Mike MacDonagh's Blog

Somewhere in the overlap between software development, process improvement and psychology

Agile at Scale

There’s a lot of talk in the process improvement industry about the meaning of “agile at scale”, devops, lean and agile for a number of reasons. One reason that I’ve seen in successful agile organisations is that as development maturity increases with true agile adoption bigger problems present themselves. This is the natural progression of the science of development, what used to be considered complex (like Object Orientation) is now normal, a commodity. Innovation in ways of working is happening at the organisational, cross-team, cross-product level.

For me agile at scale (I’ve got fed up of the quotes already) means a couple of different things:

  • Repeating agile successes embodied in a team across an organisation (scaling out?)
  • Applying agile thinking to cross-product projects
  • Applying agile and lean thinking to development organisations
  • Applying agile and lean thinking to high assurance environments like medical, security, financial, safety critical, audited, regulated businesses.

Agile and lean? Yep, both with lower case letters. I’m not particularly interested in ideological approaches to software development, I believe strongly in taking the best bits of whatever processes, techniques, practices etc. you find externally, mixing them up with internal practices and ways of doing things to develop simple, pragmatic approaches to ways of working. Both agile and lean schools of thought promote minimising unnecessary work, shorter delivery cycles and higher quality, continuously learning lessons and empirical decision making.

The agile manifesto gave us:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on
the right, we value the items on the left more.

Some great practices have evolved for applying agile and lean thinking like scrum, kanban etc. However all of the complex organisations I’ve worked with have found that there’s still space for more thinking in terms of how to run a software business, how to deal with big complex system-of-system problems, multiple competing stakeholder sets, programme and portfolio management etc. Not surprising really because the agile movement wasn’t about trying to do any of that stuff.

However organisations who are successful with agile transformations want to apply the successful open and honest philosophy behind the agile manifesto to other parts of their business as well as bigger and bigger projects and programmes because the results of “doing agile” (I promise I’ll stop with the quotes soon!) are so attractive when it’s done well, namely:

  • Shorter delivery cycles, higher quality
  • Deep engagement between customers and development teams leading to respect, collaboration and better morale
  • Quick identification of when things are starting to go wrong

Consider the following model, not uncommon amongst large organisations:

Diagram of nominal large inter-dependant organistion structure

This represents a typical software department or vertical section of a software department with a portfolio that provides the funding for work. Big portfolio’s are normally broken down into a number of programmes which in turn may levy high level requirements onto organisations (organisational sub-divisions that own multiple products) which may affect both legacy and new product development. Often within a vertical section of a business there will be many cross-dependencies in terms of requirements, technical dependencies etc. For many large businesses this picture is overly simplistic, indeed I’ve not included things like projects, component teams and a variety of business organisation constructs like product centres, feature teams etc.  So how do you apply agile and lean philosophy to this lot and more?

You can’t simply repeat the same practices recursively throughout an organisation to deal with larger scale complexity.  Imagine a chain of scrum-of-scrums, daily stand-ups at every level (at the same time, or staggered to allow representation up the chain?), sprint plans at programme level etc. What about if the business is regulated, audited, security focussed, high risk financial, safety critical, etc.

Ok, so what’s agile at scale then?

Agility at Scale is applying the spirit of agility and lean thinking if not the letter to these bigger problems. It’s about:

  • Valuing individuals and interactions, encouraging collaboration, reducing layers of communication over processes, tools and hierarchy
  • Valuing working software in the form of quality releases from short development cycles over comprehensive documentation, business analysis, enterprise architecture documentation
  • Valuing customer, business, developer and operations (see DevOps) collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Valuing good governance, transparency and honesty in progress, plans, costs and impediments over regular reporting
  • Valuing responding to change over following a plan at all levels of the business

From the Holistic ManifestoHolistic Software Engineering

Agility at scale is focussed simply on reducing unnecessary bureaucracy, reducing time to market and improving value.

So how do you achieve it?

The application of:

Of course each of those (and more!) is a complex can of worms in itself. A lot of these higher scale practices are only just emerging from high maturity complex (post-)agile organisations but in time more of those things will turn into links.

A good example of  “Agile at Scale” in action is the Project Forum practice from Holistic Software Engineering

As always this blog is  a stream of consciousness so please, let me know your opinion?

One response to “Agile at Scale

  1. Alejandro April 2, 2014 at 11:02 am

    Thanks for this valuable post. It is a methodology knowledge for implementing agile practices at enterprise scale. Agile enterprise highlights the individual roles, team, activities and artifacts necessary to scale agile from the team to team. But it has been criticized for providing a process that is tailorable and fundamentally still pre defined.

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