The Metaphors of Scrum


We claim that by exploring the metaphors of Scrum, many of the common confusions and debates surrounding Scrum are easier to understand. It has been our experience that people often reach different conclusions with the same words because they are using different metaphors. Additionally, we have observed that that once people become aware of the differences in their applied metaphors they can see each other's point of view more easily. 

This article explores the use of metaphors as a way to understand and reason about Scrum. We will explore how metaphors encourage us to reason. Our discussion will cover our experiences in both the benefits and pitfalls of these metaphors as applied to Scrum development.
Like all models that have been created to help us understand there are shortcomings. In this article we will be identifying the boundaries where the Scrum language can become confusing and hopefully make adoption and application easier.
Introduction to the Idea of Metaphor
Metaphors are powerful reasoning models that are deeply connected to how we understand and reason - but there are always limitations when applied. One of the strengths of Scrum is its powerful language, which has been built up to form a coherent metaphorical structure.
It has been established that many of our thought processes for understanding and reasoning are metaphorically based, [1] so we need to know {sidebar id=1} something about metaphors. First, let's look at the dictionary definitions of metaphor and its cousins simile and analogy as found in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary [2].

Metaphor is quot;a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money ); broadly.quot;

Analogy is quot;correspondence between the members of pairs or sets of linguistic forms that serves as a basis for the creation of another form.quot;

Simile is quot;a figure of speech comparing two unlike things that is often introduced by like or as (as in cheeks like roses ).quot;

As we see, the definitions of analogy, simile and metaphor are all similar, which may be why we struggled in school to keep them distinct. We believe these are lsquo;distinctions without a difference' and thus will make use of the notion of conceptual metaphor as defined by Lakoff and Johnson; [3] use the term metaphor for it, and leave analogy and simile for English class. Throughout this paper we will apply the use of conceptual metaphor and metaphorical reasoning as has been defined in Lakoff's and Johnson's work to explore where the metaphors of Scrum lead us.
Before exploring Scrum's metaphors, let's pause briefly to explore some common examples of metaphorical reasoning that we often encounter in everyday language.
This will help us build context for exploring the metaphors at work in Scrum. Here are a few examples:

  • quot;Let me make my point.quot; Is an argument really a point? Or do I visualize it in my head as a point? At the time I might be visualizing, quot;If I can make my argument pointy enough I can use it to punch through to my goal.quot;
  • quot;Please stay at 50,000 foot level...quot; Will we really travel to or stay at the 50,000 foot level to have a discussion? How do we get there? What do we mean 100,000 foot view, 50,000 foot view or 100 feet off the ground?
  • quot;Your statement is light.quot; Do we make statements heavier? I might be thinking that quot;If my argument has enough mass it will be valid because of the sheer size.quot;

Again, I might use all of these as techniques in one conversation to describe. This would be blending the metaphors together to reason about something. Even as I write I am forced to use metaphors to express my thoughts. Thus, we are constantly playing with our words in metaphorical ways in order to help understanding. In other words, we are constantly using these conceptual models to help

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