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Enterprise Agile Planning

6 Important Questions You Must Answer Before Scaling Agile

Published By Jon Terry


If you’ve been tasked with scaling Agile across your entire organization, congratulations. You’ve been trusted to transform your company from the inside out. You’ll need to prepare yourself for the inevitable challenges that stand in your way. And while every company is different, one thing’s for certain: there will be challenges. You’re implementing an entirely different business philosophy, after all.

The good news is that we’ve looked at six of the most common challenges organizations face, broke them down into questions, and carefully answered each one. That way, you’re better equipped to overcome any obstacles thrown your way while creating an Agile-driven company.

1. Why Is Leadership Important for Scaling Agile?

For many traditional businesses, organizational change starts at the top and works its way down. But since Agile isn’t a traditional business approach, things were done a little differently.

Historically, Agile started at the grassroots level. A team would adopt Agile to help them meet their goals. Over time, other departments start to notice Agile’s benefits, and it spread organically throughout the organization. Under this model, Agile remained a process used at individual team levels, with management taking a hands-off approach.

Scaled Agile, on the other hand, is an initiative that’s typically started at the top, where it works its way down. Its purpose is to create consistency within the Agile approach so that all the Agile teams are working together to reach the company’s goals, rather than focusing exclusively on the goals of their own departments. That way, Agile teams, C-level executives, and financial management are all working together under the same roof.

This is where the Agile leader comes in.

Scaling Agile across an entire organization comes with challenges. There’s no universal approach for Agile, so what works for one team may not be effective for another. It’s the leader’s job to preserve autonomy and ensure teams continue to work effectively while management creates consistency across all levels in the organization. In other words, Agile leaders are important for preventing standardization and bureaucracy from destroying the culture that empowered Agile teams in the first place.

As the Agile leader, it’s your job to help management understand and adopt the Agile approach. You need to help them move away from the traditional management approach of calling out orders and supervising workers. That way, managers have a smooth transition into scaled Agile without disrupting progress at the team level.

Not sure where to start? Don’t worry. We’ll look at how you can scale Agile smoothly in questions 4-6. But first, let’s learn more about your role in delivering this transition.

2. What Role Do Leaders Play in Driving Agile?

The Agile leader plays a major role in creating an environment where Agile empowers teams to work better, smarter, and more efficiently. As you can imagine, doing that takes a lot of work and planning. As we mentioned in the previous question, there’s more to scaling Agile than simply introducing it.

A good Agile leader understands:

  • Agile isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Teams have different needs and objectives, and Agile needs to be modified to suit the team using it—not the other way around
  • Some teams work better without Agile. Not every type of team works well as an Agile team. Your goal as the leader isn’t to force everyone to adopt Agile, but rather to facilitate smooth collaboration between Agile and non-Agile teams in the organization

More importantly, a good Agile leader makes sure managers understand this as well.

That’s because the role of leadership is to create a workplace that minimizes bureaucracy coming down from management, so that everyone collaborates efficiently. Agile leaders must help managers break away from traditional corporate leadership styles, prioritizing creativity and innovation, and using those two elements to drive profitability—not the other way around. This requires you to do more than memorize Agile techniques. You need to truly understand the philosophy so you can teach it to others who are creating policy within the organization. And that means you have to become an Agile student.

3. How Do You Become an Agile Student?

Remember, good leaders don’t just give orders all day. They lead by example. Before you can scale Agile across your organization, you have to understand and follow Agile’s principles yourself. Here’s how you can do that.

  • Never stop studying Agile. The industry is constantly changing, and Agile’s flexible and adaptable nature means that its practices change with it. Keep up with those changes, so you’re always better equipped to scale Agile in a dynamic, fast-paced professional landscape
  • Learn how other businesses used Agile successfully. Many top companies have scaled Agile and benefitted greatly from it. Read their stories and learn how they overcame specific challenges
  • Learn about companies that failed with Agile as well. Failure is also a great teacher. Spend time researching companies that didn’t succeed at scaling Agile, paying close attention to the factors that led to their failure

Ultimately, the key to becoming a good student is understanding that learning Agile is an ongoing process—not a one-time event.

7 Benefits to Scaling Agile Whitepaper4. What Is the Agile Management Style?

One of the biggest challenges leaders face when scaling Agile is getting managers to adopt an Agile-friendly approach to team and project management. That’s because management under this philosophy acts completely different than traditional managers.

