Scaling Agile: If you have to ask about it, you are not ready!

Scaling Agile: If you have to ask about it, you are not ready!

Over the last 5 years, this is the question that makes my skin crawl:

This “agile thing” sounds great and we want to do it. When can we scale

I have to physically resist the urge to shutter. We have just invested valuable time and money on your transformation. Hours on coaching, training, organizational design, and portfolio planning. We are yet to have one product team up and running in an effective way. But you still want to know when will the entire organization will transform?

This is when I know I have lost you.

Scaling Agile: If you have to ask about it, you are not ready!

In response to this question, I reference and slightly adjust J.P. Morgan’s quote: “If you have to ask about scaling, you aren’t ready to scale”.

Consider this analogy: You have decided that baking chocolate cakes is your life’s calling. Financial freedom, creative freedom, and control of your own destiny compels you forward.
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So when will you be able to create 1,000 cakes a day that meet your customer’s needs and your quality standards?

Have you made one cake that meets your customer needs and your quality standards? 4? 10?

No? Then how in the heck can you guess when you will get to 1,000? Only Tony Stark (RIP) can run before he walks.

And this cake analogy is a relatively less complex problem to solve. You can add resources like more ovens and additional chefs to increase capacity. But until you have some level of success at small level, talking about scaling is a waste of time and energy. Time and energy you SHOULD be using to make your first, best “cake”.

Scaling Agile: If you have to ask about it, you are not ready!

Now the challenges in our organizations are much more complex. Customer needs, market challenges, the global environment, the political climate, and your own organizational challenges move the complexity meter to 11.

So when you ask about scaling I want to give you an answer to this question, but I would be lying to you. We are going to uncover the best way for your organization to transform and to build successful products. Your path to transformation and product development is unique. It cannot be guided by the success or failure of other organizations. Being unique if your strategic differentiator. Embrace it!

Team #1 will learn. That will then influence Team #2 and Team #3.

Team #4 will get the benefit of the impediments removed by Teams 1, 2 and 3. Work done before Team 4 may have even been assembled.

Teams 5-“n” will learn things that will influence Teams 1-4 to evolve. It becomes a self-reinforcing process. And guess what, you have now scaled!

If you “launch” all teams at the same time, they will all have to learn the hard lessons. By staggering the teams, each subsequent team gets to enjoy the learning of the teams that have gone before them.

LeSS Certified Practitioner! Take a LeSS class!

While taking Craig Larman’s LeSS offering, he reminded us that scaling a fish makes it smaller. The number of layers between the leaders and the teams building the products will result in a lack of clarity and lost opportunity.

On top of this, you think your organization is going to embrace the transformation effort, but you are wrong. There will be organizational, political, and individual impediments that you don’t know about today that will quickly surface. And as those surface, as a Leader, you will now get to use your authority to remove those impediments. The ability to quickly learn from your failure and use empirical data to adjust your plan will dramatically increase your chance to succeed – whatever that success means to you.

My challenge for Leaders is to embrace the learning curve and resist the urge to guess at the final outcome. Give it at least 4 months for the first few teams to expose the hidden challenges your organization throws at them on a daily basis. Use every ounce of your energy to make Team 1 successful. Remove impediments, adjust the organizational structure, and push down decision making authority to your teams.

Imagine an organization that has 4 high performing teams effectively working with an agile mindset and using the framework (scrum/kanban/xp) that best suits them. At that point, the ability to scale (whatever that means) will reveal itself to you. Now you are in rarified air!



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Thomas (Tom) Auld is a Product Owner and Enterprise Agile Coach. Since 2006 he has been part of agile transformations resulting in over $400MM of value created (and counting). Tom is featured in @JJ Sutherland’s new book: “The Scrum Fieldbook: A Master Class on Accelerating Performance, Getting Results, and Defining the Future”. Amazon’s #1 New Release in Organizational Change.

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