Disciplined Agile

What Does It Mean to Scale Agile?

Scaling agile can mean different things. There are at least these different interpretations:

  • We’re doing agile at a few teams and want to ‘scale it to the organization.’
  • We’re doing agile for some projects and want to ‘scale the size of the projects.’
  • We’re doing agile for a part of our value stream and want to ‘scale it to the entire value stream.’

These are quite different, and one is usually not a good idea, another is sometimes a good idea and one is almost always a good idea. Let’s look at each of these.

Agility at scale describes in more depth the different aspects involved when scaling agile.

Scaling Agile Across the Organization by Spreading Single-team Agile

Many companies start with agile at the team level (most often with Scrum). Then they want to scale agile by replicating it across the organization. This is fine if the teams are independent but using this simplistic method can be troublesome if teams need to work together. If that’s the case they are essentially trying to apply a method that was designed for a single team to a multi-team situation.

Scrum-of-scrums was introduced to solve this challenge, but it can be insufficient for different reasons:

  • Cross-team challenges are different from intra-team challenges.
  • The method of gating work for a single team (only allowing a sprint’s worth of work into the sprint) does not work well for a group of teams with several stakeholders.
  • When teams learn agile, they tend to focus on themselves and optimized for themselves. Coordinating the work of several teams means that more advanced teams might need to slow down.

We are not suggesting that scrum-of-scrums can’t be useful.  But it requires two behaviors which are often not present:

  • All work needs to be driven by business value.
  • There must be a spirit of collaboration between teams.

Doing Agile for Some Projects and Then Scale the Size of the Projects

Making projects bigger is more scaling, in general, than scaling agile. If the project can accommodate more people in an effective way this might work, but from an agile perspective this doesn’t make much sense since the benefits of agile rapidly diminish with larger team size.

Not only is it more difficult to work as a cohesive team if the team is too large, but it will also require a more extensive support organization in terms of SMEs, component team interactions, etc. This type of scaling is typically ineffective and should be avoided.

Doing Agile for Part of the Value Stream and Scale It to the Entire Value Stream

The value stream is the sequence of work from beginning to end to bring a concept into fruition. Attending to the entire value stream is important because delays in any part of it will delay the realization of business value; expanding agile across the whole value helps to maximize the realization of business value.

Having value steams partially in play is not as effective as making each value stream completely agile. Business value includes customer value, compliance issues, operations cost, risk and more. A good first step is to get alignment across the organization as to what truly constitutes business value for the organization.

Better: You Want to Have Agile at Scale, Not Scale Agile

It is important that we understand the difference between agile at scale and scaling agile. Agile at scale means the organization is agile. It can develop, deliver and pivot quickly. But it doesn’t mean that the projects are scaled. Large projects are an anathema to agile as are large teams. 

Just because it is possible to hold planning events to coordinate hundreds of people it doesn’t mean it is the best practice. In fact, large projects are usually a symptom of not being able to decouple functionality or not being able to properly organize teams. Sometimes getting started with big planning events is all you can do. But whatever method you start with needs to be able to help you evolve away from them.

With a good understanding of the science of flow and a set of practices to create small, (semi-)independent teams it is possible to create a custom-fit approach that works.

Evolve Way of Working (WoW) discusses the different aspects of continuous improvement.

June 2023