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A beginner’s guide to agile process frameworks

Agile process frameworks
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Starting out on your agile transformation journey? You’ll need to find a framework or hybrid approach that works best with your organisation’s flow.

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Finding your framework feet

Agile is a way of thinking, working, and growing that enables digital transformation and helps your organisation to pivot, innovate, and deliver value to your customers. You may have already heard us talking about the importance of developing an agile mindset or embracing the four facets of agility when striving for transformational success. Here we take a step back and look at agile process frameworks—the glue that holds your agile efforts together as you scale. 

If you’re up to speed with agile theory and are ready to put principles into practice, then you’re ready to implement a framework. Perhaps you’ve dabbled in a couple of approaches already but can’t find the right fit? It might be time to take a fresh look at the framework landscape. Let’s explore some of the key considerations when selecting a framework and talk you through some of the most popular options. 

While you might hear frameworks referred to as ‘agile methodologies’ or ‘agile processes’, it’s worth keeping in mind that agile thinking prioritises individuals and interactions over processes and tools. That means not sticking rigidly to any one approach and being adaptive to what works best for your people and needs. Agile frameworks should act as a jumping off point for your organisation, which you can then customise accordingly.

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What is an agile framework?

The values and principles that underpin agility were outlined in the Agile Manifesto in 2001, but over the years various frameworks have emerged to help organisations put this thinking into action. Simply put, agile frameworks are different approaches based on the Agile Manifesto’s philosophy – although some predate its existence, like Scrum for instance. They are all centred around customer needs, being reactive, and iterative working, and usually incorporate a number of similar elements and behaviours. Their distinction lies in their suitability for different types of teams, organisations, or contexts.

Rapid development and incremental methods of working are not new. Some of these approaches have roots as far back as the late 1940s, such as the Toyota Production System, which invented ‘just in time’ and ‘lean manufacturing’. By the 1990s, technology was par for the course in workplaces, so personal computers had become more commonplace, speeding up business processes and customer expectations. This in turn led to faster development processes and the meteoric rise of frameworks to support them.

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Does my organisation need a framework?

Small businesses and start-ups might be able to get by without following a framework, but as you try to scale, the cracks will start to show. An agile process framework gives everyone an overarching philosophy to live by, guiding your teams and making it much easier to commit to agile practices as the organisation grows. Beyond that, it makes it easier to connect business value with delivery, helps set you apart from your competitors, and puts your goals into perspective.

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Which framework is right for us?

Choice is a good thing, but the range of frameworks out there can make it hard to know which makes most sense for your business. SAFe® might seem like the obvious choice – 70 percent of the Fortune 100 have adopted it – but not all organisations are alike. Each framework has its own strengths and weaknesses. Some are terrific for taking teams further, while others are more suited to scaling your practices – whether that’s growing your teams, increasing market share or revenue, or launching new products and services. Here are a few things to consider before you commit to a framework:

  • Size – the size of your organisation and your product portfolio. Think about where you’re at now and where you’re heading.
  • Structure – how is your organisation structured (teams, projects, products, etc.)?
  • Resources – what experience and resources do you have available? What is your budget?
  • Stakeholders – what do your people need? What problems are they trying to solve? How do they work best?
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Five agile frameworks in the frame

To help you on your framework-finding journey, let’s take a look at five of the most popular.

1. Scrum 

Chances are if you’ve heard of nothing else to do with agile, you’ve heard about Scrum. The rugby ‘scrum’ analogy – of the ball getting passed between the team as it moved up the field – was included in a 1986 Harvard Business Review article titled ‘The New New Product Development Game’. Scrum was implemented for the first time in 1993 at the Easel Corporation. It’s one of the most well known and popular frameworks out there. It’s fairly lightweight and aimed at helping people, teams, and organisations to develop complicated software and products, prioritising delivering completed work in small increments. 

For an organisation to adopt Scrum, they need to empower teams to hold dual operational roles, such as a Scrum Master (who oversees the environment), a Product Owner (who guides the direction of work, helping teams to delivery the most customer value), and a Development Team, which can be comprised of developers, designers, writers, and QA, (that delivers a selection of the work during a designated ‘Sprint’). The team then inspects the results, makes adjustments, and goes again. Scrum includes regular events or rituals, including Sprints, Daily Scrums, and Retrospectives.

