Scaled Agile needs Slack

[tl;dr In order to effectively scale agile, organisations need to ensure that a portion of team capacity is explicitly set aside for enterprise priorities. A re-imagined enterprise architecture capability is a key factor in enabling scaled agile success.]

What’s the problem?

From an architectural perspective, Agile methodologies are heavily dependent on business- (or function-) aligned product owners, which tend to be very focused on *their* priorities – and not the enterprise’s priorities (i.e., other functions or businesses that may benefit from the work the team is doing).

This results in very inward-focused development, and where dependencies on other parts of the organisation are identified, these (in the absence of formal architecture governance) tend to be minimised where possible, if necessary through duplicative development. And other teams requiring access to the team’s resources (e.g., databases, applications, etc) are served on a best-effort basis – often causing those teams to seek other solutions instead, or work without formal support from the team they depend on.

This, of course, leads to architectural complexity, leading to reduced agility all round.

The Solution?

If we accept the premise that, from an architectural perspective, teams are the main consideration (it is where domain and technical knowledge resides), then the question is how to get the right demand to the right teams, in as scalable, agile manner as possible?

In agile teams, the product backlog determines their work schedule. The backlog usually has a long list of items awaiting prioritisation, and part of the Agile processes is to be constantly prioritising this backlog to ensure high-value tasks are done first.

Well known management research such as The Mythical Man Month has influenced Agile’s goal to keep team sizes small (e.g., 5-9 people for scrum). So when new work comes, adding people is generally not a scalable option.

So, how to reconcile the enterprise’s needs with the Agile team’s needs?

One approach would be to ensure that every team pays an ‘enterprise’ tax – i.e., in prioritising backlog items, at least, say, 20% of work-in-progress items must be for the benefit of other teams. (Needless to say, such work should be done in such a way as to preserve product architectural integrity.)

20% may seem like a lot – especially when there is so much work to be done for immediate priorities – but it cuts both ways. If *every* team allows 20% of their backlog to be for other teams, then every team has the possibility of using capacity from other teams – in effect, increasing their capacity by much more than they could do on their own. And by doing so they are helping achieve enterprise goals, reducing overall complexity and maximising reuse – resulting in a reduction in project schedule over-runs, higher quality resulting architecture, and overall reduced cost of change.

Slack does not mean Under-utilisation

The concept of ‘Slack’ is well described in the book ‘Slack: Getting Past Burn-out, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency‘. In effect, in an Agile sense, we are talking about organisational slack, and not team slack. Teams, in fact, will continue to be 100% utilised, as long as their backlog consists of more high-value items then they can deliver. The backlog owner – e.g., scrum master – can obviously embed local team slack into how a particular team’s backlog is managed.

Implications for Project & Financial Management

Project managers are used to getting funding to deliver a project, and then to be able to bring all those resources to bear to deliver that project. The problem is, that is neither agile, nor does it scale – in an enterprise environment, it leads to increasingly complex architectures, resulting in projects getting increasingly more expensive, increasingly late, or delivering increasingly poor quality.

It is difficult for a project manager to accept that 20% of their budget may actually be supporting other (as yet unknown) projects. So perhaps the solution here is to have Enterprise Architecture account for the effective allocation of that spending in an agile way? (i.e., based on how teams are prioritising and delivering those enterprise items on their backlog). An idea worth considering..

Note that the situation is a little different for planned cross-business initiatives, where product owners must actively prioritise the needs of those initiatives alongside their local needs. Such planned work does not count in the 20% enterprise allowance, but rather counts as part of how the team’s cost to the enterprise is formally funded. It may result in a temporary increase in resources on the team, but in this case discipline around ‘staff liquidity’ is required to ensure the team can still function optimally after the temporary resource boost has gone.

The challenge regarding project-oriented financial planning is that, once a project’s goals have been achieved, what’s left is the team and underlying architecture – both of which need to be managed over time. So some dissociation between transitory project goals and longer term team and architecture goals is necessary to manage complexity.

For smaller, non-strategic projects – i.e., no incoming enterprise dependencies – the technology can be maintained on a lights-on basis.

Enterprise architecture can be seen as a means to asses the relevance of a team’s work to the enterprise – i.e., managing both incoming and outgoing team dependencies.  The higher the enterprise relevance of the team, the more critical the team must be managed well over time – i.e., team structure changes must be carefully managed, and not left entirely to the discretion of individual managers.


By ensuring that every project that purports to be Agile has a mandatory allowance for enterprise resource requirements, teams can have confidence that there is a route for them to get their dependencies addressed through other agile teams, in a manner that is independent of annual budget planning processes or short-term individual business priorities.

The effectiveness of this approach can be governed and evaluated by Enterprise Architecture, which would then allow enterprise complexity goals to be addressed without concentrating such spending within the central EA function.

In summary, to effectively scale agile, an effective (and possibly rethought) enterprise architecture capability is needed.

Scaled Agile needs Slack

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