Software through the helicoidal lens

3 min read

Helicoidal, what a lovely word. I’d never heard it before, but whilst reading about Yam cultivation in Papua New Guinea (what do you read for fun?) I came across it as a description for the process of growing yams.

What it describes is a process that is not cyclical, instead, it is more like an elongated spring, with each turn never quite returning to the starting point. As I pondered this it struck me that software development and agile in particular is very much like this.

However, in all the diagrams you see, things are always denoted by a circle. This is a useful way of thinking about it but not sufficient. It is a flattened view and gives rise to unhelpful mental models, whereby we do an iteration and move onto the next one. The circle implies completion, an ending. As if we are done, ready to start again, but really we are moving forward as well as in a circle.

This is a critical difference, as each turn takes us around and forward, therefore, we are learning but also changing. This slightly different view can be used to unlock some of the mental blocks that the circle model puts in place.

For example, instead of thinking in terms of a sprint or iteration delivering a thing it instead suggests that like a turn of a kaleidoscope it brings us to a new beginning, a new place to start from not a defined end. That is key because we are always moving forward and therefore, each turn distorts the world/thing.

Through that distortion, we learn, but it means we cannot simply repeat the cycle, we are in a new cycle, itself moving forward and distorting. The interesting thing, of course, is the implications of this and what it means for how we approach that transition to the next turn.

It is here that many software development models fall down, as they assume we simply move forward from the past to the future state in a neat line, but instead, we are actually in a new future state.

The backlog is a list of things to do. A linear progression from one item to the next but if things are helicoidal we, in fact, need a new backlog as the turn as moved us forward and around. New things have come into view, new futures are possible.

Now I’m not suggesting that this helicoidal lense is the bee all and end all, but it’s interesting the things it brings into view, how it helps us question practice. So go forth and look for the helicoidal, but more importantly look at things through the helicoidal lense and question what that does to them. How does it distort our understanding of the backlog or the sprint review?


Ludovic Coupaye, “Yams as Vernacular Methodology? Approaching Vital Process throughTechnical Processes”, in Des êtres vivants et des artefacts, Paris (“Les actes”), 2016, [Enligne], mis en ligne le 20 janvier 2016, Consulté le 08 février 2016. URL:


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