Agile – to scale or not to scale…

Agile – to scale or not to scale…

Through working at different organisations, attending a bunch of conferences, meet ups and training courses, I’ve gained first hand experience and had the opportunity to invite a lot of conversations/debates with different people over the last year about enterprise level / scaled agility.

That may sound painful. And it was, especially as I was stuck in a dangerous bias of ‘I think I know what’s best’, but this has revealed some consistent trends.

Common questions re-appear regardless of organisation type, or a persons seniority. Aligned recommendations are coming through from experts in this field who have been doing it for much longer than most of us. Overall the water is still muddy, and maybe even by talking about scaling agile we’re just making it worse…

Here’s a summary so far:

  • Don’t try to copy a case study. They’re incredibly insightful to understand how other organisations have got things working really well and their teams high performing, however they only tell us what emerged from the system within that organisation at that time. The cultures at Spotify, Netflix, Semco etc emerged from within, over time, after many failures. They continue to fail and evolve. It’s highly unlikely that the same exact relationships, age, size and maturity of your company applies, and even if it did it’s still highly unlikely it would work to try to use someone else’s experience as a cookie cutter. Treat these examples as an opportunity for shared understanding and learning – but if you simply try to copy someone else you will fail.
  • Leadership intention is the key to success. Who’s the most senior person where you work that understands agile and truly wants positive change? That person and those below them are the people who can help influence the wider organisation. With anyone above / outside of that sphere of influence there’s limited value of trying to invite a conversation with them. There simply has to be buy in from above to be able to implement an iterative way of working at any scale in any organisation and an understanding that this take time for the seeds they plant to be nurtured and grown by the teams. Note here that I talk about leadership intention, understanding and buy in, and not instruction, orders and demands. Very different things.
  • Everyone is struggling with MI. What actually matters? What is the real value that we want report (and how the hell do we measure it anyway)? The same questions are being asked everywhere, and there’s no solid answer, but I loved this quote from Dan Brown at the recent SeaconUK conference:

‘when a change in the result leads to a change in behaviour, only then are you measuring the right thing’

  • There’s a collective desire to improve the way we work. There are some seriously cool people out there, trying to make the world a better place. Actively trying to improve themselves and help organisations they work with. Willing to experiment and learn. To share information and offer advice and guidance. The more places I go the more I meet people like this. They’re everywhere!! Don’t focus on the slow adopters and laggards, go find the people with a positive outlook, first hand experience, good intentions and help them spread the love.
  • There’s a collective frustration when it comes to scaled agile. Despite all these cool, smart people talking about it and experimenting with different things in different organisations, most express frustration and disappointment. Rarely do you find someone who talks about it with vigour and enthusiasm. More often shoulders slump, heads go down and sighs are released. There’s still more questions than there are answers.
  • The framework / tools don’t matter (and often just makes things worse). This one is super important. The more attached organisations are to doing things ‘by the book’ or because ‘that’s what the framework says’, the more they move away from success. The goal is not to become SAFe or to do LeSS. The goal is the work in a more iterative, experimental way, across an organisation. All the frameworks are just tools, none are a silver bullet. Tobias Mayer (author of The People’s Scrum) recently posted this on LinkedIn:

When you purchase a (so-called) “Agile tool” to track your Scrum implementation you are buying someone else’s process. Given that Scrum /isn’t/ a process, but a framework that allows teams to create and continuously improve their own process, buying a fixed process from a tool vendor is about the most un-Agile thing you can do. Think about it—and buy a pack of index cards instead.

  • Our language matters more than you imagined possible. Beware of organisations that tell stakeholders they are going to make their IT department to adopt agile. Be more interested in those that are curious to see if they can help teams to self organise to see if this enhances the culture and speed of delivery. More on this one here.

What’s the conclusion? Unsurprisingly it seems it’s the intention and the outcome that’s important, so the more we focus on these rather than the process and the output, the more likely we are to succeed, as individuals, as teams, and, possibly, as bigger organisations…

So, whether your organisation is trying to scale agile or not, at the individual and team level it’s not what we do, it’s how we go about it that matters. It’s the focus on ourselves and our team and creating the space to invite: flow; curiosity; enthusiasm; growth and even love for each other and for the work we do that will result in positive change.

This is not something you can buy. This is not something you can force people to do.  It’s something that takes time, nurturing and patience, but there’s really not much more to it than that.

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