Scaling Agile is Scaling People

The challenge of scaling Agile can be posed quite simply: How do you extend the power and magic of a high-performing Agile team to a larger group of people?

Scaling Agile is Scaling PeopleWouldn’t it be nice if scaling Agile was as easy as scaling insects to the size of monsters as we’ve seen in the old SciFi flicks? Get some radioactive defects from a maniacally-inspired lean start up that failed real fast; sprinkle a little on your Agile team, and… Voila! A team of seven (+ or – 2) 50-foot Agilistas.

We know that we can’t grow insects to the size of monsters because we are bound by the physics of scaling. The invertebrate can grow so big (on land at least) and then a new structure must be introduced such as backbone for the organism to grow any further. The new structure allows the organism to scale up to a certain size and then a different structure must be introduced to grow even bigger. Each new structure allows for further growth but at the expense of transforming the organism into something different than it was before.

From this observation we can glean our first big challenge: How do we scale Agile without destroying the benefit of Agile during the process?  To avoid falling in to this trap, let us be guided by these two principles:

  1. Be very clear on what Agile capabilities you wish to preserve and scale before you introduce new structures.
  2. Be careful to choose structures that won’t impede, corrupt, dilute or otherwise limit the Agile benefits you hope to achieve at the next level of scale.    

To illustrate guiding principle 2 , when we think of organizational structure, a topic closely allied to scaling Agile, we often think in terms of org charts, fixed reporting relationships, top-down communication pathways, fixed job descriptions, and the like. With these ideas in mind, we “scale the organization” by adding new levels and columns to the hierarchy and occasionally concoct a new job description. For those of you who don’t already know this and as we will make more clear a bit later, choosing this as your predominant approach for scaling Agile is a mistake. You risk squelching the Agile value that you wish to scale and, best case, you become distracted and don’t attend to what is really important. Yes, you may wish to—even need—to change your formal organization at some point during your Agile transformation but that is not where you should first look for a solution. To do so is to let the tail wag the dog.

When it comes to choosing structures, it’s important to keep in the forefront of our minds that scaling Agile is about scaling people; or more precisely scaling human systems. Unfortunately our mental models for “scaling” and “structure” tend to be populated with pictures of scaffolding, cranes, steel girders and concrete. Viewing our task through these metaphors can get us started on the wrong track and in hot pursuit of faux solutions.  Rather, the stuff of human systems is humans and human relationships. So the natural place for us to look for models for scaling human systems is where human systems naturally occur. More specifically: the family, the village, the city port, and the nation state.

As we will see over the course of this series each naturally occurring human system corresponds to an Agile-at-scale level:


The family corresponds to the team

The village corresponds to the program or product

 City port

The city port corresponds to the portfolio

The nation state corresponds to the corporation or enterprise

 State corp

We seek models for scaling agile from our recent studies of society and culture, especially models that view human interactions in terms of complex systems. Why? Because the closer you look for the source of Agile success the clearer it becomes that it is predicated on treating people as humans—not labor, not self-interested rational agents but humans, collaborating humans. Humans are naturally complex, as are the human systems that naturally form when humans collaborate. Agile unleashes the pent-up power of teams that has been locked down and tied up by our traditional management practices and our never-ending zeal to increase organizational efficiency by extracting labor from people in spite of their human qualities. Qualities we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of in terms of unwanted variance, nuisance, noise and waste.  However, we now understand that what we once viewed as nuisance, noise and waste are the very qualities that we need to learn fast, think afresh, innovate, adapt, and survive in the 21st century. In short, the value that Agile brings us.

When we successfully scale Agile, we humanize organizations.

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