Scaling Agile Falters When Implemented as a One-Size-Fits-All Prescription

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Agile is seen as the new wonder prescription. It has proven its worth for a number of frontrunners, but it often falters when scaling throughout an entire organization. Usually, the initiative for Agile starts with dedicated professionals in small teams and its popularity quickly goes viral. But without management support, it remains but a hobby of Agile fanatics.

“Doctor, I want to be fast and nimble!” “Here you go, one Agilecetemol and good luck!”

Agile is seen as the new wonder prescription. It has proven its worth for a number of frontrunners, but it often falters when scaling throughout an entire organization. Usually, the initiative for Agile starts with dedicated professionals in small teams and its popularity quickly goes viral. But without management support, it remains but a hobby of Agile fanatics. In this blog, I will elaborate on the reasons why scaling agile is so difficult.

Agile top-down or bottom-up?

Proponents of the “viral” bottom-up approach argue that innovative ways of working such as Agile should not be enforced through hierarchical pressure. “If you want to implement new ways of working, change the intrinsic behavior of people” (Herrero 2018). They argue that peer-to-peer influence is the most powerful way to create a movement. Top-downers, however, argue that scaling Agile will not suffice without the commitment of management. According to them, traditional command and control is still the prevalent norm – and main obstacle – for the adoption of agile.

This winter, I organized the Capgemini Consulting Agile Experience Event. Here, the complexity of this question was confirmed by the participants of different organizations. Even seasoned Agilists could not agree on the most successful way to scale Agile throughout the organization. Soon, it became clear that much more is needed than the pure implementation of Agile blueprints such as SAFe or the Spotify model.

Scaling Agile differs per organization

Scaling Agile requires deep knowledge about your own organization. Both structure and culture depict how you can successfully launch new initiatives. Therefore, you cannot offer one-size-fits-all Agile prescriptions. I will illustrate that Agile is different for every organization, using examples that came forward during “The Scaling Agile Game” at the Agile Experience Event:

  • Bureaucrat – “As a police officer, I need to act autonomously. I cannot take the time to discuss during an acute crisis situation. However we never start a mission without initiation by our bosses. That is also how the initiation of Agile teams works for us.”
  • Aristocrat – “The trustworthiness of a bank is of the upmost importance. Nobody would start an experiment without the authorization of Risk and Compliance. Our transformation to Squads, Tribes, and Chapters would not have succeeded without the consent and commitment of our management.”
  • Democrat – “At our healthcare institution, we started small with autonomous ambulant care teams. We are now capable of delivering client specific care, where the client feels like a human being instead of a number. Due to the positive reactions, all teams are now self-organizing and nobody wants anything else.”
  • Technocrat – “I work for a municipality, and our governing board is so tremendously slow that we decided to start without permission. After proven results, nobody rejects our SCRUM method anymore. However, steering and monitoring on value remains paramount. Far too often, I see employees develop applications without critical evaluation on added value.”

Agile transformation requires servant leadership

Whatever type of organization you are, for most scaled Agile transformations, “leadership rehab” is required. The Agile way of working needs servant leaders. This requires leaders to provide directions instead of commands, remove impediments, and make timely decisions based on consultation. The majority of the decisions are made by the professionals themselves. “It is crucial – and difficult – for a servant leader is to take charge when required, change the group behavior, and immediately thereafter step back” (Lelie et al. 2012).

A faulty balance between a top-down and bottom-up approach is one of the reasons why scaling Agile is so difficult. Sooner or later, managers and professionals need each other to scale Agile throughout an organization. And that does not happen in a one-size-fits-all manner. Each organization needs a unique approach, whether you are a Bureaucrat, Aristocrat, Democrat, or Technocrat. Servant leadership and peer-to-peer influence are critical elements of this approach.

Herrero L. (2008) Viral Change.
Lelie J., Fruitier C., Lelie T., Weber J. (2012) Faciliteren als tweede beroep.

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