Beyond Agile scaling frameworks – continuously adapting structures
Over the past few years, as organizations looked to scale their ongoing Agile initiatives beyond the team level, scaling frameworks were all the rage. And as people discussed at length the merits of Large Scale Scrum (LeSS), Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), Nexus, or the “Spotify Model”, something got lost along the way. Agile scaling conversations started to resemble football fans at a sports bar:
- “SAFe is the death of Agile! It’s the worst!”
- “Scrum @ Scale is just ripping off LeSS!”
- “LeSS is for startups, it’s pure fantasy in the real world!”
- “Messi is so much better than Ronaldo!”
The ongoing joke became that Agile Scaling was like teenage sex – everybody talks about it, nobody knows how to do it, everybody thinks everyone else is doing it, so everybody says they’re doing it too.
Recently, there has been a collective realization that a more holistic view of the challenge was required. Scaling Agile across an organization is more than implementing a framework (processes). It is principally a change on how we view work – a new mindset. The limited results obtained by many process-driven Agile transformations made it painfully obvious that simply trying to insert Agile processes in a traditional, silo-based organization, just generated more of the same (Forrester described this pattern as “Water-Scrum-Fall”).
An understanding has grown that to truly transform an organization, there are multiple areas that must be addressed, including:
- what we expect from leaders?
- how do we reward people?
- what is our mission?
- how do we speed up decisions? (empowerment)
- who are our stakeholders?
The challenge these big questions poses for people working on Agile transformations is clear – the answers in some cases keep changing. Partly because of the speed of change in the market, but mainly because as we
experiment, we learn more about ourselves and who we want to be.
If the answers keep changing, shouldn’t our processes also keep changing?
And there you have the basic issue with process-driven Agile transformations – you’re putting the cart before the horses. Whether you decide to use LeSS, SAFe, Scrum @ Scale, or some expensive custom- made framework, the hard truth is that your framework of choice will not guarantee success. In an Agile world, your processes should not be static, but rather ever changing. Adapting to the emerging needs of motivated, purposeful people.
In these circumstances, understanding the patterns underpinning organizational agility becomes more important than the scaling framework itself. If you understand the building blocks – their purpose, their strengths and weaknesses, and their conditions – you can more easily adapt your processes along the way. You don’t need to implement SAFe to benefit from mid-term planning. You don’t need to implement LeSS to benefit
from feature teams.
All of these patterns can be used as organizational structure building blocks. When teams and leaders understand them, they can continue to re-arrange them as part of their continuous improvement activities – tinkering with their organizational structure to help create an environment where people can do their best work. Agile scaling frameworks have proven useful on two counts:
- defining many Agile scaling patterns (and grouping them together
into a coherent whole)
- providing teams and organizations with a starting point for their
So the point here is not that Agile scaling frameworks are bad or irrelevant. Providing a starting point for teams to continuously improve from is extremely valuable. Similarly to team-level frameworks such as Scrum, that starting point prevents teams from having to completely re- invent the wheel.
However, we should not lose sight that Agile transformations are about changing the mindset of an organization. Processes and structure exist as a supporting role, enabling people to put that new mindset into practice. It is therefore key for any organization thinking about transforming towards Agile ways of working to not focus on which framework to use, but rather focus on answering the bigger questions. And as we find more answers about who we need/want to be as an organization, continuously review our structure to simplify, empower, and catalyse.
To accomplish this (continuously adapting structure), we need to understand more than just the scaling framework itself – we need to understand the building blocks (patterns) underpinning organizational Agility.