference or user group presentations? If so, I wonder how many of you still use some the metaphors that we discussed. Comment below and let me know which ones have made their way into your core vocabulary.