How to scale agile the correct way?

How to Scale Agile the Correct Way and Avoid Pitfalls

By Frederik Hamann and Elena Dimoska
12 January 2023, 09:31

The desire and the need to stay on top of the competition has made many companies abandon the traditional Waterfall methodology and switch to a more iterative, agile framework, such as SCRUM, DSDM or SAFe.

And for a good reason: Agile methodologies can expedite time to market, improve product quality, and level-up customer experience.

However, it is unfortunately commonplace for agile transformations to fail too, especially at large enterprises. 

So, what should companies do to scale the correct way and avoid pitfalls when using agile methodologies?

What do you want to achieve when switching to Agile?

There are several reasons why modern and smart companies switch to a more resonating methodology.

  • Increased customer satisfaction. → Agile methodologies main focus is to deliver customer value quickly and efficiently. This approach intends to quickly respond to the customer’s requests and feedback and have the ability to implement the needed changes really fast.
  • Better team collaboration. → Agile encourages the teams to work in a more collaborative manner. And not only on a team level – but on an organizational level as well. And when teams are collaborating among themselves, better communication and faster problem-solving are some of the aspired outcomes.
  • Increased productivity. → Agile methodologies allow your teams to break down tasks into smaller chunks. This way, they can focus on the more important ones and complete them quickly and not lose precious time on nonessential ones.

Changes to embrace when going Agile

If you want your transition to Agile to work, there are two main changes that you need to embrace. If you implement these best practices you’ll have satisfied customers on one and a productive team front on the other side.

1. Release more frequently to include customer feedback more often

Not only for your customers but also for your team it is better to release a steady stream of smaller releases. Generally on the order of releasing every week or two – the more frequent the better.

With that being said, investing in test and release automation comes easy for most businesses.

But this change doesn’t require a core work though, only a few technical adaptations (e.g. implementing a functioning CI/CD pipeline on a cloud based infrastructure). And it’s not a major problem for companies to adapt to.

2. Empower the product team to solve its own problems

The real challenge comes now. 

Many organizations have functioned in the most common process flow in the past. Stakeholders would give the teams very specific lists of features that need to be implemented and then project managers would very explicitly assign and track tasks to specific people, and shepherd the release to production. A very control intensive process.

With Agile in place, your product team is supposed to be autonomous and solve its problems on its own. Different teams should be able to self-organize and run their processes as they best see fit – only aligned with specific business outcomes and objectives that they follow. Such an approach to implementation can reap some significant benefits, including productivity and team morale.

Nowadays, many of our clients face problems to fully adopt Agile because they are not ready to embrace the empowerment of the product team in being more autonomous. Instead, business stakeholders still try to provide implementation teams with detailed roadmaps and feature lists on what to implement next. 

Even with the nicest automation tools and processes in place – the methodology does not provide the benefits the companies aspired to.

The apparent solution: A waterfall in disguise

What many companies do is turn to SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) to solve this core issue – and by doing so make things worse.

SAFe intends to “promote alignment, collaboration, and delivery across large numbers of agile teams”. There are 9 principles (e.g. taking an economic view, visualizing work in progress and decentralizing decision making) that SAFe attempts to establish – and which also makes a lot of sense – however, the devil is in the details. It also wants to foster “base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems” and involve stakeholders of all kinds in the product team’s decision making process. 

Do you notice something?

Thus, in SAFe, this concept of a true product team is undermined and demoted, and the core concept is now a program where decisions are made at the top. The concept has a top-down model of a product manager, an architect, and a release train manager. These are the people who drive all the key decisions, and the defined objectives are passed to the engineering teams with a low-level product owner assigned various parts to build.

As a result:

  • SAFe confuses project management (output driven) with product management (outcome-driven)
  • Developers and designers are seen as executives rather than advisors
  • Lack of engineering force and innovation

There is no empowerment of product teams whatsoever! In fact, SAFe is actually a Waterfall in disguise.

The real solution: How to embrace and scale agile and avoid pitfalls?

The solution is relatively simple. 

If you want the transition and the Agile process to run smoothly and seamlessly make sure to start with clearly defined objective(s), a North Star KPI might help.

Also, clearly define your expectations and responsibilities for each product team beforehand. The teams will use this as a guideline to reach your business targets. Involving business stakeholders in cumbersome programm and decision board structures will not be necessary anymore.

To make this work, trust the process and embrace the changes that come with it. Be brave and go the real way that Agile was intended to work. There are some quite good examples of organizations that really work in such a manner: Google, Meta, Netflix – and these did not perform too badly within the last years.

Only always have in mind the main principle of the Agile methodology: Collaborate rather than command.

If you are looking for assistance in scaling your business, we can help you create a plan and bring your vision to life. Don’t hesitate to contact us.