Achieving Agile at Scale

[tl;dr Scaling agile at the enterprise level will need rethinking how portfolio management and enterprise architecture are done to ensure success.]

Agility,as a concept, is gaining increasing attention within large organisations. The idea that business functions – and in particular IT – can respond quickly and iteratively to business needs is an appealing one.

The reasons why agility is getting attention are easy to spot: larger firms are getting more and more obviously unagile – i.e., the ability of business functions to respond to business needs in a timely and sustainable manner is getting progressively worse, even as a rapidly evolving competitive and technology-led commercial environment is demanding more agility.

Couple that with the heavy cost of failing to meet ever increasing regulatory compliance obligations, and ‘agile’ seems a very good idea indeed.

Agile is a great idea, but when implemented at scale (in large enterprise organisations), it can actually reduce enterprise agility, rather than increase it, unless great care is taken.

This is partly because Agile’s origins come from developing web applications: in these scenarios, there is usually a clear customer, a clear goal (to the extent that the team exists in the first place), and relatively tight timelines that favour short or non-existent analysis/design phases. Agile is perfect for these scenarios.

Let’s call this scenario ‘local agile’. It is quite easy to see a situation where every team, in response to the question, ‘are you doing agile?’, for teams to say ‘Yes, we do!’. So if every team is doing ‘local agile’, does that mean your organisation is now ‘agile’?

The answer is No. Getting every team to adopt agile practices is a necessary but insufficient step towards achieving enterprise agility. In particular, two key factors needs to be addressed before true a firm can be said to be ‘agile’ at the enterprise level. These are:

  1. The process by which teams are created and funded, and
  2. Enterprise awareness

Creating & Funding (Agile) Teams

Historically, teams are usually created as a result of projects being initiated: the project passes investment justification criteria, the project is initiated and a team is put in place, led by the project manager. Also, this process was owned entirely by the IT organisation, irrespective of which other organisations were stakeholders in the project.

At this point, IT’s main consideration is, will the project be delivered on time and on budget? The business sponsor’s main consideration is, will it give us what we need when we need it? And the enterprise’s consideration (which is often ignored) is who is accountable for ensuring that the IT implementation delivers value to the enterprise. (In this sense, the ‘enterprise’ could be either a major business line with full P&L responsibility for all activities performed in support of their business, or the whole organisation, including shared enterprise functions).

Delivering ‘value’ is principally about ensuring that  on-going or operational processes, roles and responsibilities are adjusted to maximise the benefits of a new technology implementation – which could include organisational change, marketing, customer engagement, etc.

However, delivering ‘value’ is not always correlated to one IT implementation; value can be derived from leveraging multiple IT capabilities in concert. Given the complexity of large organisations, it is often neither desirable or feasible to have a single IT partner be responsible for all the IT elements that collectively deliver business value.

On this basis, it is evident that how businesses plan and structure their portfolio of IT investments needs to change dramatically. In particular,

  1. The business value agenda is outcome focused and explicit about which IT capabilities are required to enable it, and
  2. IT investment is focused around the capability investment lifecycle that IT is responsible for stewarding.

In particular ‘capabilities’ (or IT products or services) have a lifecycle: this affects the investment and expectations around those capabilities. And some capabilities need to be more ‘agile’ than others – some must be agile to be useful, whereas for others, stability may be the over-riding priority, and therefore their lack of agility must be made explicit – so agile teams can plan around that.

Enterprise Awareness

‘Locally’ agile teams are a step in the right direction – particularly if the business stakeholders all agree they are seeing the value from that agility. But often this comes at the expense of enterprise awareness. In short, agility in the strict business sense can often only deliver results by ignoring some stakeholders interests. So ‘locally’ agile teams may feel they must minimise their interactions with other teams – particularly if those teams are not themselves agile.

If we assume that teams have been created through a process as described in the previous section, it becomes more obvious where the team sits in relation to its obligations to other teams. Teams can then make appropriate compromises to their architecture, planning and agile SDLC to allow for those obligations.

If the team was created through ‘traditional’ planning processes, then it becomes a lot harder to figure out what ‘enterprise awareness’ is appropriate (except perhaps or IT-imposed standards or gates, which only contributes indirectly to business value).

Most public agile success stories describe very well how they achieved success up to  – but not including – the point at which architecture becomes an issue. Architecture, in this sense, refers to either parts of the solution architecture which can no longer be delivered via one or two members of an agile team, or those parts of the business value chain that cannot be entirely delivered via the agile team on its own.

However, there are success stores (e.g., Spotify) that show how ‘enterprise awareness’ can be achieved without limiting agility. For many organisations, transitioning from existing organisation structures to new ‘agile-ready’ structures will be a major challenge, and far harder than simply having teams ‘adopt agile’.

Conclusions

With the increased attention on Agile, there is fortunately increased attention on scaling agile. Methodologies like Disciplined Agile Development (DaD) and LargE Scale Scrum (LeSS), coupled with portfolio concepts like Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) propose ways in which Agile can scale beyond the team and up to enterprise level, without losing the key benefits of the agile approach.

All scaled agile methodologies call for changes in how Portfolio Management and Enterprise Architecture are typically done within an organisation, as doing these activities right are key to the success of adopting Agile at scale.

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Achieving Agile at Scale

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