You Can’t Make a Skateboard into a Car

All designs by Kit Friend, except for Henrik Kniberg’s skateboard image and others where stated (sources provided below).

Henrik Kniberg’s much loved skateboard-into-car visual analogy is hugely popular, and in the various forums he’s presented it in comes with all the fantastic explanation and narrative you’d expect from the prolific agile coach (“Making sense of MVP”), all of which deserve a thorough reading. The ‘glanceability’ of the drawing is such that it’s spawned hundreds, if not thousands, of derivations. A Google image search immediately serves up quite a few (the Ustwo gif is particularly well done).

And whilst the principles of what Kniberg’s graphic (and its children) describe are absolutely spot on, the vast majority of these analogies suffer the same fault: no matter how amazing your engineering, a well-functioning car (or bicycle or motorbike) almost certainly doesn’t contain the components of a skateboard (barring perhaps the odd bearing). This is definitely nitpicking, but these sorts of questions come up all the time when I’m training and coaching. Thus I’ve been on an appropriately iterative and experimental journey to find alternative visual analogies which attempt to convey the same points as Henrik’s graphic, but do it with “things that can be made up of the same things.”

Here’s where I’ve got to thus far!

Option 1: Sandcastles

“Agile sandcastles” was my first experiment into this topic – and I still use it regularly, particularly when training our new joiners with my partner-in-agile-crime Tim Edmonds. I’m sure I’m not the first to use these, but here’s my effort rendered via the medium of iPad and Procreate…

We usually deliver the graphic with a gradual build, and with questions at each sprint boundary (“How do you like the castle Tim?”, “Err… it’s just a hill – how about a turret?”… “I’d like the flags green”). I’ve since added a (potentially slightly caricatured…) waterfall/incremental set of stages along the top, which isn’t right for all audiences but feels woefully familiar to many of us involved in large deliveries. The inclusion of a Sprint 0 is a handy reminder for many teams that you need to get your tooling and materials ready to go – I often use this as a prompt for a handy debate around not making this “discovery and preparation” phase too long.

Option 2: Cakes

I’ve had the privilege of being deployed to a dedicated internal coaching team in the UK and Ireland as a dedicated internal agile specialist since summer 2019, alongside other specialists in the skills of Storytelling, Data Fluency, Design Thinking, and Value Creation. One of the many benefits this brings is having a team of like-minded people to share and iterate concepts with. Our storytelling coaches Naomi Smith and Harriet Patience-Davies have aptly been a big influence on my visual communication, as can be seen in my “agile cakes” analogy.

I particularly like the cake image when it feeds nicely into discussions about the importance of “thin vertical slices,” and when working with groups who are concerned that agile is only for technical teams. This visual is a handy example of a team delivering products as a contrast to code. I feel a future iteration with wedding cakes, gluten-free brownies and the like is inevitable at some point.

Option 3: LEGO® Agile Release Trains

As my mound of training LEGO® (which I’ve had to keep separate and dedicated, much to my young sons’ disappointment) has grown, it felt a loss not to have an option for visuals celebrating the world’s favourite construction toy, and where the opportunity for a Scaled-Agile-related pun raised its head, it seemed rude not to take advantage. I particularly like LEGO®, or indeed many other construction toys, as an analogy as they offer a handy comparison to how software teams build their code – literally using the same components as in previous sprints, adding new, and refactoring as they move forwards towards a greater and greater product. The temptation to add the quite beautiful Hogwarts™ Express to our household proved too much:

I felt that the incremental/waterfall option suited a somewhat dystopian/steampunk alternative to effectively convey the message that whilst the team feels they’re making progress with components, the end result of putting them together probably ends up with a somewhat disconnected whole:

The presence of LEGO® minifigs provides us with some obvious options to illustrate key learnings from various stages also:

Option 4: Learn from others

On my journey of experiments, I’ve of course found plenty of giants to stand on the shoulders of and reference, with doubtless many other variations readers will be able to share also. My other favourites have come from Jeff Patton with his much used paintings

…and this other LEGO® offering from Science Direct:

Conclusion

As ever, the exact tools used don’t matter as much as the discussion and learning taken away from the exercise. Hopefully these experiments serve to amuse and inspire your own ways to explain agility. Please feel free to use them, but make sure to acknowledge their original authors – JK Rowling or otherwise!

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