Why do so many companies fail at scaling Agile?

Get insights in your inbox

A battle-scarred Delivery Director, I’ve been in the Agile world for a while now, and still the debate rages on; why is Agile so hard to scale successfully? And what if anything, can we do about it?
Interview questions often focus on people’s experience using scaling frameworks such as SAFe and DAD. But not all experience has been positive and it helps both companies and workers to understand why. So, I wracked my brain thinking of the various organisations, projects and teams I’ve had the opportunity to work with, the growth strategy conversations I have been privy to, and the talks / conferences I’ve attended. And I realised that the trope is true, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Yes, Agile doesn’t scale… but only in isolation.
The very nature of Agile and the key to its success, is often the key to its downfall. Agile advocates moving quickly; delivering as fast as possible, iterating wildly… but is the company or organisation structured to support it? An obvious question perhaps, but from experience, it’s often the missing puzzle piece. Scaling Agile is so often seen as a failure – but for the vast majority, the organisation is unable to support the growth of its Agile community.
I often find myself coming back to this article from the GDS team about Agile governance and agree that to avoid failing, the right questions need to be asked before you start:
Are the right people empowered at the right level in the organisation to make decisions?

  • Agility requires autonomy. The people closest to the problem are often the most qualified to resolve that problem, but they need to be empowered to do so. If you are constantly hearing the phrase ‘we will need to escalate this to be resolved’ – you probably don’t have the autonomy you need to move quickly. This is equally important in managing inter-team dependencies, the best people to resolve these dependencies are the teams themselves; but if every decision has to go through arbitration, you will be slowing down multiple teams. Finding a friction free way for teams to resolve such issues is key to delivering at pace at scale.

Do you have the right people to support the teams in the right way?

  • Much like the point above, having the right people supporting teams is crucial. If the leadership at team level is spending time resolving recruitment, budgetary and business operational issues – they are not focusing on delivery, and that will slow you down. Organisations tackle this in different ways, either by matrix structures, the infamous ‘Spotify model’ of clans and guilds or communities of practice – all essentially distributing the load so that the right people are involved at the right time. There is no ‘magic wand’ – each organisation needs to work out what works best in their context.

Does your organisation have a single, clear objective, that multiple Delivery teams can strive for?

  • One of the phrases I fall back on when talking to senior technical leaders is ‘humans scale horizontally, not vertically’. You reach a point where the people you have can only generate so much throughput, so the only option is to add more people. When you add more people to the pool, you need to make sure they have the same understanding of the objective. If they set off in a direction of their own, it is like adding a serve to your cluster with a different configuration and can do more damage than good. Making sure everyone is pushing in the same direction is critical to delivering at scale.

Who will take ownership of each part of the scaling process?

  • Scaling needs to be planned- not through charts and dates, but deliberate and structured. The goal is to find a pattern that suits your organisation so it can be replicated. In the same way that you manage the process as team level, you either empower the team or an individual to manage the process. In my experience this is most successful when managed by an individual whose sole focus is the scaling process; importantly also someone who knows how to navigate the organisation. This is an intensely contextual exercise and will require both tenderness and tenacity.

Every organisation is different, and as a result, all efforts to scale Agile will be different. Some may already have the organisational structure to support a scaling delivery team, but all too often it’s an afterthought and by then, too late.
If you haven’t prepared the business for Agile at scale, but want to push ahead anyway then heed this warning: a foolish person did build their house upon the sand.