What is Scaled Agile?

First off, let's define what Scaled Agile is – and what it isn’t.

Scaled Agile is a way of working underpinned by the values and principles of Lean, Agile software development, and Systems Thinking implemented at scale in medium to large enterprise environments. It is ideal for large delivery teams (typically 50 to 150 members) working on one or more complex software products.

Scaled Agile is not just about distributing work across multiple Scrum teams. It is not limited to Scrum practices, nor is it locked into any other specific agile framework. There are many scaling methods and approaches – including Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), Scrum of Scrums, the Spotify Model, Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD), etc – each with its own idiosyncrasies. At Marlo, we borrow elements from different frameworks based on our understanding of what will work best for each client.

Although widely considered one of the best approaches to delivering complex enterprise solutions, Scaled Agile is not a silver bullet, and dare we say, is not for everyone.

Who Benefits from Scaled Agile?

The Internet abounds with comparisons between Waterfall and Agile approaches. Many of these focus primarily on differences relating to task management and team structures. But the more interesting points of difference lie in the cultural norms they embody. Sadly, up to 90% of organisations that embark on an Agile transformation fail to complete their journey. A key to avoiding this fate is to ensure your organisational culture is taken on the ride.

Scaled Agile may benefit organisations facing the following challenges:

  • Failure to achieve desired business outcomes due to lack of collaboration, transparency and alignment across business and technology teams
  • Limited ability to accommodate changes due to complex architecture and resource constraints
  • Products failing to deliver the expected business benefit, or resulting in financial loss
  • Poor-quality outcomes due to inconsistent or ineffective software engineering practices
  • Delays in responding to changing market and customer needs
  • Demoralised teams and disengaged business stakeholders

To achieve the full benefit of Agile ways of working, the right elements need to be in place. Key among these is strong executive sponsorship. Adopting Scaled Agile is a substantial multi-year investment, so it is paramount that leaders commit to leading the change. They must not only support the changes to team structures, policies and processes, but also – and perhaps most critically – they must drive cultural change to shift the organisation from a traditional command-and-control paradigm to a “servant-leader” model that empowers autonomous teams and removes the fear of failure.

The transition to Scaled Agile is far from simple, but for the right organisation, the potential benefits are many:

Faster Time to Market

The term “agile”, by definition, describes one's ability to change direction quickly. An oft-cited benefit of Agile approaches is a quicker time-to-market. But just how much quicker? Fortunately, SAFe has done some case studies across organisations that have adopted Agile, as summarised below:

Company Industry Results
Australia Post Postal Service 100-fold increase in yearly production deployments with 98% cost reduction and 400% productivity increase over 18 months
Deutsche Bahn Transportation Lead time dropped from 12 months to 3-4 months
CapitalOne Financial Lead time dropped from 6 months to couple of months
Amdocs Telecommunication 30% faster delivery to acceptance testing
Fitbit Technology Velocity up by 30% year over year

One of the goals of Agile software development methodologies such as Scrum and Lean is to enable teams to deliver fully-functional, properly-tested software in rapid cycles (typically every 2-4 weeks). Scaled Agile builds on this by orchestrating multiple agile teams working in concert toward a common goal. This enables large delivery teams to release working products much more frequently (often in 3-month “program increments”), accelerating returns on investment and reducing potential revenue loss – as depicted in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Faster time to market helps reduce cost of delay resulting in lower actual returns.

Yet agile methods alone are not enough to achieve true speed-to-market: technology makes an enormous difference here. We believe modern cloud-native platforms can give you a running start, and to this end, we have invested our time and expertise to build a platform (“Bring your own Environment”) that can get you up and running in a full-fledged cloud environment in minutes. Read more about this at The New BYOD - Bring Your Own Dev.

Maintain Alignment

Contrary to popular opinion, misalignment between business and IT is not just an issue affecting organisations with a traditional functional structure. In fact, misalignment is often a bigger problem in organisations with a mix of traditional and Scrum teams.

