Scaling Agile: Questions to Ask Before Choosing Your Agile Framework
In the fourteen years after the publication of the Agile Manifesto, many organizations have realized significant gains in productivity, quality, and even job satisfaction at the team level. According to the results of Version One’s State of Agile Survey, 94 percent of the respondents are using Agile practices in some manner.
The survey also calls out the increasing interest in scaling Agile / Lean practices across the industry. Companies that are successful in bringing Agile to the enterprise are better equipped to compete, innovate, and grow because they’re better able to adapt to the changing dynamics of their given marketplaces.
This new competitive pressure has given rise to a number of different frameworks for scaling Agile, like SAFe, LeSS, DaD, etc. Each of these frameworks have success stories behind them, not to mention a few ‘culture wars.’ An us versus them mentality of right and wrong ways of scaling.
But it’s not that one framework is necessarily better than another. It’s a matter of one framework being a better fit for a particular organization.
Which Agile Framework Will Work for Us?
The challenge that the internal change agent, leader, or Agile consultant faces when considering the different frameworks is, “Which one will work for us?”
If you believe the marketing of the various frameworks, the answer would seem to be “all of them.” But it can’t be that easy, can it? Any of these solutions will fit my organization, your organization, plus an organization in a vertical market that I’m not even aware of? I just need to pick the one that agrees most with my understanding of Agile and Lean and follow the guidelines it prescribes?
It’s a lot more involved than that. The process of introducing and implementing any scaling framework involves organizational development. We are changing the way people plan, organize, communicate, and work. The magnitude of the organizational changes involved has to be considered. So before we ask which framework will work for us, we need to ask ourselves these two questions first:
Where are we?
Where do we want to go and why?
Where are we?
Before we can chart a course for defining and implementing a new way of working, we need to understand how we are currently working. I’m not talking about documenting our processes and stage gates. I’m talking about getting a feel for:
the beliefs that we hold
the values based on our beliefs
the attitudes that arise from our values
the behaviors that reflect our attitudes
If we want to implement the changes involved in any of the scaling frameworks, there’s a good bet we’ll be looking to change behaviors throughout our organization. And if we’re going to change the behaviors of the people in an entire organization, we have to make sure that the changes are inline with the collective organizational beliefs, values, and attitudes.
In order to understand where we are as a company, let’s check out Fredric Laloux’s Organizational Development Model (Frederic Laloux, 2014, Reinventing Organizations, Nelson Parker).
The gist of the model is that, like people, organizations grow culturally in response to their environments over time. There’s a progression of paradigms that represent this evolution, each with their own metaphor, characteristics, and thought breakthroughs. I’ve got an overview of them here:
A few points are worth calling out with this model:
There isn’t a connotation of one paradigm being better or worse than another (e.g., Conformist-Amber is not as desirable as Achievement-Orange). Each paradigm is the collective response of the organization to its environment and history. However, note that this indicates that the successive paradigms are better able to accommodate complexity than the previous ones.
Successive paradigms still maintain the previous paradigms. So a Pluralistic-Green organization may still use Achievement-Orange behaviors to drive a project and boost internal competition.
The leadership of an organization has a significant impact on the paradigm it reflects. This means that if the leader of an organization identifies strongly with Achievement-Orange characteristics, there is a strong tendency for the entire organization be swayed to Orange characteristics.
Agile and Lean practices are deeply rooted in Pluralistic-Green cultures. The collaborative nature of the practices would probably not be fully realized in Achievement-Orange and would be foreign in a Conformist-Amber culture. Similarly in Evolutionary-Teal the practices would most likely be overkill.
In the evolutionary path, organizations must progress fully through each stage. So in order to go from a Conformist-Amber culture to a Pluralistic-Green, the organization must become and evolve through Achievement-Orange. This is particularly important when we consider where we want the organization to go.
It’s important to know where our organization currently stands. Afterall, that’s the foundation we’ll be building on when we select our scaling framework and all of the changes that come with it. If the principles and practices of the framework are too foreign in relation to our company’s current state, our change initiative will be doomed before it’s even begun.
Where do we want to go and why?
Now that we have a better understanding on where we are, we can consider the second question. Where do we want to go and why?
What are the challenges or opportunities that we’re looking to address by introducing Agile at scale? Will these efforts address the root cause of the issues instead of just the symptoms? How will we know if we’re being successful?
If we consider the changes we’d like to realize throughout our organization in the context of Laloux’s model, we have context that’s typically not considered in the implementation of the various frameworks.
For example, each of the frameworks has some recommendations around ceremonies, roles, and responsibilities. If we look at these suggestions with an eye toward our organizational culture, we can get a feel for how much interpersonal change they might require. This is critical to consider -- this is where the sustainability of change is determined.
If the changes that a framework introduces are too large a shift (say, from Amber to Green on Laloux’s model), human behavior indicates that the changes will be met with one of two responses:
or outright fighting the changes
In Laloux’s model, this would be indicated by either falling back into the inherent behaviors of our current stage or maybe even regressing to a previous stage. The challenge of adopting a framework is not in following its recommended ceremonies and roles. The challenge is in making those ceremonies and roles an achievable step forward for our company. And there’s not a one-size-fits-all model available for that.
The other aspect of understanding where you want to go organizationally deals with paying attention to the way people handle change. In any change initiative, it’s imperative to let the people that are going to be affected know:
what the changes are;
how they will be impacted;
and what the reasons for undertaking the changes are.
It’s been said that people don’t fear change as much as they fear the uncertainty associated with the change. By making the facets of the change understandable and accessible to the organization at large, we increase our chances of a successful implementation.
Scaling Agile: The Takeaway
Organizational development is a complex and dynamic component, especially if you’re thinking of utilizing one of the many Agile scaling frameworks in the market. In the end, the important task is not deciding what framework to use. It’s to understand where your organization is today and where you’re planning to take it tomorrow with the assistance of a framework.
By understanding your answers to these two questions more fully, you can better understand and prepare for the changes that your eventual framework choice will help usher in. While each framework will tell you how it can fit your organization, the reality is that some that will fit more readily than others. To find out which ones those are, you have to look within your organization.
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