Agile 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.

A host always ensures plenty

A good host ensures there is ample food for everyone, offering a healthy variety. In some cultures, it’s customary to leave a bit of food on your plate to indicate you’ve had enough.

In Scrum, it’s crucial for the Product Owner to maintain a well-refined backlog of tasks for the Development Team to choose from. This backlog should be refined collaboratively with the Development Team and other necessary experts. In Kanban, there might be a designated board preceding the Development board to clarify the work’s scope.

Without a clear understanding of the tasks, the team may become idle, akin to going hungry, or they might undertake poorly defined work, which can lead to complications, much like choking.

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.
Drawing of 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 (Don’t lick the cookie!). 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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