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5 min read

Don't bother scaling agile unless...

Jon Kern
20 April 23 Agile
Don't bother scaling agile unless...

Introducing agile to your business is one thing, but scaling agile is an altogether different ball game. It involves big thinking and can lead to big rewards. However, an appetite to scale will only get you so far; your organisation needs the fundamentals in place before you can take agile across your business.

Businesses that scale agile prematurely can easily find themselves out of their depth and struggling to keep momentum. With the right foundations in place, you can move at a sustainable pace and function effectively as an agile team. 

The big question is, are you ready to scale and propel your agile transformation?

One of Adaptavist’s leading agile consultants is Jon Kern, who is also co-author of the Agile Manifesto, and he knows the pitfalls of scaling agile too early. We caught up with Jon to discuss the key issues that organisations need to consider before they take their business agility further.

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Before you scale agile

Master the foundations 

When it comes to deciding whether you should scale, the best approach is don’t run before you can walk. Jon explains, “Human nature means we tend to want to scale too fast. But layering in more processes and a larger tool stack may not help your team perform as you scale. Building strong foundations means making sure you function as a small-scale agile part of the organisation before you step up to the next level.”

All too often, Jon sees companies that want their development teams to be agile and ‘go faster’. Jon continues, “The product organisation and indeed, most of the company, are often mired in waterfall mentality. It’s tragic to see how the non-agile part of an organisation can take eight months to decide on eight weeks' worth of development work. And they want the development teams to go faster? It’s sheer madness!”

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"A big business starts small."
Richard Branson, British entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group

Build your ‘A-Team’ 

So you are about to add your 50th remote development team? How have the other 49 worked out for you? Instead of heaping on more resources, you should approach agile at scale with a different perspective. 

The antidote to adding more people or teams is to create your ‘tiger team’ – an all-star ‘A-Team’ of cross-functional, skilled individuals, who come together with a shared goal to solve high-priority problems. This ‘tiger team’ can act as future agile ambassadors setting the standard for when you scale.

When putting together your ‘A-Team’ team, it’s not always about choosing experts. “Experts can sometimes hold an organisation hostage with their expertise,” says Jon. “Better that you focus on assembling the most collaborative, cross-functional team who can have rich, meaningful conversations around value delivery.”

Collaboration and communication are two important factors in agile. You can tick all the boxes technically, but the process will not run smoothly and be agile without true collaboration – where EVERYONE has shared ownership in a specific outcome. This includes the customer, the business, the product people, and the technical team.

By working collaboratively and operating as a cross-functional team, you can move away from working in silos. Otherwise you may just be merely cooperating between silos, supporting each other’s project, mistaking activity and busyness for progress rather than working together to achieve a shared goal.

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Beware of the silo trap. The more silos and process steps you have, the less likely you can scale agile

Focus on individuals and interactions

Many fall into the trap of prioritising tools and processes above people and interactions. It’s easy to believe that processes or technology solve problems. The truth is they might, but it’s most likely they might not if you’re not an agile organisation. It’s a risk.  

Jon maintains, “You should always start with individuals and interactions – we added this as one of the core values of the Agile Manifesto for good reason. Teams that are made up of highly collaborative people will naturally create a process, and they will even create tools to help them collectively deliver more results more effectively. You need to focus on your people, and foster a shift in mindset. If you can unlock that, the rest falls away.”

Most problems stem from lack of interactions. When people work in silos, they limit meaningful conversations and cross-functional collaboration. Collaboration is at the heart of individuals and interactions. The more complex your work and organisation, the more critical interactions are. Tear up the old idea of the team working as separate entities and focus on creating the conditions for interactions, making sure they all connect to an overall common vision.

Innovation happens at the ‘fuzzy edges’

Jon emphasises the importance of the ‘fuzzy edges’ – the unclear or undefined elements of what we are striving to do. The imprecise driving forces of the possible, the vision, the product mantra. He stresses, “Cast aside the idea of the ‘perfect process– it goes against creativity and innovation. It fights against the very thing you need to distinguish yourself as a business. All too often, I see glimmers of innovation pop up, only to be squashed to smithereens by someone exerting the standard process, or reminding everyone about the 50-page requirements document we worked on for eight months where we ‘figured it all out.’”

“Many are drawn to the idea of turning the complex into the complicated, wanting to squash the messy parts.” Jon continues, “Do not rush to compartmentalise or unitise everything into neat little boxes (or some grid ranking system) and throw out the ‘fuzzy thinking’. Instead, recognise and celebrate the ‘fuzzy’, cleaving off bits of understanding along the way as you uncover it. And apply this recursively from Product to Epic to Feature. This is how you can separate yourself as a business. Often, it’s in the fuzzy edges where creative interactions and innovation take place.”

From fuzzy to fast 

When it comes to scaling agile, fight the urge to turn it into a one-size-fits-all process. But naturally, when dealing with large projects, it becomes more difficult to support conversations and collaborations. And that’s where the right tools can help.

Tools such as Jira, Jira Align and even Confluence can help you visualise, manage and collaborate on work at every level. For example, you can use a tool like Confluence with success for roadmapping ideas, whittling down the ideas and eventually taking the good ones into Jira as features to be delivered. Once in Jira, you can use Jira metrics to show how your team is performing, monitoring your organisation’s flow as you make changes.

Whichever tool you use to collaborate, remember to start simple, build a workable process and learn the tradeoffs. Don’t forget to consider what you do NOT need to do, as much as what you do need to. And make sure you express outcomes – you don’t want to become a ‘feature factory.’

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"Don’t bother scaling agile unless you’ve mastered the art of agile in the small."
Jon Kern, Adaptavist transformation consultant and co-author of the Agile Manifesto

Be agile, don’t simply do agile

The bigger the business, the stronger the foundations need to be. Agile is simple, but it is not easy. Agile is also a personal practice – just like yoga, ballet, rock climbing. Jon closes his talks with: “Being agile starts with me and it starts with you (and your people).” In other words, it is not for ‘those people over there’ to become agile.

“The key point is,” says Jon, “don’t bother scaling agile unless you’ve mastered the art of agile in the small. The fundamentals as outlined in the Agile Manifesto are so important. Until you have established a high-functioning agile team who have an agile mindset and collaborate, you shouldn’t even consider taking agile wider. And make sure you navigate away from blind scaling – adding more people, processes or tools is not going to lead to business agility.”

Jon will save for another time how important architecture, design and technical practices are for scaling. Watch this space!

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If you want to take your agility to the next level, our experienced team of consultants like Jon Kern can support your transformation. Our agile consulting services include agile mentoring, executive workshops, business agility assessments, agile at scale, tool implementation and more. 

Get in touch so we can discuss your goals and the right solution for your business.

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