Most managers instinctively adopt a command-and-control style of leadership, where they end up micromanaging teams. With Agile, however, employees are given more autonomy when it comes to managing tasks. After all, they’re the ones with the working knowledge and hands-on experience when it comes to solving problems and meeting deadlines. As such, Agile managers should typically let workers decide how to approach and complete tasks, while they devote their time to ensuring teams continue to solve problems using Agile solutions. As the Agile leader, it’s important for you to help management understand this paradigm shift in order to successfully implement scaled Agile in your organization.

5. What Does Good Leadership Look Like?

Successful Agile leaders do more than preach the importance of Agile, they practice it. What’s more, they show managers how to adopt and practice it as well. We stress the importance of leading by example because leadership under Agile is completely different than traditional management structures.

In the previous question, we mentioned that Agile leadership doesn’t support command-and-control management, but what does that leadership really look like?

“Walking the walk” as an Agile leader starts with how you view and interact with your team. The reason why Agile leaders don’t micromanage is because teams aren’t treated like conventional employees, but rather customers. Under this approach, workers are motivated to innovate and develop products that meet the needs of customers—actual customers. Managers, on the other hand, are expected to implement management strategies that drive innovation and meet the needs of team members.

In other words, management interacts with workers in the same way workers interact with customers. And this is achieved through creating and constantly implementing Agile systems. That’s why we say that Agile leaders promote company-wide Agility, not supervise teams directly.

6. Have You Redefined the Meaning of Success?

The final step to becoming an effective Agile leader is being able to redefine what success means to you and your organization. This can be especially challenging, as metrics conventional managers follow, like planned versus actual expenditure and on-time completion rates, aren’t prioritized under Agile leadership. That’s not to say that these metrics aren’t important—they are. But under scaled Agile, it’s the IT team’s duty to measure the progress­––not the managers’.

This is because Agile promotes a self-governing approach, where teams are in charge of coming up with their own methods to drive innovation. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Agile managers don’t measure success. It means they measure success differently.

So, what does success under scaled Agile look like? In short, it’s when teams create innovation. While Agile leaders may not tell teams how to innovate, they do tell them where to innovate. In other words, Agile leaders create long-term visions and monitor teams as they turn those visions into reality. In terms of data-driven management, this can be measured by tracking Agile metrics like:

  • Velocity/Throughput: How many tasks are being completed over a specified time period?
  • Cycle time: The length of time it takes for a piece of work to move through the workflow from start to finish
  • Variability: How consistent does work align with the average performance metrics? The less variability, the better, because it shows consistency and enables you to set service level agreements with your stakeholders
  • Quality: Looks at the number of mistakes discovered by QA over each sprint, and whether the number of defects is increasing or decreasing month to month
  • Morale: Measures the happiness levels and engagement of your team members

Keep in mind that success is measured differently under the Agile approach. When Agile managers look at the metrics mentioned above, they’re not looking strictly at the numbers. Nor are they comparing the performance of one team against another. Instead, they’re looking to see whether current strategies:

  • Have helped teams continuously improve
  • Are enabling teams to achieve results efficiently while being cost-effective

These metrics can be used to determine whether continuous improvement is happening and if this improvement is financially benefiting the company. In other words, you can use this data to help you decide how to allocate teams’ time more effectively.

The Recap

There’s no hidden secret to scaling Agile across an organization. It requires dedication and consistency. But learning Agile’s core principles and how to apply them in your organization is half the battle. You also need to help management understand the importance of this approach while helping them adopt Agile management techniques.

Once you’ve got that down, all you need to do is ensure Agile is being promoted across your company—starting with you.

What to learn more? Download the whitepaper, “The 7 Benefits of Scaling Agile”.

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Written by Jon Terry Chief Evangelist, Lean-Agile Strategy

Jon Terry is Chief Evangelist, Lean-Agile Strategy for Planview, a market leading provider of portfolio management, agile management, collaboration, and ideation software. Before that Jon was co-CEO and co-founder of LeanKit, which pioneered the application of Kanban in knowledge work. Prior to that, Jon held a number of senior IT positions with hospital-giant HCA and its logistics subsidiary, HealthTrust Purchasing Group. He was among those responsible for launching HCA’s adoption of Lean-Agile methods.