What Makes an Organization “Mid-sized” (or Above)?

In teams, peer-to-peer relationship is the glue that coordinates everyone. In larger organizations, peer-to-peer relationship can no longer keep the higher number of people connected well enough to accomplish a shared purpose.

That is when Lean ideas and structures pick up and create… This article discusses differences between team-sized and mid-scale or above, and some factors to consider in determining where an organization fits on this spectrum.

Main Points

  • How Scrum implements peer-to-peer relationship
  • Clues of the scale of an organization
  • Lean practices that pick up where peer-to-peer leaves off

Agile at Scale Starts With Recognizing Scale

For the last couple of decades we have worked with scores of companies and talked to literally hundreds more.  Different size organizations have differing dynamics.  This might appear obvious (it actually does to systems thinkers) but many people still deny or just ignore this reality.

Scrum is a good team framework for independent teams working by themselves. The team dynamics of Scrum – cross-functional, time-boxed, more coach than leader – enables an independent team to work well.  Scrum grew out of the idea that a product development team should be given its own reins, so to speak.   But the dynamic on which Scrum as based – peer to peer – doesn’t hold up for larger sizes.

Clues to an Organization’s Scale

Our experience with software development organizations is that their scale is indicated by several factors:

  • Size (number of people > 100)
  • Geographic location (distributed)
  • Managerial organization (strong hierarchy)
  • Whether they are cross-functional (an advanced mid-scale or above)
  • Number of business stakeholders for which they are working (several)
  • Whether developer and tester are separate roles (larger scale if so)

The bottom line is that peer-to-peer relationship that works so well in Scrum teams is not the same relationship in so many other organizations.  The social dynamics are quite different from teams in the <10, 10-25, 25-50, 50-100, 100-200, 200-400 and on up.  The idea of 2-pizza teams should make this clear.  But Dunbar’s number, a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships (about 125) also suggests this.

Social Dynamics Change With Scale

Social dynamics are different at different levels of an organization and is that way due to the social dynamics of people – something not easily changed.   Scrum’s attitude that Scrum of Scrum’s across all levels works is no less idealistic than LKU’s ignoring the issue by saying teams are orthogonal to the Kanban Method.

On closer examination of  the few Scrum of Scrums I’ve seen successful for making decisions are actually not the peer to peer approach that Scrum of Scrums is defined to be.  Rather it is a Scrum of the product owners of the Scrum teams.  Something ironically we created almost 10 years ago and documented in the book Lean-Agile Software Development: Achieving Enterprise Agility.

People are tribal in nature.  We care more about the people closest to us than people in our organization further away.  This is not a bad thing.  It is just being human.  When our approach assumes this isn’t true or ignores it completely, bad things will happen.

Lean Practices Help Manage Larger Scale

This is why the Lean practices of creating visibility, having an explicit workflow, and creating a common vision are so critical. The combination of Lean-Thinking (systems thinking, flow, build quality in), Lean-Management (managers as leaders and coaches), Lean-Tools (kanban and more), Lean-Culture (improve the ecosystem, use big and small changes to improve learning) can unite an organizations different roles and levels.

Summary

There are no hard boundaries between small-, mid-, and large-scales of organizations. However, looking at factors like numbers of people, whether teams are collocated or not, the rigidity of managerial hierarchy, the number of business stakeholders, and the specialization of the worker roles, are good indicators when scale has exceeded the team level.

When the scale reaches mid- and above, that is when Lean principles and practices must be introduced to keep the organization working together towards its goals.