Agile Pearls First Issue - Agility at Scale
A newsletter about better ways to work, organize, lead & deliver great software, products and services
Welcome to Agile Pearls!
A newsletter dedicated to sharing the management and leadership wisdom from the vast toolbox of Agile and Lean approaches including Scrum, Kanban, XP, SAFe, LeSS and many more.
I am your guide to this vast world of Lean and Agile: Joseph Hurtado. I have been an Enterprise Agile Coach, Technical Program Manager, and Software Developer for over 20 years. During this time I did not just drink the kool-aid, I've also questioned it, and adapted agile approaches to serve the people and companies where it's most needed to deliver software, or improve the way teams organize to succeed. Regarding experience I have delivered Agile software solutions, and Agile Transformations at many large companies such as Bloomberg and Viacom, but I have also worked and delivered agile initiatives at startups like Teladoc (healthcare) and Dfinity (crypto.) Feel free to read more about me on my LinkedIn page, or my personal website, rest assured you are with an experienced professional.
On this newsletter I would like to focus on four areas of agility that can benefit people and companies, expect this topics to come in future issues:
Personal Agility. The many ways that agile can help you in your personal life to accomplish more in less time. Not just methods, but also tools, and even hardware and software.
Agile Leadership from the Trenches. I will avoid the sales pitches, and exaggeration that comes from the Agile Industry and tell you real stories, and real solutions to lead and deliver software or technology by using the best tools the agile and lean ecosystem have for you.
Kanban Air. For over 7 years, since I started AgileLion.com I've been working on a light-weight, adaptable, principle driven approach to agility that can work at any level of an organization. The first iteration of this was Kanban Ace, the next one will be called Kanban Air, here I will share this new approach.
Agility at Scale. Here I will get you acquainted with the many ways agile professionals have taken the best ideas, methods and frameworks from agile at the team level, and adapted them for large organizations and companies.
Recently on LinkedIn I did a survey asking fellow professionals what topics they were interested on from the world of agile, I was surprised to see that a significant number of people wanted to know more about agility at scale, so that will be the topic of our first issue.
Agility at Scale - What is it?
Agility as a concept originated near the end of the 1990s, and exploded into the world as a movement when the Agile Manifesto was written in 2001 by several talented software engineers, technical project managers and consultants who came up with the foundations of the movement.
Agile was in it's infancy at that time, but from the start it focused on three things:
Delivering software faster, and with higher quality
Reducing the waste associated with heavy methodologies that slowed down progress, and produced vast amounts of mostly useless documentation, and meetings
Transforming software development teams into dynamic, effective, and collaborative places where people create valuable code.
That last part should give you a clue:
All the early agile approaches focused on teams, to be specific in getting one team to become more effective, and collaborate better by adopting a specific agile approach like Scrum or Extreme Programming.
However, as the years passed, and agile approaches became more popular they started to show up at large organizations like banks, pharmaceutical companies, chip manufacturers, large software companies and even governments.
These large organizations needed something more than a team oriented method, or framework, the reason is they needed to plan and organize hundreds, or even thousands of people.
It's been over 20 years since the Agile Manifesto was written, and in that time many agile at scale approaches have been created. Before discussing them in detail, let me show you the “the forest” the main options most companies consider today when they are looking for agile in a large company. The chart below gives a quick hint about who are the main players in today's Agile at Scale Approaches, it comes from a prestigious survey called the 15th State of Agile Report released in 2021:
Agility at Scale - The Key Players
A new generation of agile methods and frameworks has appeared on the scene to address the challenges of achieving agility in a large company, organization or even a government. They are collectively known today as Agility at Scale, or agile at scale.
Let me summarize for you the ones which I consider the most valuable alternatives to consider. These players below are not just backed by market share as the chart above shows, but also by my actual experience using them, and the experience of close friends who use them daily.
1. Scrum of Scrums or Scrum@Scale
First released in 2001 via an article by Jeff Sutherland entitled: “Agile Can Scale: Inventing and Reinventing SCRUM in Five Companies”.
The approach was later refined, and released fully in 2018 as Scrum@Scale; from the beginning it came directly from the creators of Scrum Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber.
Scrum of Scrums is the simplest approach, it aggregates many Scrum teams into a higher level team of Scrum Masters that work together to deliver a product that requires many teams.
However, despite being one of the earliest “agile at scale” approaches, and despite having a free guide online, it has had very limited adoption.
2. Large Scale Scrum or LeSS
Craig Larman (Canadian) and Bas Vodde (Dutch) created Large Scale Scrum while working together at Nokia Siemens Networks where they needed to organize their work of a large team spread across multiple locations, that happened in 2005; but the book that released this approach to the world would take several years more, the first LeSS book was published in 2009.
LeSS has also had limited adoption, but arguably much more than Scrum of Scrums, or Scrum@Scale. It remains one of the favorite alternatives for teams that already like Scrum at the team level.
3. Kanban & Flight Levels
Kanban for knowledge work was spearheaded by a group of brilliant managers and engineers at Corbis, and later Microsoft in the early 2000s. From that group it was David Anderson the one who first published a book about to the method in 2010, and later founded an organization to promote it.
Kanban unlike the other approaches is not exactly an agile method or a framework, but a unique way to manage work, and visualize it inspired by ideas from Lean, System Thinking and the Toyota Production System, but this time applied to software and intellectual work.
Kanban is also unique in that it scales naturally, this is because it was created to manage value streams, it can manage work at any level of an organization.
Chief among those alternatives is Flight Levels, an approach by Klaus Leopold and explained in his book "Rethinking Agile” released in 2018. Flight Levels focuses exclusively in agility at scale, and deserves your attention.
Unfortunately, Kanban has had limited success in the marketplace as an approach to achieve agility at scale, despite the fact that it can certainly deliver.
4. Scaled Agile Framework or SAFe
Led by Dean Leffingwell it made it's official appearance as Scaled Agile in 2011. Since then it has grown in scope, adoption and market share. It is now in version 5, and it's without a doubt the most popular “agile at scale” approach in the world today.
The core ideas of SAFe are freely available on their website, where people are either delighted but what they see, or scared by the Big Picture diagram they will encounter on the homepage.
One obvious downside to SAFe is the complexity, which is already apparent in the diagram, however it can't be denied that it has had major success in many large businesses and organizations.
Arguably the secret sauce of SAFe is that it:
Provides a blueprint for a large organization to achieve a certain level of agility company wide.
Achieve this without antagonizing the old guard of Project Managers, and the established hierarchy, they will find roles that match their work, or rejuvenate it.
Combine Scrum (team level) and Kanban (from team to company wide) to organize and synchronize the work of large teams.
Despite its critics who are usually in the camps of Scrum, Kanban, LeSS or any other of the competing approaches, SAFe has continued to grow and now has a commanding lead of the Agile at Scale market.
If you enjoyed this brief introduction to agile approaches for large organizations please consider subscribing, and recommending this newsletter to your friends.
I plan to release a new issue once or twice a month, the next one will be an in-depth overview of SAFe including its key strengths and weaknesses. However, I am open to suggestions, please feel free those in the comments below.