Agile At Scale Needs Work

dirty hands

Agile at scale is tough. I’m a certified practitioner. I’ve seen it tried here or there. I’ve rarely seen it go according to paper. Some have done a bad job. Some have done worse. Some have tried. Grass-roots agile at scale is an uphill battle without enterprise-wide value.

The best is when the culture pivots around people.

Helping (not delighting) human customers is the goal, a good experience is a driver, upper management’s conviction looks like funding, and there are practicing evangelists throughout the organization. That means empowered people are actually getting their hands dirty while driving strategy and agility. That is not perfect, but there is hope even if there are battles to make it happen.

In that culture, don’t give up yet. Keep iterating and delivering value to humans.

What Agile is All About

agile ballerina

Agility is fast. But it’s not only about being fast. It is about being flexible within a time-box.

The ability to iterate, produce value, and pivot when circumstances changes. Companies, management, and non-practitioners think it’s about being perfect at a quicker pace. Nope. It’s about pace over perfection. Time-boxed shipment of actionable value.

Agile isn’t for everything.

If you’re building another bridge from New York to New Jersey, you don’t use agile. You plan the resources, get the budget, plan the location, do the math, take your time, and get it done. Insert waterfall here—see, not a bad word when it matters.

But, if you’re building an app for New York or New Jersey, meeting some possible needs within the next 6 to 8 months, then you use agile.

Nebel des Krieges

green grass field with white clouds

In German, there is a military concept that highlights situational uncertainty. It is called Nebel des Krieges. Basically it means that we don’t know what They can, or will, do; nor how We will respond.

In English, we call this the “fog of war”. It is the honest perspective that no matter the strategy, once the battle hits, the details of the plan are thrown into disarray. Because our plans are often made in the two-fold vacuum: (1) limited information about what the enemy can (or will) do and (2) how will we respond once that information becomes situational reality.

Enter agility.

Agility is not about being fast. It’s about your ability to pivot within the situational reality. How quickly you change direction in the fog when the immaterial starts to take horrifying shape.

Are things currently foggy? Don’t try to plan out every detail. Pick a goal and prepare to pivot on your way.

Agile is More Than a Buzz Word

person writing on the notebook

I remember sitting in an agile workshop hearing a non-practitioner say that agile just doesn’t work and that you have to do traditional project management. Sure. If you’re building a bridge. But if not, you’re just slowing things down. Or doing agile wrong.

Listen, a truly agile company looks different. Teams are doing the work. They are pivoting around the customer. They are driven by the overarching business strategy. They are funded by the value they offer to the company.

Here I am not only using standard SAFE terminology around value streams.

There is not a company today that doesn’t pay for phones. It is assumed that companies will have phones. They also assume they need people to support those phones. To manage the phone life cycle. Same thing with computers. Keyboards. Monitors. These things are assumed values because they are the cost of doing business. Sure those things are often capitalized and depreciated but that’s just because those are physical assets.

With agility and the modern marketplace, strategy is the driver and agility is a mindset that allows the flexibility to realize the strategy. Just like with computers and phones, certain things needs to be in place to bring the strategy into reality and in the modern world that means virtual assets should be funded—even if we haven’t figured out how to capitalize and depreciate them. No modern strategy should exclude a website, for example. Or customer-centricity. Or the customer’s job to be done.

Of course, if the business strategy no longer sees websites or apps (or phones or computers) as important to the business, then they stop funding those areas. It is why companies no longer fund a horse and buggy.

Now, by funding a virtual asset, I don’t only mean money.

I mean resource staffing so that small teams have the right people. I mean empowerment so that small teams can make the decisions. I mean investment in the equipment and tools to allow the team to work. I mean unblocking upstream or downstream damming that get in the way from happening—even if that damming looks like middle-management. I mean building up the team confidence cache by reflecting good (versus bad) behavior. All of that is the funding that makes agile work beyond a buzz word.

If you want agile to work throughout the organization you must do more than use the term in a PowerPoint. You need to fund the virtual assets that drive the business strategy with the tangible means to bring that strategy into reality in any hundred different ways.

You Have to Try

tightrope over canyon

Yoda’s point puts it in black and why: there is doing, there is not doing—there is no trying. Great for a movie but that freezes people up. Especially if the stakes feel really high and currently unachievable. You either DO the big scary but awesome thing or DO NOT DO the big scary but awesome thing: there is no try.

Thing is, in the real world, you have to try. And fail. Try. And maybe fail again. Try again. And likely fail again. All those failures teach you a lesson. The worst that can happen with trying is a failing. Repeat that enough times and you learn the lesson. If failure is the worst, then anything else is a win.

Like learning to walk. You fall on your rear enough times and realize that is the absolute worst thing that can happen. You will not implode. You will not wipe out humanity. But, when you get it, you can run or jump or hide or skip or flip. Heck, you can stand and forget that the whole time you are physically correcting things so that you can keep standing.

You will not get there if you are not willing to try.

So try.

A Time To Uproot and A Time to Build

I think it is a good idea to stop and see where we’re at. Sort of chill, look at everything around, see what has been done and see what needs to be done better. Smarter. Differently.

It means that your hands are close enough to reach down deep and pull up and outwards and removing completely. This is uncomfortable because it is hard work. But it is also uncomfortable because the work done before was also hard work. It just does not feel right to pull up something where you have invested time. Or energy. Or money.

You can avoid some pain if:

Build Something Awesome

You make it a point to build something that is so compelling that the initial uprooting groundwork always makes sense. Stop everything and pivot.

Build Something Future Proof

Build everything in light of the future which everyone knows is going to happen, no matter what.

Test and Build

Build tests that help you learn, and systematically uproot upon vetting.

Not any approach is right for every situation. Sometimes you have to uproot and sometimes you have to build towards the future. Most of the time, I think testing and building works but, sometimes, that’s just an excuse for an old model to stay old.