A couple of weeks ago I was sorting through some books left to me by an uncle in the early '90s when I came across a copy of The U.S. Armed Forces Survival Manual, published in 1980. Leafing through I found all sorts of advice such as how to build a shelter, find direction, trap and prepare food, and how to protect yourself from natural hazards. It was this last topic that caught my attention, particularly the section about poisonous snakes of the world. Who knew there were so many ways to die? As I perused the pages, I fully expected to come across a section on "How to survive snakebite in the Arctic." Pondering this question, I must have said something out loud, because my daughter, without picking her head up from whatever social media she was engaged with, said, "How about just not going there?" I laughed because this is the same thought that often comes to me when I'm asked "How do we scale agile?"
Here's why. A key principle of agile is simplification. In practice, simplification includes the art of taking large complex problems and chunking them down into small, valuable bits that can be rapidly built, deployed, assessed, and revised as needs evolve. Capabilities accrete over time through iterative and incremental feedback loops. The idea of scaling agile seems to drive things toward the opposite end of the simplicity/complexity spectrum, but it doesn't need to be that way.
Large complex problems are a reality. To scale agile successfully requires a rethinking of approach and of leadership and requires tenacity to persevere through the cultural change needed to enable agility. That in itself is a large complex problem. So to start, let's keep things simple and talk about step 1 in any scaling initiative.
Step 1: Create and demonstrate capability
- Start with one team - The team is the fundamental building block in agile. Before you can scale, you must be able to create an effective Agile team.
- Get agile working with that one team - Stack the deck in their favor. Give them purpose, give them what they need to be effective, and remove anything that stands in their way. You will be amazed at what they can accomplish.
- Once it's working, never stop improving - The first thing that works is never the final optimization. A new process or practice might be an improvement, but like the metaphoric bandaid, it might not be addressing the root cause; or new changes might make what was an improvement less effective or obsolete. Keep questioning and challenging the status quo. Always seek to make things better.
- Don't copy the details of this team; copy the mindset - resist the temptation to "cookie-cutter" this team as you begin to scale. Each team finds it's own way. Your mantra might be "We all get there together," but be open to different paths to success.
This first step might appear easy. It's not. And your ability to create an effective agile team is a litmus test for moving forward with scaling. If you pass this test, remember what made this team successful. Give subsequent teams the same level of nurture and support. Each effective agile team becomes an additional building block essential to scaling.
"Just not going there" may not be an option for "How do we scale agile?" The use of agile in programs such as the Grippen JAS 39 E/F fighter aircraft is showing the potential upside of doing agile at scale. The opportunity to make big improvements to large scale initiatives through the use of agile can't be ignored.
If you are scaling agile or simply contemplating scaling, are you passing the single effective agile team test? If not, are you willing to stake the success of your large, complex program on an scaling approach that has failed this elemental test?