Agility at scale is one of the crucial issues for large organizations. We interviewed four experts in order to put together an ebook, allowing to understand the contributions of agility at scale and SAFe. The following article is an excerpt from this ebook and allows us to determine the main challenges and key success factors of agility at scale.

The main challenges involved in scaling up…

challenges of scaled agile

… and the key factors to make scaled agile practices work

key success factors of scaled agile
jean-claude delagrange coach agile
Jean-Claude DELAGRANGE, agile coach

A product strategy driven by a trusted management team

First and foremost, a product strategy is needed, driven by a trusted management team. Based on my own experience, this involves:

  • The appointment of a pioneer (and future director) who is able to play the agile game often in the face of backward-looking values and reflexes; however, don’t forget to train him or her up properly and, above all, ensure that your agile coach focuses initially on this person, who’ll play the role of Business Owner.
  • The designation by the leader of a trusted person, trained in agile techniques, to act as Product Manager, working with the Business Owner as efficiently as possible.

Secondly, the assignment of properly designed roles, with clear boundaries, is vital; most importantly, you need a Product Manager who is capable of guiding the product development strategy, who can act as a single, available, and legitimate point of contact (for both teams and his or her managers), who is brave enough to innovate, and who can understand what’s involved in initial prioritization, which may evolve over time and with product deliveries.

Another important responsibility involves dealing with issues that cut across business units. Working hand in hand with the Product Manager, a person designated the “super Scrum Master” or other title will be responsible for managing cross-functional accountabilities (which should be developed gradually) and synchronizing teams.

Thirdly, clearly identified teams should be created, focused on the target product, with an agile culture already well established. If some teams aren’t yet acculturated in the approach, it will be up to the agile coach to ensure this happens, and they can be trained by the most experienced teams. The road to an agile culture can be a long one, as people cling on to old ways of working (mini V-cycles, the project owner-project manager divide, etc.), and it takes a lot of pragmatism for the agile coach to move forward.

This is how a current and future organization might look that’s capable of aligning with this target (the achievement of a feature team-based structure being a distant objective):

  • The maintenance teams for existing applications (e.g., back-office) who have to organize themselves so as to provide services and data…
  • … to teams responsible for new applications (e.g., smartphone apps).
  • The teams that need to transform the applications they’ve already installed, in order to integrate them seamlessly into the new platform.

SAFe offers a very comprehensive framework, its main contribution being a way of naming, formalizing, schematizing, and integrating ideas from various sources (such as lean, Agile Manifesto, Scrum, and Kanban).

Laurence Hanot coach agile
Laurence HANOT, agile coach at Zenika

A method to achieve many different goals, depending on the enterprise

As coaches, we unfortunately don’t always arrive at the right time in this type of transformation, and often have to act as “firefighters.” In other words, “We’ve tried things, we’ve embarked on an agile transformation on our own (at scale or otherwise) and we’re experiencing difficulties—please help us.” Depending on the state of play (identifying this is the crucial first phase in a coaching project), we then propose a variety of options that may, however, take a long time to implement depending on the extent of the damage or shortcomings observed. I’d therefore say that obtaining training and support from the outset is essential.

Defining and explaining the reasons for such a transformation is the second key step, to be done with leaders and sponsors. Why change things? For what purpose? Agile isn’t an end in itself. Rather, it helps in the achievement of goals that might be very distinct in different enterprises, departments, and teams.

Examples of transformation objectives mentioned in some of my projects include improving customer satisfaction, increasing the level of employee autonomy and engagement, developing employees’ cross-functional skills, improving the quality of our products, reducing time to market, and re-engaging and re-enthusing teams…

It’s clear that, depending on the objectives to be achieved (and measured throughout the transformation), we won’t rely on the same levers and the same practices. Once the objectives have been established and shared, we are then able to work with the teams on identifying the way ahead— in other words, the focus areas to work on—to achieve them. We then adopt an agile approach to our agile transformation, involving small steps and regular feedback loops to adapt our plan or continue on our way.

In order to involve as many people as possible so that they become active participants themselves, it’s therefore necessary to make the transformation visible, to communicate widely and, often, to obtain the necessary support and sponsorship from the management team. In situations at scale, such as the SAFe context in which I’m currently mainly involved, this requires the creation and mobilization of a transformation team composed of different participants, such as coaches, managers, operational staff, and sponsors. The diversity of the people in the team is an asset and allows support and transformation to take place “from within”, involving for example teams, senior managers, the portfolio, solutions, Agile Release Trains1, cross-functional roles, and so on in a coordinated and coherent manner. The goal is, little by little, to establish transformation representatives who work to change things in their role on a day-to-day basis. This will anchor agile practices, principles, and mindset to an ever-greater degree and therefore also enable the corporate culture to evolve.

Once the coaches and trainers have been appointed, the objectives and potential ways of achieving them established, the transformation team created and supported at the highest level, off you go!

Obviously, in practice things aren’t so sequential or ideal and, in a scaled agile context, this necessarily involves a large number of people. There’s a constant need to juggle between the different levels of maturity of the teams and people concerned, alleviate their fears and doubts, move forward with the “early adopters,” communicate a lot, lead the transformation team itself, and so on.

Taking charge of the roles of Scrum Master, Release Train Engineer, and Product Owner is the focal point of agile transformation.

To finish, I’d say that both in Jean-Claude’s very good report and in my own experience, I remember one key point: the need to take charge of the roles involved, especially those of the Scrum Master and the Release and Solution Train Engineers within SAFe or other equivalent scaled approaches. These people are the drivers of transformation, without which transformation can neither evolve, nor be viable in the medium to long term, nor become anchored in the organization.

Laurent Charles
Laurent CHARLES, CEO and co-founder of Enalean (Tuleap)

Managing the profound transformation of an enterprise

A scaled agile approach can lead to a profound transformation of an enterprise; indeed, it must result in such a change. Managing change is important. There is a risk of failure.

How do you feel about these conversations?

– We are in the midst of an agile reorganization.
– Great, how’s that going?
– I don’t know yet; we haven’t yet been notified of the new structure.

Or even:

– We’ve completed our agile transformation.
– What results have you achieved?
– Uh… well, now we’re “agile”, but we’ve lost lots of our agility.

And also:

– We’ve decided to adopt agile practices.
– Good news; how are you going about it?
– We’re putting in place tool X.

Without going into detail, here are some points we thought were key to the success of rolling out a scaled agile approach:

Seeing agile first and foremost as a culture and only then as a process or practice.

  • To achieve big things, learn to do the little things right. Large organizations need to relearn how not to go back into their silos, how to work incrementally, and how to identify the little important things to be done first, for example.
  • Being supported by one or more coaches is vital. Ideally, these coaches will be external to your organization and will have the necessary perspective.

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