3 Keys to Agile Success at Scale:
Learnings from the Learning Consortium for the Creative Economy

As Agile becomes the de facto standard for doing software development, we should expect that what people mean by Agile and the corresponding results they obtain will vary more and more widely. Nevertheless it can be dispiriting when it seems easier to spot examples of …meh… than knock-your-socks-off success. You start to wonder: have the advantages of Agile been over-promised? Or perhaps the power of individual Agile teams just can’t be effectively harnessed at scale.

As a leader of a member organization in the Learning Consortium for the Creative Economy (LC), I had the opportunity to visit three companies that were practicing Agile at serious scale. I’m talking about integrating the work of hundreds and thousands of developers. What did I conclude from my visits? <Spoiler alert> The promise of high achievement for Agile organizations is intact!

It was illuminating to visit several companies over a short period of time. Patterns started to jump out. After defining what I mean by Agile success and profiling the three companies, I will highlight in this post three success patterns the three companies shared.

What I mean by Agile success   

  • Business performance improvement – Although some may consider Agile an end in itself, we will value Agile as a means to a specific end: better business performance. If business outcomes don’t improve, the Agile success-o-meter will remain flat.
  • Large-scale Agile transformation – The subject company has, on its own account and by independent observation, undergone a substantial Agile transformation at the organizational level. By organization I mean the entire company, the entire business unit, or a major department.

Company profiles

Each company made commitments to organization-wide multi-year Agile transformations. In each case, they chose to become Agile as part of a broader strategy to address major business problems that they believed could not be addressed if they continued doing business as usual.

What they had in common:

  • Business Success – Each company had a history of business success and were dominant forces in their respective industries.
  • Global reach – Each company had global reach and participated in a global market.
  • Single (product-like) focus – In one case, the entire company was focused on a single (very) successful product. In another case, the entire product unit was focused on a complimentary product suite. In the final case, the company was focused on a single (technology-enabled) business service.

How they differed:

  • Three different industries
  • Three different corporate ages

Agile transformation outcomes:

  • They now do large-scale product and system development using Agile operations.
  • Each company remains a dominant force in an ever-changing market with increased business success.
  • Top leadership attributes a significant portion of their continued success to their Agile investment.
  • At the practitioner level, there is a palpable feeling that things are much better than they were, both in terms of working conditions and their ability as individuals and teams to make more impactful contributions to their company’s success.

In each case, leadership is cautiously optimistic regarding the future. They recognize they have made progress but are not kidding themselves that they don’t still have a long way to go. This should be no surprise. Market leading companies characteristically set their sights on business challenges that are far beyond the consideration of smaller rivals.

So What Are the 3 Keys to Agile Success?

For me as an outside observer, I noticed the following patterns at each company.

Active, visible Leadership – Top leadership either personally drove the Agile initiative or fully empowered middle management sponsors to do so. Senior leadership is in a continuous dialog with the broader community elaborating and refining the evolving vision for both long-term strategic and short-term tactical success. Leadership co-located as a team in more or less the same office environment as everyone else.

Workplace – Teams were co-located, sometimes in very large rooms. The work space was designed to support small teams actively collaborating. The work space was also egalitarian: everybody had pretty much equal facilities and access to amenities. Lots of attention was paid to produce a comfortable, pleasant place for people to work.

Transparency – Story maps and roadmaps that connected the dots between higher-level vision and tasks performed by individual teams were posted and clearly visible. Everyone could see where they fit into the big picture and how they were expected to add value. The big picture was collectively maintained and provided a context and plan shared by the entire community. Progress, setbacks and difficulties were easy for everyone to see. Free flowing bilateral communication and dissenting opinion were encouraged by breaking down barriers—both physical and positional—to create a safe place to express new ideas.

These three factors reinforced each other to create a collaborative environment that spawned a culture of invitation, permission, high expectations and personal commitment.

Additional Thoughts

What about Agile Practices?

To varying degrees these organizations did use classic Agile practices such as Scrum and Extreme Programming. I did not mention them above because it was not the practices but the leadership and commitment to Agile principles — such as empowerment, transparency and community collaboration — that led to their success. Why make a distinction between Agile practices and principles? Because too frequently organizations focus so much on the procedures of Agile that they miss the larger point: practices are valuable insofar as they enable these principles to take root and grow in teams and the broader organization.

How Long Does it Take?

Each company has been engaged on their Agile journey for years.  Nothing was achieved overnight. Are they done yet? Like the pursuit of excellence, these companies see Agile more as a philosophy of continuous improvement than as an initiative with a finite outcome. The more they focus on Agile values and principles the more they learn as an organization how best to take the next step and draw the next bucket from the deep well of their knowledge workers’ collective creativity.

How Broadly Applicable are These Success Factors?

There is no question that these companies had a lot going for them, including their individual histories of success, ability to unify on a singular mission and co-location. However there some learnings from which anyone can benefit.

First these three companies from three different industries demonstrate that large-scale Agile success is both achievable and powerful. Second, no matter where you begin your Agile transformation, you can establish a sound, proven approach to guide your progress by focusing on these three things:

  1. Active, visible leadership
  2. Creating an inviting, collaborative work environment
  3. Transparency through work visualization and creating a safe place for honest speech

Additional Resources