With innovation speeding up and company life cycles getting shorter, the ability for a company to quickly respond to market conditions has never been more important. Many look to Agile as the solution. But Agile, in its current form, is not the game-changer that most companies and leaders so desperately need. Twelve years after the Agile Manifesto, the enterprise landscape echoes with excuses: “Leadership doesn’t get it,” “Agile at scale is nearly impossible,” “We need a better model for Agile at the Portfolio level.”
Today’s IT consultants and thought leaders, in the rush to deliver and scale Agile, all but ignore the critical ways in which internal culture, human relationships, and informal networks determine the dynamics of organizational systems, and attempt to simply graft Agile principles onto traditional organizational structures.
Scaling Agile fails because practices that work to establish Agile teams—cross-functional teams that can quickly course-correct and routinely produce great products—do not work at the more complex levels of product development above them. The danger in scaling Agile is the temptation to simply repeat the same teaming patterns at all levels of the enterprise in spite of the divergent functions of each level and needs of each business.
Understanding which Agile practices to deploy, when, and how to integrate them at the Working Surface, Program, Portfolio, and Business levels is the difference between transformation and a technology fad.
Scaling Agile teams, without understanding what kinds of teams, tools, and structures are appropriate at all levels of the organization, can create outcomes that are not just disruptive, but catastrophic. Implementing Agile teams can create operational and ideological barriers in which teams find themselves working in conflict with the rest of their organization.
Often the transformational problem isn’t the idea being implemented, but rather the lack of relationships required to bring stakeholders together, focus their efforts, and keep them aligned.
When you ignore networks, you create restraining forces that delay, derail, and defeat transformation.
Scaling Agile teams without proper organizational preparation may cause the following issues:
- The focus on process, tools, and methods required to create Agile teams actually undermines relationships external to the team and the company, isolating people within discrete groups.
- Transactional costs of cross-functional collaboration and information flow are increased requiring time and effort building relationships.
- The need for trust across organizational boundaries is amplified.
- Agile teams learn to self-manage, and then come to perceive managers as obstacles to progress. Managers in turn confirm this fear when, in spite of their conceptually embracing Agile practices, they revert to command and control at the first sign of trouble.
- When teams are given total autonomy for their work, everyone around them must blindly find ways to contribute or else risk becoming expendable.
- By transitioning hundreds of in-flight projects, the company creates confusion, resourcing challenges, and accidental adversaries.
The common methods for scaling Agile ignore the fundamental law of systems composed of people: People Are the Process.
A decade of Agile implementation has taught that successful scaling beyond the Working Surface level requires:
- involving people in the process early and often, and giving each person a stake in the outcome
- new teaming models at the program and portfolio levels
- managing uncertainty, complexity and turbulence
- moving self-organization into networks, not just small teams at the local level
- managers to become internal change agents, taking on new roles and responsibilities
- increased trust across organizational boundaries
- intentionally establishing norms for communities and networks at every level of the organization
- purposefully stating a clear vision of the value people are creating through their actions
- facilitating access to people with ideas, knowledge, skills, and resources
Adopting and scaling Agile techniques and practices are not trivial challenges. But the enterprise that results from successful scaling is resilient, tolerant of experimentation, and uses both creative destruction and creative reassembly to engage its people and generate a vibrant, inclusive culture.