Because 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 extract from this ebook and allows us to determine if agility is a top-down, bottom-up approach or both.

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

A bottom-up approach on its own soon reaches its limits without the support of management

This is a question at the heart of how we “implement” a scaled agile approach. Becoming agile can be a strategic corporate ambition, and it’s actually much more effective if it is.

But we see everywhere that agile can’t be decreed; it can’t be forced. It’s based on motivation and it spreads throughout an organization on the basis of conviction. It can only be done with the teams—and only deployed by the teams themselves. Why? Because it’s the very autonomy, transparency, and accountability of the teams involved that make this approach unique.

Within your organization, if you already have teams that are convinced of the merits of agile, it will be that much more effective. Build on these early adopters and motivate them to play a role in the bottom-up dynamic. As a showcase for the success of their project and for their well-being as a team, they are the ones that can really drive deployment. Word of mouth can act as a tidal wave in promoting the effectiveness of agile.

It won’t have a magic wand effect, and will necessarily take some time, but the change of mindset will be profound, and good practices firmly established. Uptake will follow on from the successful example set by some teams and the new experiments tried by others. We’ve noticed that the clients that succeed are those that prioritize the facilitation of test projects, pilots with motivated teams.

A bottom-up approach on its own soon reaches its limits without the support of management. The reflexes of the enterprise and systemic resistance cannot really be overcome without the support of the management teams. As studies show, successful transformations are all based on strong sponsorship from management.

It’s therefore a matter of striking the right balance. Because scaling up agile is a bit like our brain: it works much better if we use both the right and left hemispheres. The SAFe approach, for example, includes both top-down management (Strategic Agility) and confident bottom-up operational teams (Scale Up).

Alexandre Cuva coach agile
Alexandre CUVA, agile coach and manager of SoCraAgile

Such an adoption must be understood by everyone

In addition to the comment from Enalean, I’d like to add that it’s very important that such an adoption is understood by everyone, from sponsors at the executive level to operational teams, along with the various departments of the organization. Some organizations have created new units that respond to an internal need, such as internal marketing or an on-demand coaching service. Whatever they choose, a change cell has to be created to monitor the adoption process and restrict certain appropriations that could create more complexity for end users.

jean-claude delagrange coach agile
Jean-Claude DELAGRANGE, agile coach

Managers must always ask themselves THE QUESTION OF DECISION-MAKING LEVELS

I fully share these points of view. I’d add another point that I feel is important (proposed by SAFe) about the need for managers to always ask themselves the question, including during transformation, as to what things can be decided as close as possible to ground level (rapid, local decisions, etc.) and what things need to be kept at the highest level of decision-making (strategy, financial issues, choice of transformation, etc.).

Laurence Hanot coach agile
Laurence HANOT, agile coach at Zenika

Successful and long-term agility at scale requires both approaches

Both are needed, of course! Just like my co-authors, I think one can’t work without the other. I’ve experienced each of these situations: bottom-up scaled agile that hits the glass ceiling (middle management, other departments, other roles…) and runs out of steam; and top-down scaled agile that doesn’t really take hold because of the lack of clear intentions and resources provided (training, coaching, time). The syndrome of “yet another new method coming from above,” without people understanding the how, what, or why, and the lack of ownership or involvement for people on the ground. (If you don’t know it, I strongly recommend this video—“Start With Why?”—by Simon Sinek: long version.)

Yes, successful and long-term agility at scale requires both approaches.

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