agile onion model

Peeling Back the Layers of Agile: Understanding the Agile Onion

If you’ve been involved in agile transformations, agile coaching, or product development, you may have come across the Agile Onion. It’s a popular metaphor that describes the various layers of complexity involved in agile ways of working within our organisations. In this article, we’ll first explore what the Agile Onion is. Then we’ll look at how it can help you leverage agile practices and tools more effectively.

What is the Agile Onion?

At its core, the Agile Onion is a way of visualising the different layers involved in product and software development. It emphasises that the mindset is just as important as the tools and processes. This means that you can’t fully leverage the tools without the right mindset, and vice versa. It’s all about recognising that the two go hand in hand, and one isn’t better than the other.

the agile onion and mindset beliefs

In summary, the Agile Onion comprises five layers:

  • Tools and processes, such as Jira, Confluence, Boards etc These are ineffective on their own
  • Practices, including user stories, daily standups, and retrospectives
  • Principles, like in the agile manifesto, which prioritise individuals and interactions, working software, customer collaboration, and responding to change. 
  • Values, such as trust, respect, honesty, courage, equal voice, and safety to speak out. These are the bedrock of high-performing teams.

The Mindset

The outermost layer is made up of the Mindset, that is – the way we think about how work gets done. It’s recognising that transformation, product development and software development are complex problems, not complicated ones. And understanding that managing work using traditional processes like project management in a complex environment actually makes work less predictable, not more!

Find out more about the agile mindset here.

By visualising the Agile Onion in this way, we can better understand the layers involved to use agile tools and practices effectively. It clearly shows how the tools and practices are supported by the values and mindset to help teams deliver value to customers and respond to change in a better way.

So why isn’t the mindset at the core. After all, the core is “least visible” but “most powerful,” and the very outer layer is “most visible.” ?

Our CEO, Simon Powers is often asked this question. As the originator of the Agile Onion and mindset beliefs, here’s what he has to say:

“The onion is deliberately this way around as it’s a Venn diagram where each circle sits inside one outside. The surface area of the circle is how important the element is. Another misconception with the Agile Onion being drawn the opposite way around is that people come across the tools and processes first and then figure out the mindset by doing. This doesn’t work. When you eat an onion or any fruit, you start with the outside, not the inside. Putting the tools and processes on the outside often gives the wrong perception that we start with processes and not people. Individual and Interactions over processes and tools means people over process. Starting with tools and processes and hoping people get the mindset is the opposite. I would recommend keeping the positioning of the onion as it is as there are many depths and threads to this diagram that might not be apparent to you at the outset.”

In conclusion, the Agile Onion is a useful metaphor for visualising Agile. By understanding the tools, practices,  principles, values and embracing the right mindset, we can better navigate the challenges facing our teams and organisations. 

Whether you’re an agile coach or a leader looking to enable lasting transformational change and unlock your team’s potential, the Agile Onion is invaluable for your toolkit.

Check out our online Agile Asset Library for more free resources and printables.

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