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Agile Table Manners

December 21, 2016

Table Manners

There is a striking similarity between good table manners and good agile behaviours - "agile table manners". It is even more clear when viewed through the lens of the Scrum values: Focus, Respect, Openness, Courage and Commitment. The intent of manners is to help it be as safe and pleasant to be with our fellow mankind. Many of them stem from safety and hygiene, and others from a desire not to offend.

These simple rules act as a guide to encourage each meal to be as joyful as possible. The same can be said of working within an agile mindset.

agile table manners


A host always ensures plenty

​A good host will always ensure that there is enough to feed everyone, and there is a healthy variety. In some cultures, it is important to leave a little food on your plate to let the host know you are well fed.

In Scrum it is critical for the Product Owner to ensure that there is a healthy backlog, of well refined work for the Development Team to select from. This should be refined with the Development Team as well as other experts as necessary. In Kanban this may be a specific board before the Development board, to shape the understanding of the work.

If there is not enough well understood work, then the team will either be idle (going hungry), or take on poorly understood work (and choke).


Don't overload your plate

​When you serve yourself, you shouldn't take more than you can eat. Be mindful that others will need to serve themselves, and that you can always go back for more.

When teams are selecting work, select enough to be busy, and not so much as to leave any left over. Finishing a Sprint with undone work is the key sign that too much work was selected. There will be times when this happens through illness or other unexpected events - it should not be the norm. If all the work is finished, then the Development Team should always talk to the Product Owner about how to drive the most business value from the time remaining.

In Kanban, the teams should be reflecting on their WIP limits and monitoring flow through the entire process. The throughput should indicate how overloaded the team is.

It is rude to offer someone what you have half eaten yourself ... just as it is disgusting to spit out chewed food and put it on your plate - Erasmus


Finish your mouthful

​This is a huge one.

In practice, so easy. Take a reasonable mouthful, chew it well, swallow. There are some key etiquette points around this:

  • Don't talk with a mouthful (and spray your fellow diners)

  • Don't shovel more food in with an existing mouthful (and risk choking)

  • Don't spit out half eaten food, and take another mouthful in

  • Don't take such a big mouthful that you can't chew it


In our working day, how many times is there a partially done task? How many times do you start one task, put it down and then start another?​

This is the essence of context switching, and is an incredibly common waste. This is explored in ​this article by Jeff Atwood and  ​this article by Matt Stine. There are tasks that are suited to checking with other tasks, or the bigger plan. At the "mouthful" size - the task should be finished.

Use the​ pomodoro technique to break your day in to manageable chunks. Re-evaluate what you need to next after you complete each "mouthful".


Don't force feed others

​You should only feed someone else by invitation!

This is not to be attempted unless clear and unequivocal permission has been given! At best, it is messy, at worst it is dangerous.

How often do you push another mouthful onto someone else?

The agile frameworks are all pull based to enable better flow. When we push work we create bottlenecks and buffers. How do you feel when someone gives you tasks without talking to you about it first? This inhibits the ability for the team to self organise. Ben Day explores this in the ​this article. Assigning work out can impede the team developing the essential skills of self organisation.



​Working together should be as joyful as possible, so behaving in a respectful way will help each interaction with someone else as fun as possible.

If we thing of our work as "food for the mind", then surely we should use good table manners while eating our food.

Good Eating!

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