Agile Can’t Scale: Fact or Myth? (13 May 2014)

If you define “Agile” as a team-level methodology, then I’ll be a little provocative here and suggest that Team Agile is not scalable.  That’s my observation having worked with Agile PMO and Portfolio Management for the better part of the last eight years with a number of companies.  I’ve watched more than one company crash and burn attempting to scale using Team Agile.

On the other hand, if you are defining “Agile” as an organizational-level methodology, then I not only suggest that Business Agile is scalable, I absolutely know for a fact that it is possible … since we’ve done it, hands-on, for a number of companies.

In the same way that a start-up’s growth curve outstrips a founders ability to lead a maturing organization, is there a point in time that the explosive growth of an Agile implementation outpaces the ability of the organization to continue on a productive path?

In the case of Team Agile the answer is yes.

In the case of Business Agile the answer is no since it is designed to scale Agile to the entire Enterprise.

First, we should probably differentiate between Team Agile and Business Agile.  As these descriptions imply, Team Agile is Agile used at the team level.  This would include tools like Scrum, XP, Kanban, Scrumban, etc.  Each one of these tools is optimized for single teams of 7 people, +/- 2.  We can look at it like this:

Agile Optimized for Team Level

Business Agile, on the other hand, extends beyond the Agile Team to the entire organization.  It includes the balance of Business Content and Leadership that is not naturally or normally involved at the team level where, typically, the Product Owner is the Voice of the Customer (and the balance of the organization).  The reason Team Agile works so well at the team level is that it limits the team size and thus reduces the number of communication channels and it allows intrinsic motivations to drive team success.  The same idea applies to the Business Agile level, but for other reasons.

Moving from Team Agile to Business Agile is a journey.  It looks something like the following:

From Vision to Scaled Business

At the beginning of the journey, the risk is higher and the value-added is lower.  As the organization matures, it learns how to mitigate risk and higher value is added.  All businesses, whether they started out Agile or not, go through a process similar to this.  Let’s focus on the Journey from Team Agile to Business Agile, which mirrors the voyage from lower value-add to higher value-add:

Journey Team Agile to Business Agile

Somewhere along the way, usually between “Entrepreneur” and “Producer,” an organization will begin to experience growing pains.  Even companies that started out “Agile” right from the start will not be immune to this.  Some will try to avoid scaling since they don’t believe it’s necessary. And so they do everything in their power to shield the teams from having to deal with a new layer of organizational complexity that they believe adds little to no value.  And, for those companies transitioning from a Waterfall to Agile culture, there is more work to be done on this trip (than a start-up) and it will take between five to seven years, minimum, to move to a fully Business Agile culture.

Governing Team thru Business Agile

While Team Agile has been optimized for the team, Business Agile is optimized for a scaled enterprise.  The Programs and Portfolios are self-organized and self-governed at the Executive and Senior Management levels.  And, so far, I haven’t seen a larger organization (yet) that doesn’t typically use some form of PPM (Project Portfolio Management), whether or not they actually call it that.

The very nature of growing organizations is hierarchical, even if they grew organically from the start.  Team Agile will work well in small settings like from the Visionary start-up up through to somewhere around the Entrepreneurial level as shown above.  There is, however, a point where the growth of the organization exceeds its ability to retain the original start-up and entrepreneurial cultures that make them such a fun and dynamic place at which to work. It is at that point that a simple structure for scaling to Business Agile is necessary.  The idea is simple, but simple is not easy.  In fact, it is time consuming and in some cases excruciatingly painful.  Wisdom and patience, when implementing Business Agile, are truly important virtues.

The key thing is to implement Business Agile Program and Portfolio Governance in a way that doesn’t disturb the organization’s existing Agile culture.  The risk here is that an organization overreacts to the change and ends up stifling Team Agile by placing layers of complexity on it that add little or no value to what the organization is really trying to achieve.

Governing All Agile with Business Agile

Team Agile is a great place to start for any organization that wants to enjoy the value and benefits that Agile adds to the enterprise.  For those that want to scale agile to the next level, to what we call Business Agile, it will take more than the tools used to manage the team level.  The Program and Portfolio levels both have a cadence that is slower than the project / team level.  Aligning these cadences means that you’ll have three, very different backlogs to manage and implement:

  • The Portfolio Backlog is comprised of Epics
  • The Program Backlog is comprised of Sub-Epics and/or Features
  • The Product Backlog at the team / project level typically has User Stories, but can also have other types of Product Backlog Items

As we’ve stated in the past, the Product Backlog should encompass the entire Vision of the Product.  In the same way, the Program and Portfolio Backlogs should encompass the entire Vision for each of those levels as well.  The management of these Backlogs are the heart and soul of Business Agile Program and Portfolio governance.

These Backlogs need to be constructed in a way so that they do not disturb the team-level culture and it is import to recognize and understand that the cadences for each of these levels is different.  It involves a lot of simplification, forced prioritization, and removing a large number of the “templates” that a PMO would be tempted to use from traditional PPM.  It is also essential to define the organizational level Vision and KPIs that will be used to lead and manage the Programs and Portfolios.

We are able to offer the most comprehensive tool set in Scandinavia for implementing Business Agile, including:

  • The UVF (Unified Vision Framework), the Business Agile Leadership Framework for infusing an Agile Culture throughout the organization
  • SAFe (the Scaled Agile Framework), an Agile methodology for managing Portfolios, Programs and Teams
  • Management 3.0, what managers need to know in order to enable Agile in their organization and Teams

UVF w SAFe and M30

Business Agile is scalable, as long as your organization is willing to take a holistic, long-term view on how to get from Vision to a Scaled Enterprise.  Our view is that Business Agile is the next wave … and, one that heals the rift between Teams and Management that was inadvertently created by well-meaning (but misguided) Agile “purists” that really didn’t understand the roadmap required to Scale Agile to the enterprise level.  58% of all Agile projects fail according to Dr. Sutherland (co-creator of Scrum).  This level of failure is three times better than traditional methodologies that fail at a rate as much as 86% of the time.  However, we believe a 58% failure rate is still unacceptable.  We also believe that a limitation to better success rates is the inability of organizations to scale, causing friction and dissonance that is unnecessary and counter productive.

It has been said that 90% of all project management is communications.  We agree.

It is time to communicate how to bridge the cultural gap from entrepreneurial start-up to mature operational excellence.  This requires leadership and a simple framework.  We have found that using a lean, Business Agile leadership framework is the fastest and easiest way to accomplish it.







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