In many organizations, Agile takes root in software development teams aiming to deliver more value to the customer, faster. While this is a great start, meaningful organizational change comes from scaling Agile: enabling teams across the enterprise to use Agile frameworks and techniques to transform the way work gets done and improve the products or services delivered to end users.
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Scaling Agile delivers significant and measurable benefits.
Seventy-five percent of organizations with high agility report a minimum of 5% year-over-year revenue growth, compared with only 29% of organizations with low agility.
Further, research indicates that Agile transformation can reduce time to market by at least 40%. Scaling Agile isn’t just about creating more efficient teams; it’s about differentiating the business.
Scaling Agile requires extending Agile principles beyond software development and IT to the rest of the business, both horizontally and vertically. Scaling Agile can bring about tremendous benefits at every level of the organization, but it also introduces more challenges than the relatively straightforward process of implementing Agile in a single team.
Let’s look at what scaling Agile requires, common challenges faced by companies scaling Agile, how to overcome those challenges, and the benefits of doing so successfully.
What does “scaling Agile” mean?
Scaling Agile refers to the process of translating established Agile methods, like Scrum and Kanban, to larger groups of people. Traditional Agile teams, according to the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), work best with groups of five to eleven members.
As companies see success in these small groups, they often want to replicate it at a larger team, department, or organizational level. That’s where scaling Agile comes in.
Scaling Agile is not as simple as applying traditional Agile principles to a larger group of people. The Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University identified eight attributes that should be considered when scaling Agile as organizations create programs that implement Agile processes:
- Team size
- Specialization of roles
- Iteration length
- Synchronized cadence
- Release definition
- Batch size
- Product owner role
- User role
Each of these components plays a role in scaling Agile successfully, but getting it “right” is a complex task. For that reason, many enterprises use a scaling Agile framework to guide their efforts.
What are scaling Agile frameworks and how do they compare?
Scaling Agile frameworks are established methodologies designed to address the challenges of implementing Agile at scale. They provide organizations with a roadmap to scaling Agile in an efficient and effective way.
Several frameworks exist to help organizations with scaling Agile, including:
Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®): The Scaled Agile Framework describes itself as a “knowledge base of proven, integrated principles, practices, and competencies for achieving business agility using Lean, Agile, and DevOps.” SAFe is a well-established approach to scaling Agile that includes planning at the team, program, and portfolio level.
The framework introduced the idea of the Agile Release Train (ART) to structure work across teams of 50-125 people, as well as the Release Train Engineer (RTE) as the role at its helm. SAFe requires consistent two- and ten-week iterations, which can work well for organizations with a more established Agile practice but can prove ambitious for companies new to the practice.
Disciplined Agile (DA): Disciplined Agile is “a tool kit that harnesses hundreds of Agile practices to guide you to the best way of working for your team or organization.” DA is less prescriptive than SAFe and oriented more as a foundational approach to Agile than a strict “recipe” for scaling Agile. It emphasizes team roles and a goal-driven approach that makes it more flexible than other scaling Agile frameworks.
Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS): As its name implies, LeSS tackles the challenge of scaling Agile through the specific lens of the Scrum, helping organizations figure out “how to apply the principles, purpose, elements, and elegance of Scrum in a large-scale context, as simply as possible.”
LeSS uses teams as its foundational building blocks, reduces the role of management, and advocates for simplicity versus strictly defined processes. LeSS is recognized as an impactful approach for organizations that already use scrum practices and want to scale Agile in a way that is both streamlined and robust.
[email protected]: Created by Dr. Jeff Sutherland, the co-creator of Scrum and the Scrum Guide, this “lightweight, adaptable scaling framework is known for ‘minimum viable bureaucracy’ via a scale-free architecture and empowering every Scrum team member.” Scrum at Scale follows core concepts including teams of five people, a focus on linear scalability, and an emphasis on reducing the time it takes to make decisions within an organization. Scrum at Scale combines two cycles, the Scrum Master Cycle and the Product Owner Cycle, to coordinate the efforts of multiple teams across the organization.
When it comes to scaling Agile, none of these approaches or their alternatives are right or wrong; the best framework depends on the needs, background, and personality of the teams and the business. Each framework approaches scaling Agile in a different way, but they all acknowledge that it is a challenging process with speed bumps that every organization must overcome.
How to Overcome Three Common Challenges When Scaling Agile
Inspiring and implementing change in a small team is one thing; transforming how an entire organization thinks and how executes work is quite another. Even the most sophisticated Agile software development teams and forward-thinking enterprises face roadblocks when they choose to scale Agile.
Scaling Agile challenges typically fall into three categories: culture, work management, and technology.
Scaling Agile challenge #1: Culture shift
Agile is often described as a culture or shared mindset instead of a set of practices. In the context of scaling Agile, this is both a blessing and a curse. The framework used to scale Agile is less important than the shared mindset behind it, but that shared mindset can be difficult to create. Agile expert and author Steve Denning explains:
The elements of a culture fit together as a mutually reinforcing system and combine to prevent any attempt to change it. Single-fix changes at the team level may appear to make progress for a while, but eventually the interlocking elements of the organizational culture take over and the change is inexorably drawn back into the existing organizational culture.
Denning’s prediction may be dire, but it’s also accurate. Failure to shift company culture is one of the main causes of Agile transformation failure.
Scaling Agile demands that entire organizations think, act, and respond differently in every dimension, from how work is planned, managed, and completed to employee engagement. That shift requires time and intention, but most importantly, it requires commitment from the top.
Scaling Agile successfully starts with company leadership.
Leaders must truly understand the Lean-Agile mindset. This includes prioritizing value, flow, and continuous improvement over milestones and requirements, as well as embracing the ideas of failing fast and learning from ongoing change.
