Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling in Agile

I was introduced to Clean Language three years ago through Olaf Levitz and Judy Rees. At the beginning I was intrigued, then I discovered an impressive tool to improve my coaching.

During a U-Lab session in Heidelberg, we had to perform some personal development coaching on some candidates. The workshop was organised in a set of small groups. The coachee and the coaches were sitting in a circle and each of the coaches proceeds to a five-minute session. 

I thought this could be a good opportunity to use Clean language for mine.

The coachee had a high dream of sustainability project but he felt judged by his colleagues. That negative feeling built an unreachable fence to him.

And what kind of sustainable project in your project? The coachee very quickly answered, “my project is like the garden of Eden with superb plants, wonderful flowers”.

And whereabout in this Garden of Eden are you?” He says “I’m in the middle of that garden”.

What’s is happening to you while you are in the middle of that garden of Eden?” “I’m feeling peaceful, enriched and at my place”.

Where are your colleagues in that garden of Eden?”. “They are are the border.” While saying this, the coachee had an Omph moment and you could see the switch in his eyes and body.

Can we have such moment in Agile? Why is this important?

Usually Agile is related to software development, this is only partially true. Nowadays Agile is considered as a way to walk through complexity. Complexity is a stage in systems dynamics where you cannot apply any genuine methods of control like function control (scientific management) or information control (systems thinking). That system is barely self-managed and highly responsive towards adaptability and innovation. Traditional leadership is in a challenging position. By applying controls, leaders can stop the creative purpose of complex systems. Masters in Agile Organization design are able to create the conditions to ensure such dynamics in companies.

agile systems dynamics

Agile, that’s my thesis, is the behaviour of agents (people) in a system. That system is mostly complex allowing co-creation and collective problem-solving. The people are mostly self-engaged in a work that matters to them. Managers are serving and leading those systems. Leaders, on the other hand, are constructive-irritants understanding how to resonate with those systems.

Agile per se has a wide spectrum and some colleagues are addressing it through the idea of mindset. On my side, mindset is always culturally impregnated. My agile embraces diversity, diversity of mindsets.

Three years ago, bored to repeatedly running the same workshops on explaining agile through the lens of the agile manifesto for software development, I started to ask one single question to the agile community: “what kind of agile is your agile?”.

The answers were astounding. Words such as “freedom”, “ability to express me”, “sense-making activities” are the most common expressions even with people having no clue about the concept. I extended this question to all my clients and teams which I worked with. And the results are over time the same.

Since then, that clean question has become my introduction question to all the projects I’m involved in. That question distilled a very particular superpower: “I’m in charge of my own change”. As an example, when asking “what kind of agile enterprise is your agile enterprise?”, you can literally see faces changing and the fear of the consultant moving away.

Communication is the measure of people interacting with each other.

The principal measure of an Agile system is the quality of communication. Another quote from the agile manifesto is about business and IT people working together on a daily basis.

From an Agile Systems Dynamics perspective, iterations or sprints are moving the systems from one deal to another deal. The behaviour of a complex system is based on negotiation between stakeholders. A deal is a compromise where each of the stakeholders wins. I call it the “Win-win-win”, win for the customer, win for the management, win for the development.

In an enterprise context, naming conventions or the sense of words are often interpreted. 

To avoid unnecessary tensions, we are using tricks such as Ice breakers, user stories or customer journeys. “Draw me what you want?”, “Show me want you meant?” Or “Tell me your story?” Are not “clean” but they are following the same intention.

The agile community uses also a lot of games to transmit knowledge. Those games can relate to “cool attitude” but most seriously, they are helping to address pain points, solve problems with the use of metaphors.

Example: you want to train people on project management in the same company. If you are asking the people, they all want concrete examples from their own context. Unfortunately, your audience is coming from different sides of the company and their references are diverging. To avoid such a debate, it is a training right, I will use Martians willing to visit Australia or drawing how to make toast.

Another example: while facilitating a scope planning with 150 people during five days for SAP, I started with a great game from T. Wujeck, Draw how to make toast. First, you ask people to individually draw how to make toasts on a piece of paper. Then you ask, how to draw a toast but using sticky notes or cards. Last round, draw how to make toasts as a group with sticky notes or cards. This design process is following this agile systems dynamic Obvious (the question)> chaos > chaos > Complex > Complicated (debriefing) > Obvious (aha!). After a lunch break, the audience gathering in teams and worked on their business processes using what they learned through the morning play. In fact, you could listen in all the teams, people asking clean questions, telling stories or drawing their thoughts on large whiteboards. The mood was highly collaborative and generated impressive outcomes. The last day, they all finished earlier and they celebrated their outcome and the way how they reached it.

What we call games, are nothing more than exercises in a metaphorical context.

Improving the communication within a team

Two years ago I was coaching a large team who was fully distributed all around the world. We had meetings every day and my feeling was that a lot of information was left by. While experimenting with Clean Language, I discovered another effect. Clean help me, the coach, to express more clearly my ideas, it calmed me down and improved strongly my listening capacity.

If this works for me, this should work for everyone. So, I decided to introduce Clean language to my team. During our bi-weekly retrospective in front of our videoconferencing system, I asked one team member “and what kind of sprint was your sprint”. The answers came out in a story format. Once done, I asked my colleague to proceed likewise with someone else from the team: the coachee became the coach. This was the most interesting retrospective ever and my team liked it a lot.

Based on that experience, I created two facilitations exercises based on Clean for agile teams. The Appletree where my colleagues are defining value creation by apples and the process to get that value as roots. Apples and roots are highlighted on an apple tree poster. After a while, some colleagues changed the colours of the apples with green (sour value) and red (sweet value). This worked so well that all the team had their apple tree posters hanged on the corridor walls near the Director´s office. The strategical plan was designed on a quarterly cadence. The use of that metaphor came to change the name of the fearful release date to harvesting day: the day we are all counting how much apples all of use have produced.

Another game using the same approach is the speed boat. A team member has to choose a boat representing the trigger used for the sprint. And feedback like “in the last sprint, I felt like being in a flying-saucer, moving around in every direction and addressing problems only from bird view.

In a business context where people are quite stressed and everything is running fast in a multicultural context, symbolic phrasing or metaphors have become the most effective manner to transmit information through every layer of an organization in a new violent manner.

Metaphors are keys

Stakeholders at work are not talking the same language, they don’t have the same context, the same culture, the same background. Stakeholders might also come from other companies and in Agile we try to move from one alignment (deal) to another.

Here some words from the Agile jargon that related to symbolic modelling:

  • A customer journey instead of a scope
  • A user story instead of requirements
  • The daily scrum is a daily meeting where the team is planning its day
  • Triage is how you sort user stories when you have too much in a Kanban system
  • Spikes are technical investigations
  • Swarms are small time-boxed projects to test concepts or to start a bigger project
  • Plexus is the evolution of the governance model in a platform designed organization
  • User experience, customer experience, etc


I use Clean Language in coaching indeed. But in agile coaching, Clean language is helping me and my teams in better and more productive communication.

Even with subject matter experts, the working language is mostly metaphorical and the technical words are chosen for the final reports only. But, all these final reports always include the stories and other pictures to illustrate their thoughts.

Pierre E. NEIS

Published by PierreENeis

Certified Agile Coach & Trainer, Organization Developer & Advisor

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