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When to Scale?

Planning to scale your agility? What should you consider? A good place to start is what is the problem you are trying to solve? Here are some ideas:

  • Higher productivity

  • Better management of dependencies

  • More output

  • Increased effectiveness and /or efficiency

  • Just a better way for multiple teams to work together

These are just a few of many, but I recommend identifying the problem(s) you expect scaling agile to solve. Next, take a look at your current scrum teams. Are they mature? If individual teams are not executing agile well, then there is some work prior to scaling. One of the tenets of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is "you can't scale crappy code". Well, I also believe one should not scale agile until the agile teams are strong in their agile practices. If you try to scale with teams not performing well, you are asking for a bigger problem to solve and probably have a mess to fix.

Slight Tangent: One might ask - can you start your transformation with Scale (before agile teams are even formed)? Possibly, and of course the real answer is "it depends". This will be addressed in just a bit.

How do you know when your organization and teams are ready to scale? Here are some key observations to assess:

1) Are the scrum teams acting as a team? This means are the individuals helping each other to achieve their sprint goals and not just thinking as individual contributors / developers / testers.

2) Is the team creating value on a regular basis? Are they delivering a working product that is able to be demonstrated to stakeholders for feedback on a regular basis?

3) The scrum master (SM) is acting as a servant-leader, team agile coach, and facilitator where appropriate.

4) The product owner (PO) is effectively owning and managing the product backlog. The PO is working with the team and helping team members collaborate with stakeholders to create and deliver the an expected product.

5) Product quality is high and everyone has a stake in delivery and quality.

6) Everyone is aligned to a vision and goal.

As you can see, there are many items to assess when determining if the scrum teams have strong agile practices or if significant improvement is still needed. There are many more items and areas available for assessment, but we will cover maturing agile teams in a future blog. If the above items have high marks, you are probably in pretty good shape to move forward.

Recapping "When To Scale" so far:

  • What is the problem you are trying to solve

  • Are the scrum teams ready to scale

Oh - one more key question I forgot to ask - Is "management" and "leadership" ready to scale? Starting agile in an organization often begins in one of two ways (not sure if there are any others :) Grass roots or management initiative. Either way is fine and both can be successful, but I digress. Scaling agile, no matter the framework takes some work, preparation, collaboration, and buy-in to be successful. Asking again, is the management ready for a significant change and ready to change their behaviors to scale successfully? While some may disagree this is absolutely necessary for some frameworks, based on my experience, it is important and critical for leadership to be leading, supporting, believing in the change. If they are not already shifting to an agile mindset, this will be important. Without these characteristics, their is a high risk of failure moving to scale.

Back to an earlier question: Is it possible to start one's transformation in a scaled agile solution without already having individual agile teams working. Put another way - an organization wants to spin up 5 teams and implement a scaling solution as the start to business agility.

As mentioned, the short answer is yes and the longer answer is it depends. Is it a good idea? Maybe. You can see how easy it is to have a definitive answer (LOL). Here are my thoughts. If you are starting out small and creating a "proof of concept" for agility, then start with individual scrum teams and work to create a mature agile process that fits and works for your organization. If you are not sure if you will need a large scale agile solution, then again - start with individual scrum teams. The desire or need for scale will become apparent at the appropriate time (hopefully a little earlier than necessary so thought and planning may take place).

I have had organizations jump directly into scaling agile. Typically they are "divisions" within a larger company that are large, complex, have many dependencies and/or vendors and suppliers, etc. In these cases, there is a significant planning component and a need to make sure there is buy-in and management support. Also, a solid change management plan will be very helpful for success along with a roadmap and preliminary education / training.

Alternatively, I have helped smaller companies wishing to start their transformation using a large scale solution right away as well. This is usually a little easier than my statements in the previous paragraph, but it still requires planning, education, and a thoughtful change plan. I typically start with 3 - 5 teams and move forward implementing agile practices and maturing business agility here first and then follow-up with additional teams and/or agile needs.

The biggest challenge that companies need to be ready for when jumping directly to a scaling solution is the need to get the basics and form a foundation, get everyone up to speed on agile, while adding the complexities of scale. It can be done successfully and in some cases even makes sense.

When deciding when and how to scale, it's always a great idea to bring your thoughts, ideas, challenges, and reasoning to agile experts that have "been there, done that successfully" and get their input, expertise, and thoughts as well.

Until Next time: "Sprint Ahead"

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