Let’s briefly examine a common term that often means different things to different people, especially in the context of enterprise agility. The term is “scale”.
Clarifying the meaning of “scale”, in context, is an important topic for leaders because there are three (3) distinct perspectives from which “scale” can be viewed: 1. spreading, 2. scaling, and 3. at scale. This may initially seem like a trivial set of conceptual distinctions; however, in practice it is a critical topic because each of the contexts implies a different perspective for how success is viewed and measured.
First, let’s define the three contexts, along with their corresponding success metrics. After that, we’ll review what each definition means in more detail.
1. scale “across” (aka “spreading”)
- achieved by repeating the same things across additional people or teams
- the success metric is typically based on counting the number of people or teams
2. scale “up” (aka “scaling”)
- achieved by expanding coverage within an organizational functional hierarchy; e.g., IT
- the success metric is typically based on counting the number of organizational levels
3. scale as "holistic” (aka “agility at scale”)
- achieved by encompassing both strategy and execution, across an entire enterprise
- the success metric is typically based on computing the sustainable pace, as hours or days or weeks or months, at which some increment of value is delivered across the entire enterprise
When applied to agility adoption, each context provides a different scope, and requires different operational adjustments. However, some people often use the contexts as if they were interchangeable. The contexts are related, yet differentiated. Many organizations incorrectly assume that experience with “scale” in one context equates to effective experience for creating “scale” in another context. A key point to recognize is that without the clarity of what an organization means by “scale”, success can be elusive.
The risk in stating “scale” is being addressed, without clarifying the corresponding context, is that your expected goals may not be achieved. As a result, your organization may become yet another unfortunate statistic of transformation failure rather than achieving the potential success in fulfilling your agile adoption objectives. This tends to remain true whether agility adoption is applied rather specifically to delivery-based agile within IT, or more broadly to full organizational agility when fusing Business and Technology as a whole.
Creating a clear understanding of the expected outcomes of "scale” can ensure that everyone is aligned to the same context, and to the same success criteria from the start. As a result, the elusive success in executing “agility at scale” becomes attainable for your organization.
Agile transformations have traditionally started with a focused subset of an organization – a subset such as a set of people within an organization, or a team who works together consistently to deliver some value, or a group of teams comprising an initiative. Whichever subset serves as the initial focus, there are systematic reasons behind why an organization may be pursuing an agile transformation and wanting to work in an agile way. Agile adoption typically begins through one or more pilots in pursuit of those reasons, each enabling part of an organization with the principles and practices of agility. As outcomes began to improve, such as when team-delivery measurements depict accelerated delivery cycles, it becomes natural to want to expand the benefits of working in an agile way.
Today there are plenty of frameworks that have been developed to help teams “scale” agile. This brings us back to the word “scale”, particularly since “scale” in many frameworks is taken from the perspective of “up” scaling. Commonly referenced framework for scale” include Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), Large Scale Scrum (LeSS), Disciplined Agile (DA), and Scrum at Scale (Scrum@Scale). Each of these frameworks have their advocates and their critics, but regardless of your point of view on a specific framework, choosing a framework is only one aspect of addressing the topic of “scale”. Another aspect is addressing the type of scale: 1. “spreading” across teams, 2. “scaling” up through the team, program, portfolio hierarchy of an organizational function (typically an IT organization), or 3. “at scale” holistically through the strategic, operational, development, and delivery value streams of an entire enterprise.
Context One: Spreading Agility - Across
When an organization is interested in expanding agility to equip more teams, they are applying a context that focusses on “spreading” agile. The implicit hope is that, by leveraging local team successes, the success can be replicated across more and more teams within an organization. Each team is typically formed similarly to the initial teams and the model and practices spread across the organization, e.g., spreading across IT.
This context is great in theory; however, challenges exist. If the initial example of your successful agile team was built upon members who actively focused to embrace agile principles, align across all team members on the practices they apply to demonstrate agility, and work every day to make the initial agile adoption great, then your challenge may become the replication of that same focus and intensity throughout your organization.