Agile leaders must be ready to challenge the status quo and adjust their management styles. A Lean-Agile mindset fosters servant leadership, in which leaders set the strategic objectives and team capacity, then trust their teams to meet those objectives in the way that works best for them. In this way, leaders support the fundamental Agile principles of accountability and autonomy — key elements of scaling Agile.
Scaling Agile challenge #2: Work management shift
The culture shift required to scale Agile aligns the organization to the principles that people want to do their best work and maximize customer value. To turn those principles into reality, businesses need to shift their work management methods to enable value to flow.
Traditional work and project management approaches start with a fixed scope and estimate the time and resources (people) necessary to achieve that scope. This idea assumes that by defining requirements up front, organizations can reduce risk and increase success.
The Lean-Agile model, on the other hand, flips that paradigm. Time and resources become more fixed through established iteration windows and teams of people while scope becomes more fluid, influenced by constant learning and change. Teams experiment and receive feedback quickly and adjust the scope accordingly so that organizations can adapt in a nimble way.
When scaling Agile, organization can shift their work management approach by:
- Evolving management style from a command-and-control approach to a more open style of leadership, as discussed above
- Adjusting budgeting practices from being project-driven to being determined by value stream
- Modifying team structures to enable rapid experimentation and active collaboration
- Changing communication styles from top-down to more horizontal
- Adapting the role of the PMO from the force that dictates how work gets done to the connecting fabric that promotes knowledge across the enterprise
Scaling Agile challenge #3: Technology shift
Finally, organizations working towards scaling Agile must address their technology stack. Scaling Agile across the enterprise both requires and creates increased visibility, transparency, and information flow. For most organizations, that means evaluating and potentially augmenting or replacing technology solutions.
Technology “silos” are the enemy of scaling Agile.
If financials, capacity planning, and corporate objectives are in one tool, but delivery of work is tracked in a completely different tool (or tools), delivery teams are already disconnected from strategic goals. Technology tools need to support alignment at a tactical level. Even if the culture and workflows are in place, teams can’t scale Agile successfully without the right solutions to underpin their work.
What technology tools can facilitate scaling Agile? It depends, in part, on the organization’s Agile maturity.
If the business already supports multiple Agile teams, scaling Agile may mean implementing a solution that can connect them for improved transparency and flow. Other organizations may need something more robust that can go beyond teams’ and teams of teams’ visibility to map Agile work to the greater portfolio. Look for a tool that allows information and collaboration to flow in both directions, mapping strategic plans down to Agile teams and rolling work, impact, and financial contributions up to strategic objectives.
It’s critical that the solution can grow with the organization as well. What’s right now may not be what is needed in a year or two, and asking teams to completely change their workflows as they mature is often asking too much.
Top Five Benefits of Scaling Agile
While scaling Agile does involve cultural, management, and technology shifts, the benefits far outweigh the challenges. Scaling Agile across the enterprise brings about countless business advantages, both tangible and intangible. From faster time to market to higher customer satisfaction, better ROI to attracting top talent, scaling Agile can truly transform the enterprise.
1. Align strategy and work.
Scaling Agile connects the business’s top-level objectives with the people who are responsible for achieving them. This crystal-clear alignment creates numerous downstream effects, including fostering transparency, boosting cross-team coordination, enabling faster response times, and increasing agility if priorities change or the market shifts.
Further, scaling Agile emphasizes creating Agile Release Trains (ARTs) or teams of teams. This ensures that not only are teams aligned to objectives, but everyone in the organization is centered on producing value for customers.
2. Improve capacity management.
With a scaled Agile approach, capacity management (balancing availability and workload) is aligned to ARTs or teams of teams and reevaluated regularly, often every quarter. This method keeps the focus on creating value while allowing for flexibility and change, empowering leadership to reflect and rebalance on a regular cadence with minimal disruption to organizational flow. Management benefits from persistent, stable teams with historical metrics around delivery, so they can make informed decisions about who can take on how much and what kind of work.
3. Facilitate teams of teams planning.
Scaling Agile across the enterprise involves bringing people from multiple functions and departments together under the same umbrella. This may occur across the whole business in an end-to-end value chain or within departments, like Dev and Ops, but always requires the need for greater alignment and coordination.
Scaling Agile frameworks solve for this through prescribed quarterly planning events that bring cross-functional teams together to build plans that deliver against corporate goals, highlight potential dependencies, and identify risks. These “teams of teams” planning events play a key role in scaling Agile by giving everyone in the organization clear visibility into quarterly deliverables.
4. Enable enterprise-wide visibility.
Visibility doesn’t only come from planning events. Scaling Agile enables enterprise-wide transparency by connecting and visualizing work from every team.
As a result, leaders and managers gain a big-picture view into potential bottlenecks and can make informed choices to allocate work appropriately. Scaling Agile offers the ability to clearly and consistently see how ARTs or teams of teams are delivering, measure their progress, and gauge the financial impact of their work.
5. Engage employees.
Scaling Agile is deeply rooted in trust and autonomy at the team and individual level. People are empowered to make decisions about how their work is delivered and informed about how their work impacts the highest-level business goals. This trust and autonomy translate directly to happier and more engaged employees, who in turn benefit the business with lower turnover rates, greater productivity, and higher satisfaction.
Bring the Benefits of Agile Across the Enterprise
Scaling Agile doesn’t just extend Agile from software development to the rest of the business; it expands its impact as well. United under a common framework, companies can enact meaningful change at every level: individuals are more engaged, teams are more productive, and organizations see real, top- and bottom-line impact. Scaling Agile does have its challenges, but with the right framework, approach, and technology, the benefits can be transformational.