Individuals, Teams, Systems – The Evolution of Agile at Scale

building for scaling agile blog 2

If you have any interest at all in agile, if you read agile blogs, if you follow agile trends, you most certainly have been (over) exposed to one phrase “scaled agile.” I, myself, recently received a certification for one of the new scaled agile programs. While I enjoyed the training I find myself not 100% convinced of its effectiveness.

Perhaps it is because of its very novelty that I remain skeptical.  Perhaps it is because I know front line people in companies referenced as successfully adopting who do not agree to the efficacy.  Perhaps it is because “scaling ” has simply become the latest excuse from management why agile cannot be adopted at their company (as in why should we bother when agile has not been Provence to scale).  In the end though I think the reason that I am lukewarm on the idea is because companies have been latching on to scaling before doing the initial groundwork.  in other words, scaling has become a red herring that induces companies to put the cart before the horse or the system before the team.

Once upon a time I coached one of the most amazing agile scrum teams. They were able to deliver things that their management found quite unbelievable so much so that they conveyed a meeting to find answers to why this particular group of people were able to so greatly outperform others in the organization. As an aside I was not originally invited to the meeting but the team lobbies for me to be there as they considered me one of the team and, as a team member, partially responsible for their success.

I remember very well one manager in particular gushing about the team performance and wondering aloud how such a miraculous feat could be “scaled.” “It is very much like the legends of people working together out of their garages,” the manager said, “but how can such a thing” he paused briefly to allow the group to understand what came next would be important, “be scaled?”

Before I realized that the question was merely a rhetorical one to introduce us to the new management buzzword “scaling”, I opened my mouth to answer. “Why we just create more garages,” I said. The answer, which I still stand by to this day, was roundly ignored by aforementioned manager and his manager reports and was about as welcome as a tart in a crowded elevator.  What I realized too late was that “scaling” was management’s way of avoiding any action, especially action that might involve hard work and opposition.

So, you might say, scaled agile to the rescue. Not so fast my friend. My amusing anecdote above was all about creating good teams (and creating more good teams). Agile at scale is about creating a good overall system. There is no need to scale agile until you have enough teams doing agile.

Here is the way I like to explain the evolution to scaled agile. Waterfall is inefficient because it tries to optimize individuals at the expense of teams. Good teams have a higher productivity, shorter time to market, higher quality, etc than individuals.  Enter Scrum. Scrum, when done correctly, optimizes teams. This is a huge advance and if your agile evolution ended here, you would have come a very long way.  Nevertheless it frequently happens that we cam optimize teams at the expense of the system. Once we reach this point it is appropriate to look at ” scaling” and how we can optimize the entire system.

To recap – waterfall optimizes individuals at the expense of teams. Scrum optimizes teams at the expense of the system. Scaling is the attempt to optimize the system. My experience (and it may be biased because like Freud I work mainly with the “sick”) is that companies abuse scaling because they either use it as a means to avoid agile or they rush to scaling without first making the tremendously difficult transition to creating effective scrum teams. My advice remains “build more garages.”

2 Replies to “Individuals, Teams, Systems – The Evolution of Agile at Scale”

  1. although my comment seems very late, but it has been almost 18 months since you wrote this article, and yet, it still prove to be very right!

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