More importantly, keep in mind that the actual goal of an enterprise leader is often to execute with agility beyond the boundaries of one organization. Even if they start with IT, the intent is often to resolve the inherent organizational disconnects that emerge between business and IT. However, simply replicating agile teams only within a designated organizational area misses the larger promise of achieving a connected business and IT flow that executes with full business agility. Spreading agility across an organization may achieve seemingly broad success, yet the success can be disconnected from the full flow of value and therefore provided limited ultimate value to an enterprise.
Context Two: Scaling Agility - Up
This second context for “scale” in agility refers to the expansion beyond the teams themselves and into the ways the teams’ work and how the value delivery is organized overall, i.e., into the workflow processes and practices. In many organizations, these processes and practices are defined and managed at organizational levels “higher” than the team level in an organizational hierarchy. This implies an organization needs to scale “up” into their workflow management areas.
A key challenge with scaling agility “up” in the workflow tracking hierarchy, is ensuring sufficient visibility into the actual workflow; this is because the workflow itself may need to be re-aligned as agile adoption progresses. For example, are “projects” really the best way to organize work, given that incremental validation benefits might drive work to be aligned around value differently? This topic emerges because projects are typically defined and evaluated by “start”, “end”, and “percent complete” metrics, rather than “outcome targets”, “value delivered”, and “cost of delay” metrics. Depending on how value is defined, the starting point of “projects” as the mechanism for workflow tracking might need to be re-examined.
Scaling “up” the workflow hierarchy, even with the most flexible program and portfolio management talent and processes, tends to preserve the very thinking that constrains adaptability in an agile context. That is not to say the predictability enabled through properly structuring outcome-related metrics are not needed; they are essential to effective execution at organizational scale. The key point is ensuring proper visibility and attention to the results of the workflow and not merely adherence to predetermined workflow processes.
As more and more teams adopt agile practices, they have the collective capacity to take on work that can be aligned differently than if the teams only worked on their own initiatives. For example, rather than each team seeking independently to solve specific needs of the consumer of the value they create, the work for a set of teams can be organized around a particular theme. A shift to theme-based organization of work can be enabled by engaging organizational systems typically associated with program and portfolio workflow management, which may already exist within your current organizational structure. Scaling agility in this way, within the hierarchy of your organization, frames the context of scaling “up” in the workflow tracking hierarchy. However, managing dependencies across organizational boundaries is not necessarily resolved when merely scaling “up”.
Context Three: Agility at Scale - Holistically
The context of “holistic” agility at scale is where most organizations assume they’re going, but because they lack a clear understanding of the desired outcome and context, many fall short. In fact, in 2019 CNBC reported that companies spent $1.3 trillion on "digital transformation" initiatives annually, and 70% of those initiatives failed*. That means $900 billion dollars is essentially wasted every year by companies in the pursuit of failed transformations. Clearly organizations are not intentionally pursuing failed transformations, yet their choices and behaviors produce the same results as if they were intentionally pursuing failure.
In contrast, we have experienced the potential of repeatable and predictable success by following a different pattern than the failed transformations. Two key differentiators in the predictable success patterns are a clear understanding of what agile at “scale” looks like, and a clear focus on the value of the work that needs to be done to truly become an organization that can sense and respond to the market. In fact, we see these patterns repeatedly producing a success rate of 90%.
We see these alternate 90% success patterns when we look at agile at scale holistically and transform it systematically. We see these success patterns when we bring in the entire enterprise and proactively build the bridge between IT and Business. In our experience, it’s these core connections viewed holistically that allow agile principles to thrive and to bring about successful and self-sustainable agile execution at scale. While many challenges exist on this journey to a successful transformation, the rewards are great.
It isn’t enough to simply set a goal to “scale” agile and expect everyone to align to the same outcome; this is because the term “scale” means different things and produces different outcomes based on the particular context applied. There are three (3) key contextual perspectives that are important. One, you can “spread” across teams and have more agile teams. Two, you can scale “up” a hierarchy and have more layers of engagement in how your work and value are organized, and how work flows into the teams. Three, you can execute “at scale” holistically across an entire enterprise and create a more responsive sustainable pace for whatever value your entire enterprise produces. Regardless of which context you seek and choose, having a clear understanding of the selected context and corresponding outcomes will help everyone, from internal stakeholders to external vendors, create more success in the outcomes you pursue.
*The $900 billion reason GE, Ford and P&G failed at digital transformation, CNBC, October, 2019
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