Scale: What It Is, Why It Is Important

Understanding “scale”

Agile started at the team level. Both Scrum and eXtreme Programming were designed and created for single teams. Scale back in 2004 meant three teams working together. So what do we mean by scale now? .

We prefer to define small, mid and large scale by the dynamics present. This means that a very large company can be mid-scale if it has several 100-150 sized mostly independent development groups. In general, what looks like a large scale company could be mid-scale – it doesn’t usually go the other way around.

  • No-scale. Many organizations up to 75 people involved in development work on essentially the same product.  If this is the case, they can be thought of as a small team – even if made up of multiple teams. The key is if they can pull from one backlog.
  • Small-scale. Typically, one stakeholder that may be driving a few teams via product owners. Teams may or may not be truly cross-functional but they all are aligned around creation of the same product or service. Range of size is typically 5 to 15 teams (50-125 people).
  • Mid-scale. There may be several development groups but each one is generally funded by one stakeholder. Multiple teams are pulled in different directions, but still have the sense of one organization. Funding for each comes from one source. A mid-scale program may be a subset of a company’s development group but is able to operate reasonably autonomously from other parts of the group. Range of size is typically 10-100 teams (75-1000 people).
  • Large-scale. Development groups are intertwined and competing for funds. Multiple groups use the same support teams such as shared services and ops. Change is difficult because groups are intertwined with each other.

Dynamics of scale

There are several factors that affect the difficulties of changing an organization:

  • Competition for the same budgets
  • Dependencies between teams
  • Requiring availability of the same services (such as operations or shared services)
  • Culture adverse to change
  • Lack of visibility across groups
  • The organization operating out of silos
  • Number of business stakeholders

There is not a well-defined line from small to medium to large scale. The picture below depicts how the size of an organization alone does not define the scale involved.

Why scale matters

The scale of an organization will affect the approach one takes.

At small scale it is simple enough to start all of the teams doing some team-level approach such as Scrum, Kanban, XP, or Team Agility. Everyone can be trained at the same time and pretty much work in the same manner.

Mid-scale requires more effort but a principle based approach using well-defined steps that result in an emergent method can be used. If the size of the organization being transformed is more than 125 people (Dunbar’s number) then it is likely that working on groups up to 125 people at a time is best.

Large-scale may require a predefined approach to get started. However, staying with the well-defined approach will almost certainly lead to stagnation as no one-sized fits all.