Scaling Agile for the Enterprise

I had the amazing opportunity to spend this week seeing how agile can scale to an enterprise level of 400+ team members. In this post I would like to review some of my thoughts and opinions.

SAFe – Scaled Agile Framework

We have been using Kanban for the last 18 months in our group at EBSCO and implemented an effective Continuous Delivery flow where we routinely deploy multiple times per week.  Kanban has  worked really well for us but as the team grows it becomes more and more difficult. Dependencies between teams and scheduling the work order on those dependencies can become quite the challenge with large numbers of teams.

There are many “frameworks” out their for scaling agile.  Before this week I hadn’t had experience with any of them.  At EBSCO we have adopted the SAFe flavor of scaled agile.  Their website offers up all the details and information for free at http://scaledagileframework.com/

There is a ton of information here.  To be honest it was really overwhelming at first but after training and seeing it first hand I believe it will work well. I suspect it would be very difficult to scale agile quickly without an expert to help guide you through it.  Luckily we have consultants to help us.

From the top

I know many in the software development industry are not fans of the term “agile” used as a noun.  I agree.  Agile is a adjective describing the type of software development we aspire to.   Agility is the ability to move and change direction within the software development life cycle to adjust and bring value to the business quickly. Companies selling training, consultation or other products can sell a noun much easier than an adjective by productizing it.  The problem with this approach is it portrays the adoption of agile software development as something you can simply buy when in reality it is a process that requires time and energy to implement.

That being said, I do think the strategy, although misleading, has brought agile software development to the limelight which has been good.  Without it many executives or other management may have never implemented it. 

In my experience, trying to move to an agile process, from waterfall for example, is nearly impossible from the bottom up.  Having upper management bought in seems to be the key to a successful adoption of agile software development.  Thankfully we have support at EBSCO for lean and agile all the way up to our CEO.  This is so powerful!  Now the teams can focus on learning and implementing agile software development instead of trying to convince upper management that its a worthwhile pursuit.

Transparency and Alignment

A critical part of SAFe is the Program Increment Planning event (PIP, also known as “big room planning”).  As the name implies it involves a big room and planning.  In the first few hours of this two day event, business representatives present what they would like to be developed in the next three months, how it helps customers and how they hope it will produce profit.  The goal of this is to help the team members understand what the business is asking for and why.  This goes a long way to align efforts across the work force.

Ordered Chaos

SAFe structures teams of teams with key individuals amongst them to help drive direction and progress.  All team members attend the PIP and are asked to participate in estimating and committing to the work they believe they can complete.  400+ people in one big room does look like absolute chaos as you might expect but if you walk around and listen to the conversations and hear the work being planned you will find a  lot of value in the process.  Scrum masters are the directors of this chaos running between teams and collaborating together to ensure questions are answered and progress is made.

Time boxes and Decisions

With only two days to complete the planning for 3 months there is no time to get lost in analysis paralysis.  Planning work must be time boxed in order to complete it in two days with confidence.  Any questions or uncertainty must be resolved quickly.  If more or different resources are needed the right people are in the room to make the decisions necessary.  This is another key aspect of PIP, decisions are made and committed to at the event.  If the team doesn’t have confidence in the plan they express their concerns and upper management works to mitigate risks right then and there.  The goal is for everyone involved to have confidence in the plan.  Mistakes will be made  but the culture of lean/agile ensures we will learn from those mistakes and improve the process going forward.

Summary

I’m really excited about these changes and where we are headed. Its a great time to be at EBSCO meeting the needs of our customers and working together as a team.

What do you think?  Have you successfully scaled agile at your company?  Share your experiences in the comments below.

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