Traditional organisations attempt to achieve alignment through strict processes and stage-gates. Ironically, these regimented processes can actually stifle collaboration. They also run counter to the principles of Agile – serving to highlight the discord across teams following different ways of working. Deming put it aptly:

Best efforts are essential. Unfortunately, best efforts, people charging this way and that way without guidance of principles, can do a lot of damage.

- W. Edwards Deming

Netflix and Spotify popularised the principle of ‘highly aligned, yet loosely coupled teams' – a play on Microservices Architecture’s ‘loosely coupled, highly cohesive’ principle.

 

 

Figure 3. Loosely coupled, tightly aligned teams (Spotify)

Scaled Agile applies this principle in finding a balance between giving teams autonomy and ensuring they remain aligned with the goals of the enterprise. It is particularly beneficial for large distributed teams: Royal Philips, for example, has 42 Agile Release Trains, each with 50-125 members. Open and frequent communication – supported by processes and tools – ensures teams are aligned to business outcomes, and leaders are aware of the progress of each team.

Promoting local autonomy unlocks creativity, speed, and innovation: empowered teams are more engaged and more productive; they feel a sense of ownership and a stronger connection to the organisation’s vision and goals.

Risk Reduction

“I am ignoring all risks and going all-in on this investment, even if it wastes millions of dollars and damages my company’s reputation”

- No One Ever

The quote above is intended to be humorous, but sadly we encounter variations of it all too often. Multi-million dollar enterprise projects crash and burn for a multitude of reasons, including invalid assumptions resulting in poor market fit, incorrect requirements, delayed delivery, blown-out budgets, tons of avoidable rework, unreported issues, counter-intuitive user experience, etc.

Scaled Agile can help enterprise teams uncover hidden risks or problems early. Frequent software releases enable continuous validation of assumptions, and help ensure ongoing alignment with business needs. US mortgage finance provider Fannie Mae used a Scaled Agile approach to meet government regulatory mandates through continuous feedback loops – a feat that would have taken much more time and money using a Waterfall approach.

Scaled Agile can also reduce delivery risk over time by optimising the delivery capability itself. Techniques such as value-stream-mapping, big retrospectives, leading-indicators-tracking, and scrum-of-scrums events are commonly applied in Scaled Agile to facilitate continuous improvement of delivery.

Build Trust

Agile at scale means trust at scale.

- Henrik Kniberg, Spotify

Scaled Agile offers practical ways to build a culture of trust in your organisation, enabling business and delivery teams to work collaboratively and communicate openly.

Regular stand-up meetings encourage a shared understanding and ownership of progress, and surface any issues, risks, dependencies or impediments. Visual tools such as a Program Wall or Kanban board build on this by publicly tracking progress, and showcases and sprint reviews provide further opportunity for feedback and learning. Perhaps most importantly, the working software delivered in each iteration presents a tangible outcome that not only unites teams but allows assumptions to be tested quickly – avoiding the late discovery of issues that can erode trust and devolve into a “blame game”.

Scaled Agile also builds trust between leaders and delivery teams. Decision-makers can act decisively and teams can deliver confidently in the knowledge that any issues will be discovered and rectified early – promoting an environment in which it is safe to “fail”.

Early and incremental realisation of value also builds confidence and trust among stakeholders and customers. Features can be refined iteratively based on customer feedback (e.g. using Design Thinking methods) and budgets can be released incrementally as investment guardrails and milestones are achieved.

Conclusion

Small teams and startups do not have a monopoly on delivery agility. Scaled Agile provides a pragmatic and effective framework for ‘descaling’ large, functional team structures into lean cross-functional and cross-component teams aligned to product streams. Many large organisations have adopted Scaled Agile ways of working to achieve faster time to market, improve returns on investment, reduce risks, and foster a creative and collaborative workforce culture.

A successful transition to Scaled Agile should be supported by tools and technologies that enable team collaboration and quality delivery at pace – underpinned by the right architectural thinking, DevOps, and automation frameworks and platforms.

Do you agree with our list? Please leave a comment below to share your thoughts and experiences, or contact us via our website to arrange a free consultation.