Too many chickens… too few pigs

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Involvement vs. Commitment: To be implemented effectively, self organisation needs a culture of mutual accountability.

One day the chicken says to the pig: “You know what, I was thinking we should open a restaurant.” What sounds like the beginning of a pretty lame joke is actually an often used metaphor in agile project management. The pig replies: “I’m not sure. What would we call it?” After careful considerations, the chicken suggests: “How about a name like HAM-N-EGGS?” The pig is shaken and replies: “No, thanks. I’d be committed, but you’d only be involved.”

The key message of this story is that the pig has to sacrifice itself if they want to offer ham in their restaurant. The Chicken, on the other hand, just has to provide the eggs, which does not require to give up life. Thus, the pig is fully committed to the project, while the chicken is only involved.

When it comes to producing ham and eggs, you need both chicken and pigs to contribute to the end result. However, between the two, there are distinct differences in their contributions. The pig had to lay down its very life to provide the ham for the meal. It is more than involved in the process. It is committed to it.

The chicken? The chicken doesn’t make nearly the same sacrifice. It merely provides a few eggs — something that can be done on a regular basis. The chicken is involved in the meal, it’s not entirely committed to it. In agile project management, ‘pigs’ are those who are fully committed to the project and take full responsibility for its successes and failure. ‘Chickens’ are those who provide input and feedback, who might make suggestions, but are not actively working on the project and thus, are only involved, but not committed.
Many organisations, which are in the process of establishing an agile project management approach, face obstacles on the way. Often, their actual organisational culture doesn’t match the requirements. Agile methods like Scrum, Kanban or agile SPACE strongly depend on an organisational culture that promotes, fosters and demands self organisation. The teams have to work autonomously with mutual accountability to make these approaches work. If a company struggles at this point, this is because of the organisational culture being shaped by chickens. Highly participatory decision processes, many people get involved, the topics are discussed at various committees – so a very high level of involvement, but just a few people who are actually committed, demonstrating ownership and accountability.

In a „pig culture“, the team is truly committed to a project’s success. The members aren’t just sitting on the fence and wait for the project to succeed or fail, they demonstrate their commitment every day, by supporting the project in meetings and other conversations. They know many of the finer details about the project’s benefit and approach. They are willing to invest into the projects success. If the project gets stuck, they’ll be right there getting their hands dirty to get things back on track. When things go wrong, they step up and take the blame. Why? Because they understand the added value this project has for the success of the company. It’s not just about the gain for their own position within the company or the rise of their personal brand. They understand that leadership is not the same as authority.

In culture characterised by chicken, we often hear conversations such as, “just keep me in the loop on how it’s going.” They’re involved, but not truly committed. When the organisation struggles to make progress, people often quickly point out why its due something else, such as lack of resources, wrong decisions at the top, low supplier’s performance. At that point, people are only involved. There’s some dedication, but true commitment for changing the status quo takes more than talk. It requires action.

The Bacon Starts At The Top

When we’re talking to executives about their most important strategic projects, it’s not unusual for us to hear: “Yes, our projects really need some guidance. As for me, I don’t need the help because I’ve done such projects for decades, so this won’t help me. But them? They definitely need support and coaching. Keep me posted!” Well, with all due respect, it starts at the very top of the organisation. A „THEM“ and „US“ mentality surely doesn’t demonstrate commitment from the top. If the rest of the team gets an — “I’m too good to get my hands dirty, but I want to know what’s going on.” — feel from an executive, don’t expect 100% buy-in to the project. That’s involvement. Not commitment.

… where no one has gone before
If your organisation is about to test or establish an agile project management approach like SCRUM, KANBAN or agile SPACE, you might explore new territory.

Consider organisational culture as a critical success factor for change. What exactly is the behaviour that you want to see within your project teams and across the organisation? How does the working environment promote and demands this behaviour? What are the obstacles which are hindering people to demonstrate self organisation? We recommend to reflect on the organisation’s culture. Our tool „Culture“ supports a self diagnoses of the cultural environment. We can help you and your team to identify root causes for „chicken“ behaviour and facilitate the change process towards a successful implementation of agile project management. Contact us for more information.


Markus Hesse

Markus is the co-founder and managing partner of CoThink Germany. He combines experience as consultant and coach on international projects in a variety of industries for Fortune 500 and mid-sized companies with experience in executive management of international organisations. His core competencies are agile strategies, project management and transformative change programmes. Markus Hesse educational background includes a M.A. in Business Coaching and Change Management. He is author for the EURO-FH university in Hamburg on change management.

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