December 8, 2016
What Do I Think of "Scaled Agile"?People are increasingly asking me for my thoughts on "scaled agile", so I though I'd take a quiet moment to collect my thoughts in one place.
Ever since that fateful meeting in Snowbird, Utah in 2001, some commercially-minded folk have sought to "scale up" the Agile brand so it can be applied to large organisations.
I'll give you an example of the kind of organisation we're talking about: a couple of years ago I was invited into a business that had about 150 teams of developers all effectively working on the same system (or different versions of the same system). I was asked to put together a report and some recommendations on how TDD could be adopted across the organisation.
The business in question was peppered throughout with Agile consultants, Scrum Masters, Lean experts, Kanban experts, and all manner of Agile flora and fauna.
Teams all used user stories, all had Scrum or Kanban boards, all did daily stand-ups, and all the paraphernalia we associate with Agile Software Development.
But if there was one thing they most definitely were not, it was agile. Change was slow and expensive. There was absolutely no sense of overall direction or control, or of an overall picture of progress. And the layers of "scaled Agile" the managers had piled on top of all that mess was just making things worse.
It's just a fact of life. Software development doesn't scale. Once software projects go above a certain size (~$1 million), chaos is inevitable, and the best you can hope for is an illusion of control.
And that, in my considerably wide experience of organisations of all sizes attempting to apply agile principles and practices, is all that the "scaled agile" methods can offer.
I've seen some quite well-known case studies of organisations that claim to be doing agile at scale with my own eyes, and they just aren't. 150 teams doing scaled agile, it turns out, is just 150 teams doing their own thing, and on a surface level making it look like they're all following a common process. But they're still dogged by all the same problems that any organisation trying to do software development at scale is dogged by. You can't fix nature.
Instead, you have to acknowledge the true nature of development at scale; that these are highly complex systems, not conducive to overall top-down control, from which outcomes organically emerge, planned or not.
Insect colonies do not follow top-down processes. A beehive isn't command and control, even if it might look to the casual observer that there's a co-ordinated plan they're all following. What's actually happening is that individual bees are responding to broadcast messages ("goals") about where the pollen, or the threat, can be found, and then they respond according to a set of simple internalised rules to that message, co-operating at a local level so as not to bump into each other.
In software development teams, the internalised rules - often unspoken and frequently at odds with the spoken or written rules - and the interactions at a local level determine what the outcomes the system will produce. We call these internalised rules "culture". Culture is often simple, but buried so deep that changing the culture can take a long time.
In particular, culture round the way we communicate and collaborate tends to steer the ship in particular directions, regardless of which direction you point the rudder. This is a property of complex adaptive systems called "strange attractors".
Complex systems have a property called "homeostatis" - a tendency, when disturbed, to iteratively revert back to their original dynamic state, as determined by their strange attractors. Hence, a heartbeat can rise to more than 150 bpm, but will eventually return to a resting heart rate of about 70-80 bpm.
We can apply external stimuli to a system to try and change the way it performs, but the intrinsic properties of the agents within that system, and particularly their interactions, will ultimately determine the outcome.
Methods like SAFe, LeSS and DAD are attempts to exert top-down control on highly complex adaptive organisations. As such, in my opinion and in the examples I've witnessed, they - at best - create the illusion of control. And illusions of control aren't to be sniffed at. They've been keeping the management consulting industry in clover for decades.
The promise of scaled agile lies in telling managers what they want to hear: you can have greater control. You can have greater predictability. You can achieve economies of scale. Acknowledging the real risks puts you at a disadvantage when you're bidding for business.
But if you really want to make a practical difference in a large software development organisation, the best results I've seen have come from focusing on the culture: what do people really value? What do people really believe? What are people's real habits? What do they really do under pressure?
You build big, complex products out of small, simple parts. The key is not in trying to exert control over the internal workings of each part, but to focus on how the parts - and the small, simple teams who make them - interact. Each part does a job. Each part will depend on some of the other parts. An overall architecture can emerge by instilling a set of good, practical organising principles across the teams - a design culture, like we have in the architecture of buildings, for example. The teams negotiate with each other to resolve potential conflicts, like motorists on our complex road systems trying to get where they need to go without bumping into each other.
Another word for this is "anarchy". I advice you not to use it in client meetings. But that is what it is.
I think it's very telling that so many of the original signatories of the Agile Manifesto have voiced scepticism - indeed, in some cases been very scathing - of "scaled agile". The way I see it, it's the precise opposite of what they were trying to tell us at Snowbird.
This is why, as a professional, I've invested so much time in training and coaching developers and teams, rather than in management consulting. I certainly engage with bosses, but when they ask about "scaled agile" I tell them what I personally think, which is that it's a mirage.
Posted 3 years, 5 months ago on December 8, 2016