You Can’t Scale What You Don’t Have

FirstStoryIt can be easy to lose sight of what is truly important when diving head-first into an Agile transformation. A complex situation can convince us that we need to implement an equally complex solution, and too often, such a solution focuses us more on governance, compliance, and control than on working together to make good on investment.

A governance-first approach can be stifling, and can lead to well-intentioned transformation efforts bogging down. But with a good core group of people, a little guidance, and a lot of trust, a great amount of transformational progress can be made in a very short period of time.

I was recently reminded of this when I had the privilege of coaching a new team of people who were brand new to Agile through their first sprint. They were working within a large organization that is struggling to implement Agile at scale, the team members had backgrounds in different technologies, and the problems they were trying to solve crossed technologies.

We didn’t have time for “training”, per se, so we decided to just focus on three guiding principles:

  • Collaboratively partner with your Product Owner
  • Focus on throughput, not on utilization
  • Always know where you are, and adjust if it’s not where you need to be

It was fascinating to watch that group of individuals gel as a team, and to see how a handful of applied principles could transform what a team values and how it thinks about its work.

For instance, I knew they were getting the Product Owner collaboration part when the subject of “the Product Team” (which, in the local parlance, meant some people from “the Business”) came up, and one of the team members said “Hey, wait – aren’t WE the product team?” Their understanding of the value of throughput was demonstrated when they insisted on a challenging definition of Done, rather than the watered-down version many of the more “mature” teams had adopted — and then actually got Done. And it didn’t take but a couple of days of being knocked around by the swirling winds of change for the idea of inspecting and adapting to resonate with the team.

On an impulse, I decided to frame the first story card they got to Done (by their definition, deployed to Production) and presented it to them at their first sprint retrospective. To my surprise, they took it out of the glass and autographed it! I honestly don’t think that handing out cash would have been as rewarding to the team members as was their own satisfaction of being able to quickly and collectively deliver something of value.

So what does this have to do with a scaled Agile transformation?
While it is true that Agile in the large does present some big challenges, I believe unequivocally that successful Agile at any level of scale begins with a foundation of teams that “get it” and have developed a culture of Done. There’s a growing number of frameworks, methodologies, books, etc. about “Scaled Agile” or “Enterprise Agile” that can provide sound advice regarding organizational structures and practices that have worked for those authors. But a transformed organization results from transformed behaviors, which stem from transformed values and attitudes. That means that it boils down to people, and in an Agile context, people develop values and attitudes and act upon them in teams.

Want to know where to start with scaling Agile in your organization? Go find a team that gets it and live with them for a few days. If you can’t find one, you’ve got some work to do, because you can’t scale what you don’t already have.

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