The Tree of Agile as an Orientation Point in the Jungle of Agile Terminology

Carsten Rasche & Constanze Rieß – translated by Lukas Simen

In the initial phase of dealing with agile methods, one can quickly become overwhelmed. There is a big variety of agile frameworks such as Scrum, Kanban, Design Thinking, or Lean Start-up. Each framework has its practices, principles, and values. The number of new terms and concepts is large.

In our work we encounter people with different levels of prior knowledge about agility: some have already dealt with a particular method more intensively and may wonder how it relates to another. Others may only have picked up single terms in the context of agile work. What is often missing is an understanding of the broad relationship between terms and methods. Instead of a clear picture of what agility means and includes, there is often a lot of confusion.

To give people an orientation, we would like to illustrate the relationships with the help of a tree. This tree is suitable for creating a common picture of what agility means within a group of up to 30 people.

The first time we "grew" the tree of agile, was at a meeting of visual facilitators. In this blog post, we tell you how we have done it and which areas are hidden behind the individual areas of the tree.

One note in advance: The tree does not claim to be complete – like every agile artifact – and should be understood as a visualization that invites further conversation.

The tree of agile at a glance

The tree of agile is a means of localization for agile values, principles, frameworks, and practices. In introductory workshops, we ask participants what they already know about agility and discuss in which area we can place the respective term.

Practices

At the top of the tree, you can find agile practices. These are concrete tools, such as a definition of done, user stories, or a persona. They usually originate from one of the agile frameworks, where they are described in more detail. In practice, several of these tools are usually combined and teams pick the practices that fit their current context. Practices help teams make agility manageable and executable. They are a collection of good practices that support teams iteratively to develop products. Practices can be picked and deployed like cherries from a tree, one at a time, and can provide value – independent of the usage of entire frameworks.

Frameworks

Below the crown of the tree is the realm of agile frameworks. The frameworks combine various practices into a more precisely described process model. The Scrum framework, for example, consists of the interlocking of certain roles, meetings, and artifacts and is thus much more than the situational combination of different practices.

As mentioned earlier, many of the individual practices have their origins in one of the major frameworks. For example, working with task boards comes from Lean Management, and working with user stories comes from Extreme Programming. It is interesting to note that both practices were working so well that they became part of the Scrum framework as it evolved.

Principles

Inside and around the trunk of the tree you can find agile principles such as face-to-face communication, customer-centricity, and self-organization. The principles serve as a constant reminder to teams of what is important for their collaboration and the organization. The trunk also serves as a good metaphor here. If the principles are not followed and lived, individual agile practices can be used, but they will not have their full effect, because a solid foundation is missing. A team can work with the most beautiful scrum boards and still completely disregard the principle of customer focus, for example, by not asking for feedback. In that case, the collaboration within the team can be perceived as extremely positive. However, the developed product may not serve its purpose in the end.

Values

The roots of the tree consist of the agile values. The values are the breeding ground and the basis for the principles and practices. Values are ideas that are fundamentally recognized as desirable for groups and that give people orientation. In the agile context, the values describe a common basic attitude on which the participants agree for their collaboration in a team. When starting a new team, employees and their organizations must negotiate with each other whether and how they want to live these values. The joint negotiation and regular reflection process is the decisive factor here.

The original four value pairs come from the Agile Manifesto:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Responding to change over following a plan

Scrum is based on the five agile values focus, courage, openness, respect, and commitment. The values serve as a reflection tool for teams and organizations. The guiding question is: "Are the values being lived? And if not, what can we do about it?" A continuous inspection and reflection of the values – for example in retrospectives – supports the sustainable application of Scrum.

Another example of an agile set of values can be found in Kanban. David Anderson is convinced that Kanban is only successful if the users act based on the conviction of the values. The nine Kanban values are transparency, balance, collaboration, customer focus, flow, leadership, understanding, agreement, and respect.

Mindset

The agile Mindset describes the innermost attitude and belief that drives people in their (professional) actions. Compared to the values lived within the group, the mindset is a personal, inner attitude. People who have internalized an agile mindset can be described as solution-oriented individuals who do everything possible in their environment, to develop themselves and the structures in which they operate. They do not shy away from existing hierarchies and dare to try out provocative solutions if necessary. Such a mindset does not just appear. It requires work and reflection to develop. Agile organizations are characterized by the fact that many people are working there who act in such a way.

Being to doing agile

On the vertical level, the tree has yet another axis: it begins at the pole of being agile, starting with Mindset and the roots, ending with doing agile and practices in the tree’s crown. The metaphor of the tree makes it clear that the roots of the tree – the agile mindset and values – form the basis of agile working. They create the core. When individuals and teams try to act according to the agile mindset and values, it almost doesn't matter what processes and practices they use. They will find the elements that are right for them over time.

In the agile community, just applying agile practices and processes without considering the core behind them, is called fake agile or “cargo cult”.

However, there is nothing wrong with trying out agile practices and processes, as if just taken out from a textbook, without knowing exactly what the agile mindset means and thus disregarding some of the values. We encourage our customers, depending on their needs and situation, to for example try out Scrum in its pure form. As a result, an important context shift will take place. In a team, things suddenly don't work the way they used to. Suddenly there is a Product Owner and a ScrumMaster, and a series of meetings in which every team member has equal rights. It's through trial and error and evolving practices and processes, for example in retrospectives, that teams come across what being agile means. Being agile means adaptability. The processes and practices are adapted to their context. Agile usually spreads organically, it evolves and is understood by a larger number of people over time.

Here is how you can use the tree of agile in a workshop

What you need

  • Ideally, you have a large moderation wall covered with paper or a miro board. For smaller groups, you can also work with a flipchart or a whiteboard.
  • A black marker and a few colors
  • At least 45 minutes of time

Preparation

  • Draw the basic structure of the tree including the five areas “Mindset”, “Values”, “Principles”, “Frameworks”, and “Practices” on the moderation wall, and color the individual areas. At the edge, you can add a horizontal axis that runs from “Doing” to “Being”. Tip: Make sure that you leave enough space next to the words so that you can collect key points later.
  • Integrate the moderation wall into a circle of chairs for the participants.

Implementation

  • Start with an open question such as, "What terms in the context of agile do you already know?"
  • Now the participants take turns to briefly report on their own experiences.
  • Fill the tree of agile bit by bit with the mentioned keywords, which you or the participants place into the corresponding areas of the tree.
  • Depending on the needs of the group, it may be useful to explain individual terms in more detail.
  • Explain the structure of the tree and the connections between the individual areas. This works for both directions, from top to bottom (as in this article) and from bottom to top.
  • At the end of the short session, we asked the participants which topics they would like to explore in more depth in the future.

The number of agile practices, frameworks, and methodologies is large. If you need ideas on what to place in the tree, we recommend the talk by Craig Smith “40 Agile Methods in 40 Minutes”, and a graphic created for it by Lynne Cazaly.

We wish you lots of fun and success in using the tree of agile and in creating a common image of agility. We are happy if you share your experiences with us!

You can download a helpful template of the tree of agile here:

Cover image: Agile Sketch by Karin Hofmann based on a drawing from Constanze Rieß's. Do you like our sketches? Agile Sketching is an agile visualization technique that you can learn. More info about the training can be found here.

Agile Toolbox
Scrum
KANBAN
Agile Tools
Visuals
Carsten-Hendrik Rasche
June 13, 2022

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