What Traits Are Typical in Successful Agile at Mid-Scale and Above?

Agile at scale takes more than Agile in teams. This article lists several of the most-important elements of this picture of Lean and therefore Agile at scale. 

Main Topics

  • There are common elements needed for success at scaling Agile to larger organizations.
  • In most cases, “one size fits all” is an ineffective approach to transitioning to Agile at scale.

Common Elements of Agile at Larger Scales

Net Objectives has been assisting large scale clients become Agile for many years, both with programs tailored for their organizations based on the Lean-Agile Framework (LAF), as well as by applying the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) to the particulars of the organization. Both approaches are based on a broader understanding of Lean as it applies to software.

Aspects of Lean Needed for Success

This broader view of Lean can be thought of as a combination of Lean-Thinking, Lean-Management, Lean-Culture and Lean-Tools. All four of these are needed to become effective in Agile at scale, and can be summarized as follows:

  • Lean-Thinking is essentially the “laws” of lean.  This is systems thinking, flow, building quality in. Many like to think of software as a craft or art.  While there are these aspects in software development, there is at least as much science.
  • Lean-Management is the transformation of managers to leaders and coaches.
  • Lean-Culture is an attitude of continuous learning and the agreement between managers and developers that they will work together to improve their methods.  In includes an attitude of win-win-win (company wins, customer wins, employees win).
  • Lean-Tools are used to help us get our work done.  Kanban, 5-whys, visual controls and A3s are such common tools.

Lean-Inspired Practices Leading to Success

In working with large organizations transitioning to Agile methods, we have found that success comes from the following:

  • Work must be driven from business need and organized in a hierarchy of portfolio, program and team
  • Architectural and technical issues must have a representative equal to the business stakeholders of the organization
  • Work must be decomposed starting with business capabilities until it is broken down into features.  Using Minimum Business Increments (MBIs) is invaluable
  • The product owner role must be expanded into a product manager and product owner role
  • There needs to be enterprise and system architect roles to manage technical issues associated with design
  • Someone needs to be responsible for managing the development value stream
  • Teams must coordinate via shared backlogs and synchronize on a regular basis
  • Using cross-functional team structure whenever it is economically viable
  • Planning deals with expected releases, risk management, dependency management and how to coordinate work
  • The proper work flow order, typically including some form of acceptance test-driven development, is considered.
  • Taking a realistic approach and recognizing where you are.  This includes addressing your ability to accept change, current state of technical debt, degree automated testing and degree of continuous integration.

It is interesting that most practitioners find these self-evident.  I suspect that is because they are facing, first hand, the issues involved here.  Most consultants, on the other hand, often attempt to take their approaches and see how to apply them to the job at hand.  Or, as often as not, apply their approaches regardless of where they are.

Oddly enough, the Scrum approach of force-fitting a particular approach (cross-functional teams working in a time-boxed manner) and the Kanban Method approach of always creating visibility and implementing a kanban system before doing organizational change are both variations of a one-size fits all mentality that only works well when the organization is already fairly-well aligned with their recommendations.

Summary

Implementing Agile at mid- and above scale requires more structure and preparation than does Agile at the team level. The deeper thinking required comes from the principles of Lean.

This article listed a set of actions an organization can take to be successful with Agile at scale. It cannot, however, be assumed that the organization is ready for them at the outset of its effort. The transition must begin with where the organization actually is at, and progress towards the more Lean and Agile condition described here.