2. SAFe®

SAFe® or Scaled Agile Framework for Enterprise® incorporates plenty of Scrum, as well as elements of Kanban and XP. Designed for larger projects and scaling enterprises, it comprises lean, agile, and DevOps principles and processes for team, program, and portfolio levels within the organisation. It includes two-week sprint cycles at the team level; innovation planning sprints and five sprint cycles at the program level; and optimises value streams to help leadership prioritise epics at the portfolio level.

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Building software at scale with SAFe® and Atlassian tools

Building software at scale with SAFe® and Atlassian tools

SAFe® doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, a two-year adoption roadmap is recommended. And it’s not an easy framework to implement, requiring a significant level of expertise across seven core competencies, including agile product delivery, organisational agility, and lean portfolio management. When SAFe® 5.0 was introduced, it brought with a new overarching competency – business agility. This is achieved when the business can organise and reorganise quickly, without disrupting the existing hierarchy. It means all seven competencies have been mastered. 

While SAFe® requires a bit more upfront planning and top-down processes than other frameworks, it can be helpful for those making the move from a more traditional approach to software development and for aligning everyone across a larger organisation. It offers more structure while emphasising the importance of autonomy and innovation for agile at scale. 

3. LeSS

LeSS or Large-Scale Scrum applies ‘the principles, purpose, elements, and elegance of Scrum in a large-scale context’. LeSS requires organisations to have a solid grasp of one-team Scrum, but encourages teams to see the product as a whole rather than only focusing on their individual part.

This end-to-end focus requires a mindset shift for the organisation, using lean and systems thinking to keep the framework as light as possible, while guiding your important decisions. When organisations take a whole-product approach, it’s clear when non-integrated software has no value, that teams don’t hand off the bit they’ve been working on without ensuring it’s integrated, and that the whole product is always prioritised over optimising one team. This strategic focus is one of the hardest parts of scaling Scrum. 

While there are differences with LeSS, for example an Overall Retrospective that focuses on how to improve the whole system rather than a specific team, similarly to Scrum it incorporates a single Product Backlog, Product Owner, and single Sprints on a set cadence. LeSS has 10 interrelated engineering and design practices, including CI/CD, test-driven development (TDD), and acceptance testing. Other points of difference worth noting include the fact LeSS regards the Scrum Master as a dedicated full-time job, Product Owners don’t have to participate in every team’s Daily Scrum or Retrospective, and LeSS talks about self-managing rather than self-organising teams. 

4. Here’s an unofficial framework: The Spotify model

In 2012, audio streaming service Spotify shared its people-drive experience of scaling agile with the world – now known as the Spotify model. This unofficial framework is organised around work rather than a set of practices and encourages team autonomy, whereby each team chooses its own agile framework. 

This less formal and ritualistic approach is structured around a simple model comprising of various groups, including cross-functional Squads (similar to Scrum teams), Tribes (multiple Squads working together on the same feature), Chapters (families of specialists to align on best practice), and Guilds (voluntary communities of interest). More flexible than other frameworks, it encourages creativity and experimentation by trusting team members to get on with their work in the way they know best. If nothing else, it’s a great reminder that you can always build your own agile process framework to suit your specific business needs. 

5. DAD

DAD or Disciplined Agile Delivery picks up where Scrum stops, favouring lean techniques with a big-picture focus to help scale your agile efforts and define a fully agile solution delivery lifecycle. It breaks things down into three phases: Inception (early processes like architecture and design), Construction (the doing bit), and Transition (preparing for delivery). 

It offers a much broader appreciation of how agile development works, taking care of processes that Scrum expects you to figure out for yourself. There’s a strong focus on learning where people and customers or users are the top priority. Just like SAFe®, DAD is designed for large organisations with high staff numbers and is particularly geared for remote working. 

And the rest…

These five frameworks aren’t the only ones to consider. For example, XP (Extreme Programming) encourages high quality work with an emphasis on shared workspaces; DSDM (Dynamic Systems Development Method) is an overarching framework fit for every stage of a project and suitable for use beyond software development; the Crystal Method can adapt to teams that change size and approach between projects; and RAD (Rapid Application Development) shuns rigorous planning and embraces frequent iteration. And remember, you can always follow your own framework too! 

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Making it work

Needless to say, agile is not a one-size-fits-all way of working. Different frameworks will suit different individuals, teams, and organisations. And your choice might not remain the same – one framework might be more suitable today for your current people, products, or projects, but next year you might feel differently. 

At Adaptavist, while lots of our clients are looking to scale using SAFe®, we know that finding the right framework for you is what’s most important. Whether you want advice on what might work or need help implementing a framework you’ve already found, we’re here to make adopting an agile approach as easy as possible.

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