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The Agile Planning Onion is Wrong

The concept is simple: there are six levels of planning in an organization, often represented as layers of a metaphorical onion. In the agile planning onion, strategy is the outermost layer. This is meant to indicate that it is the driver of all the planning in the inner layers, which have shorter time horizons, down to the daily planning that occurs in the Daily Scrum or the Daily Standup of the agile teams.

Culture is Missing

The agile planning onion is a reasonable metaphor, but it has a serious limit: culture is missing. Many of you will have heard the quote “Culture eats strategy for lunch [or breakfast]” (attributed to quite a number of different people – I’m not going to sort out who was the original). How do we represent culture on the onion? Is it a seventh layer on the outside? Maybe, but for most organizations, culture is not planned.

Single Loop Learning

The main problem with the planning onion is that it gives no indication that the planning cycles deal with anything but the product / business side of the work. This implication of single-minded focus gives us permission to limit ourselves to improving our products. This is learning, but it is limited. It is sometimes referred to as “single loop learning”. We make improvements, but never question our underlying beliefs, habits or goals. All improvement (and planning) is within the narrow guard rails of a product mentality.

Double Loop Learning

Culture both surrounds the planning onion, and cuts right through it (nice way to extend the metaphor!) The problem with a visual metaphor that does not include culture is it means that culture remains unconscious. As individuals we might, from time-to-time, find that the organization’s culture clashes with our own expectations, habits or beliefs. But other than this occasional dissonance, we are like onions in dirt – completely unaware of the dirt, yet completely utterly dependent upon it for growth (couldn’t use “fish in water” because that would have introduced a different metaphor – I’m trying for consistency).

In the best agile transformations, individuals, teams and organizations become aware of their culture and consciously work to change it. This is usually due to a strong clash between their current culture, and the behaviors, norms and attitudes of a embryonic agile culture. In Scrum, we find impediments and remove them. In OpenAgile we look for learning about product, process and people. This is, again, roughly speaking, double loop learning… it is learning about learning and applying this to our belief systems, our habits and our attitudes.

Transformation vs. Adoption

Those who share the agile planning onion model, probably don’t realize its limits. I would like to strongly encourage those who use this model to consider re-framing it in terms of culture and organizational learning, rather than planning. I’m terrible at diagrams – I hope someone out there will consider creating a new compelling Agile Learning Onion diagram to show that agile is about Transformation, not merely adoption of planning practices.

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