Scaling agile is the wrong approach

June 16, 2014

The heart of agile software development is feedback loops. Doing a bit of software, looking at it, at how we did it and then improving things as we do another bit of software. The “things” that can be improved can be quality, scope, usability, performance etc. etc. Perhaps most importantly, relationships and ways of working can also be improved.

This rapid feedback cycle ensures that product development is aligned to customer needs, that progress against guestimates is understood (so that plans can be refined) and that teams which include customers find problems early, and so can fix them, as quickly as possible. It’s a quicker, better, cheaper and happier way of working.

What about that needs to scale? Empirical feedback is just fine at any scale. Across 100s of teams or teams-of-teams and entire organisations short term feedback cycles work perfectly well.

The problem – Portfolio Management?

The problem is that there’s other stuff that goes on too. Product Development in big or complex organisations is part of an investment portfolio and costs a lot of money. So people want to track it and check that work that they’re paying for is delivering, and is aligned to strategy.

The answer… short feedback cycles. Feedback cycles let you measure what you’re spending and you can go and have a look at the output to check it’s delivering business value.

The problem – Programmes?

Sometimes software solutions aren’t simple products or mashups. Sometimes they’re big/complex combinations of things developed internally, externally or collaboratively with partners. In these cases we sometimes need to align teams towards common scope and architecture so that products can work together to deliver business value. Collections of Projects working together  = Programmes.

This means we need an understanding of the stories across products (I call these Integration Scenarios) and the common product family architecture (Solution Architecture).

The answer… short feedback cycles. Feedback cycles at product level work as described above. At Product Family level contributing product releases can be brought together to form a Product Family Release – as often as possible to get feedback working. (Hint: 10 weeks is too long, especially if integration fails because 20 is definitely too long). Continuous, event-driven integration streams enable flexible and recursive short feedback cycles.

The problem – Support Costs?

If teams are chasing the latest shiny technology all the time then a large organisation can quickly end up in a support hell of mixed platforms, technologies, middlewares, deployment stacks, licensing and support costs. Needing to recruit specialists in everything and duplicating operational environments.

This one can be partly solved by moving the external complexity to external clouds (where the diversity is embraced and normal) and also by (lightweight!) Enterprise Architecture. Lightweight Enterprise Architecture makes technology choices for the organisation (for it’s mainstream development, it shouldn’t constrain research & innovation) to prevent this fragmentation in the first place.

This can also be partly solved by getting IT Operations stakeholders involved early and often as part of the holistic team (DevOps) along with the other stakeholder sets.

Of course it needs checking to make sure it’s still a good idea and that it’s aligned to strategy. Probably should do that frequently and empirically… short feedback cycles.

Don’t scale the practices, just be agile!

Often proponents of “Agile at scale” or “scaled Agile” will talk about scaling Scrum (or similar). Using practices that work really well at team iteration level to run a business strategy, or a team of teams of teams (at programme level). In my experience that’s not a great idea, just because you’ve got a hammer doesn’t mean every problem in an organisation is a nail.

Staged daily standups or scrum-of-scrums are just painful to behold. Execs don’t want a strategy backlog, nor do organisations want architecture to emerge with no regard for support costs, recruitment or cross-project dependencies.

If I was invited to a 2 day planning session I’d probably walk out of the door never to return. I’d rather watch animated musicals on repeat.

We don’t need to scale agile, we just need to be agile… with a little “a”. Short feedback cycles, a focus on people and relationships with tight customer collaboration. Open, transparent and empirical collaboration between people – that’s the right approach. One that work at every level of an organisation.

Recursive feedback cycles enable scaled agile

Feedback cycles scale to all levels of an enterprise