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Agile at Scale

Monday, January 16, 2017

Doing Agile in small pockets is relatively easy to kick off and make work - the real challenge is doing this at scale. Just like waterfall project delivery, there are significant challenges in ensuring alignment and the right focus when you have multiple initiatives running simultaneously with cross dependencies, impacting the same users and systems, all calling out for funding. The natural inclination is to put in controls and standardise where possible - yet these can quickly kill the benefits of delivering in an Agile way. You want to give Agile teams autonomy, with room to experiment and fail fast, so how can this be managed?

Frameworks exist which help provide guidance on how to use Agile at scale. The two most common are LeSS (Large Scale Scrum) and SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework). At Enfuse Group we currently favour SAFe, although this by no means perfect and still evolving. Whatever framework you choose needs to be tailored to your needs. The key is to simplify where possible. Anyone who has seen the diagram for SAFe will know what I mean.

Whilst every company has different considerations for how Agile will best work at scale for them, outlined below are what we believe to be the the most common considerations worth calling out.

How to secure funding: Are you able to change your change funding model at the enterprise level?

Ongoing funding for Agile product lines is key, so consider how you will obtain and manage this at scale. Whilst a few Agile projects could be given special dispensation in terms of budget pots, convincing an organisation to do this at a grander scale is not a simple ask. Senior execs will get very nervous, especially if you go all Agile on them and don’t provide detailed budgets, deliverable lists and plans. 

Educate your execs on Agile and the funding implications, and work with them to come up with an approach that works for your enterprise. Sometimes you can’t get continuous funding, but that isn’t the only option. For instance, one major media company we have worked with funds a 6 week project for each product; 3 weeks before the end of the project another 6 week project is approved and the cycle continues. This is effective for them.

How to resource your Agile world: How will you recruit, nurture and train people to fit into your Agile enterprise?  

With a few Agile projects you can cherry pick people with the right mindsets and previous experience, but at scale you will not have that luxury. When doing Agile at the enterprise scale you will quickly find that many of your people cannot easily make the transition to your Agile model. For example, at Enfuse Group we regularly see organisations try to move BAs into Product Owner roles only to find that at best 70% can make the leap, whilst at worst you're probably looking at 30%. This is one of the reasons we often recommend companies to take it slow with scaling Agile – if you go too fast you will not be able to get in the right people and you will fail.

How to co-ordinate your products: What are your products and how will you align these? Will you have product groups or sub products? Will these be completely autonomous from one another? 

If you are a long standing organisation it is likely you will have integrated systems and business units with awkward cross overs. Be clear on what your products are, the system implications and how much overlap there will be between your products. Realise that doing Agile at scale means that you will need to co-ordinate efforts - especially at the beginning. 

Within your product groups you will need to ensure alignment to an overall product vision and the right prioritisation of funding and resources in the group. Consider how you might organise Product Owner forums to get your product owners to work together, identify and minimise cross dependencies and to plan for joint releases where necessary.

How to decouple your systems: Will your systems hold you back? 

Traditional, long standing organisations have the challenge of legacy systems. These can be tightly integrated, meaning that regular and often releases to a system is problematic as one small change can affect multiple systems. For Agile teams this is a significant challenge. Agile teams are trying to release quickly but extensive testing and co-ordination of releases is needed to mitigate against the risk of unforeseen issues. The answer is a painful one - you need to come up with a strategy to systematically decouple your systems over time. Companies like Amazon have done this to enable them to deliver changes at speed through Agile teams, and anyone looking to embrace Agile at scale will need to do the same.

How to get the right Product Owners: Do you have people who can easily do the Product Owner role? 

This is an emerging field and one we see the least consistency in despite its importance. By definition the people currently in your business who will be the natural fits will already hold significant positions and will therefore be in high demand; they will naturally attempt to do the Product Owner role part time or even at the side of their desk. 

Consider how to get the right training to these people and how to get enough of their time. Consider introducing roles such as Product Analyst to support them (but be careful these roles don’t turn into surrogate Product Owner roles).

How to get the right leadership: Agile requires collaborative and empowering leadership styles. Are your leaders of this type? 

If not, they will need to change or be changed out for the right type of leaders. If you are looking to do Agile at scale then you need to acknowledge that this is a fundamental change, and change like that will require fundamental changes to your leadership team in terms of style and membership.

How to get the right working environment: Can you provide the right environment for multiple Agile teams?

Sure, one Agile team can get a special area to revamp for its purposes, but at scale can you revamp your entire office? What about off site third parties who are part of your team? There’s no easy answer here. You’ll need to look at collaboration software which is suited to helping Agile teams work together across multiple locations. 

You should certainly look at remodelling your office area, building collaboration spaces and giving an open vibe. For the long term you should even look at new office space. Many of our clients like to build digital hubs for their more progressive Agile teams, and then use them to experiment with new office layouts which they then bring back into their office HQ.

How to get enough headroom: Do you have the remit to make mistakes and to stick to your goals? 

Things will not go completely right when you try to scale Agile. When the mistakes occur the naysayers will be at the door wanting to put in controls and measures which will only lead to more problems. Make sure you have set the right expectations up front, and that you have the right backing at the top of the organisations to give you the headroom you need when things get rocky. The human reaction to issues with any change is to divert back to the old, proven way of doing things. Be ready to fight for your corner.