Scaled Agile Frameworks — Agility or Efficiency

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I recently wrote an article for Forbes, Scaling Agility – Division Of Species. This encapsulates my observation on how the Agile community has become big and complex since the creation of the Agile Manifesto in 2001. Agile and lean practices have grown substantially offering answers for any and all questions. I believe large agile frameworks are becoming so different, their use of the term agile should be challenged, despite their origins. This is not to say that agile practices are not within, by the agile principles they stemmed from are very far removed. More appropriately maybe we should encourage the term Scaled Incremental Delivery for Enterprises (SIDE).

Solve Problems Over Finding Solutions To Fit The Problem

Having been in a number of global transformation roles for enterprises, I understand first hand how complicated the operational environment can be. I also know how big the force of resistance to change can be, particularly when you’re up against folks who have spent the last 30 years navigating and mastering their roles and processes. Whatever your background, whenever your tasked with change, the force for change must be greater than the force of resistance. But when these forces equalise, compromise emerges on both sides.

The troubling trend I observe across these communities is the once pioneers for change are now the ones being changed. Larger companies regularly emphasise focussing purely on efficiency at the cost of responsiveness and innovation. It’s the extra emphasis on execution efficiency which is part of the problem.

Because of reasons like those above, companies who have become experts at scaling efficiency for repetition are moulding agile practices to do the same, requiring limited change to existing processes and cultures. In doing so, not much is really changing and we are starting to see more efficient waterfall. Improvement is fine, but improved waterfall does not mean companies have achieved enough capabilities in responsiveness, innovation and agility for the business as a whole. Even worse, conformity to agility and lean based processes is masking the progress really needed.

If organisations recognise that improving efficiency for scaling is different to improving efficiency for innovation, you might see the appropriate devolution of solutions to be more contextual. The innovators could better innovate, the executers could better execute, and aligned strategic interfaces and supporting functions support the bridge between. This means the entire company needs to align on the big strategic goals and embrace the difference contexts. Let’s face it, large companies are pretty good at scaling and startups aren’t.

The number one reason why startups fail is premature scaling. This happens when a new product is launched into the market before the team is sure that anybody wants it. — Tendayi Viki

Companies who can embrace development and cultural ambidexterity, building bridges between the gap of exploration and execution have the opportunity to lead their competetive space.

Contextual Processes With Value based Outcomes

Although from the above it might not appear that I appreciate processes and frameworks,the opposite is true. I enjoy exploring patterns and why and how they form their conclusions. Such offerings can provide value, learning and improvement. However, I believe any process or solution has limitations and boundaries and are subjected to context and domain suitability. Just as large execution and repeatable processes can stifle innovation, lengthy exploratory practices can be wasteful when trying to scale solutions where known patterns are best suited. This is where silver bullet thinking fails.

So What Can Be Done ?

It would be rather contradictory to conclude this post with a solution. Based on the statements above, I would recommend the 4 following points to consider :

  1. Avoid Rewarding Process Conformity As The Primary Goal

Implementing processes, methodologies and practices in context to the problem your are trying to solve is inevitable. Each of these may provide an attractive pain relief, providing the illusion of control and structure in complicated domains. Remembering that processes by themselves are simply vehicles to provide you with an improved outcome, ensure the last measurable point is the goal. For instance if you are implementing a process to improve customer satisfaction, ensure you reflect on feedback from your customers first and foremost and consider long and short term measurements.

Why this is important as it will allow you to update, iterate and change any process applied to improve it’s effectiveness. This will likely mean breaking the framework you first applied just like stabilisers on a bike.

2. Recognise Innovators & Executers

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It’s very rare that people passionate about exploration are the same people as those passionate about execution. Consider different stages of personal lives and risk appetites that go with it. You might even be able to reflect on that pattern in your own life circumstances. Therefore, it would be advisable to consider if you have the preferred cultural spread and distribution in your exploration and/or execution teams.

With separate Exploration and Execution teams, you can allow for difference in working cultures, patterns, interactions and constraints. Explorative teams need more freedom on ideas to experiment and learn with direct and regular access to customers and users. Execution teams would benefit from more alignment with environment stability as this would typically involve a much higher volume of people. This is not to say both team types are constrained by the definition, but a weighted adjustment would be beneficial.

The danger and risk with the above if left separate is that you will divide the organisation culture to a point where new ideas won’t cross the bridge to execute. Therefore when ideas move to execution, it would be well advised to encourage those with the idea to continue working with the execution team until the solution has crossed the chasm.

If you are interested in developing innovative learning cultures and teams, I shared some of this thinking in an 2018 predictions interview with gohubble.com on Innovating Outward. I would also recomment watching the HR Of Tomorrow with Bryonie Badcock.

3. Delivery Is Not Enough For Business Agility

One of the biggest constraints and somewhat failing in the Agile and Lean movement has been the misconception that Agile teams lead to business agility. The focus on the delivery engine is a small part of a big system, albeit provides an execution delivery advantage.

For you organisation to improve innovation and responsiveness, its absolutely vital any transformation aims to change the company as a whole. When creating and rolling out a Gobal Lean Product Lifecyle communit and management practice in Pearson from 2014–2016, a small cohort within our own team recognised that culture and goals preceded practice. Despite not everyone in our own team seeing the value of this, a collegue (Shirley Chin) and I created a product intelligence network (Pi) to embrace communities of practice for combined intelligence across 20 enabling functions. We established close working personal relationships within each function and explored and empathised with the challenges of each:

https://www.slideshare.net/craig_strong/product-lifecycle-developing-a-global-innovation-culture

It was through such networks, that depth in knowledge expanded and each function could contribute to the development of ideas to the benefit of the whole. You’ll notice in the image above, delivery is just 1 of the segments. If you don’t work with functions like finance to recognise the failings in budgetary process, you will contrain your organisations responsiveness to change and innovation. Since leaving Pearson in 2016, I don’t believe this network remained as it as based on human connections and failed to get senior leadership support; another learning to consider.

4. Learn Deliberatly

Whether you are refining efficiencies or exploring new complex domains, you hinder potential without provisioned learning. Everyone is acquiring empirical knowledge constantly which can add value to their roles, but empirical knowledge alone is not enough. The rate of competition, coupled with the complicated domains many of us work in require an access to learning resources and the time to learn.

Given this, I would predict workplaces will commonly adopt individual key learning indicators across departments and careers, especially those in exploratory or management based roles. Deliberately ensuring your organisation is learning and applying changes with new knowledge continuously is a positive indicator of improvement and innovation potential.

If you would like to add comments or questions or extend any points, please feel free to do so below.