Scaling Agile Doesn’t Necessarily Lead to Business Agility

What we now call “the Agile Movement” seems to have gone mainstream around two years ago. When it did, late adopters showed up and started trying to do what they always do… re-define a concept in their own image. Well, if that image is big, fat, ugly and slow, I would rather they just “opt-out” and go extinct (aka allow market forces to let their companies die, thus freeing-up resources and people for higher purposes.) The irony is that the organizations that came late to the agile game tried to “adopt and scale agile.” In most cases they have not seen the gains they expected.

My hypothesis is that most are simply missing the point. Here is a review of the background context.

  1. Agile is an adjective, not a noun. Defining “Agile” as a set of processes won’t make an organization more agile in the market.
  2. Being able to give the market the product feature it wants when it wants it and for the price it is willing to pay while at least covering costs plus a profit that offsets inflation is THE only thing that matters. Any other focus and the organization will become extinct…and they are, at an ever growing pace!
  3. You can create reinforcing “double loop learning” structures that may create a culture that enables the right team dynamic in multiple teams; however, because corporations are complex adaptive human systems, you cannot scale a team dynamic.
  4. Being agile doesn’t mean automatically lowered costs of new product development or product operations and maintenance. Nor does being agile mean delivering the entirety of a product’s features to market faster than more traditional methods. It just means delivering the product features the market wants close to when the market wants them.

Based on these basic market precepts, I say the following not simply to be critical but to engage in much-needed critical response for the purpose of opening up rational conversation.

You don’t scale agility. You create a business-market fit with adaption capability.

Yes, you can adopt a framework that allows the organization to scale agility-enabling practices. The first attempt at large scale agility that I was aware of was the Scrum of Scrums pattern. The second was Scott Ambler’s Agile@Scale model while at IBM (later renamed Disciplined Agile Delivery due to branding/trademark issues). The one that has garnered the most attention as of late is the crowd-sourced, Dean Leffingwell-owned, Scaled Agile Framework for the Enterprise (SAFe). All three of these are good frameworks, each with their appropriate context and limitations. None of them enable business agility by themselves.

Consider this example:

The SAFe framework talks about quarterly release planning. It talks about release trains of Potentially Shippable Increments(PSIs) of product features in the form of releases.

This is good… sorta.

You see… the way that most organizations have adopted SAFe, the PSI/Releases end up codified into release cycles. The SAFe materials talk about an 8 to 10 week time box. Most folks I’ve talked to have turned the quarterly release planning cycle into a quarterly release cycle. For those organizations, generally this has been a huge improvement. It doesn’t mean that the organization is adapting to the needs of the market quickly enough to remain a viable concern.

The 8 to 10 week release cycle and quarterly release cycle are remnants of the dysfunction of big delivery thinking. I keep seeing releases larger than one or two features, or enough just enough features to be able to deliver an experiment of the business model to the market. This implies the organization hasn’t figured out how to get their releases small enough to build-measure-learn what the market actually will pay for. This also likely means companies are delivering product features that won’t increase revenues, acquisitions, activations, customer retention or referral business. In other words, the market is still evolving faster than the organization and thus at some point in time in the future, the organization’s product will no longer be viable. For some companies this is just for one or a few products. For others, it means the entire business model is no longer relevant.

Speaking of business models, I also don’t see where companies adopting scaled agile frameworks are also learning to evolve the business model with each release cycle. There is this assumption that the business model is correct for the entirety of the product development release cycle, when in reality, there are very few ways beyond business model experimentation using the build-measure-learn cycle to even test that the business model is correct. So businesses get really good at delivering a product that the market may or may not want using a business model that may or may not completely work. Again… the business is ultimately doomed because it cannot adapt to the market fast enough.

In order for a business remain viable it must:

  • Manage its cash flow, maintaining generally a positive cash flow (I know… duh! It’s surprising how many people forget this, though.)
  • Release a functional product that contains only the product features that Kano analysis would call “must-have” and “exciters”, leaving off as many neutral/indifferent features as possible.
  • Release product features at a rate that the market demands as user-expectations shift as a reaction to the Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
  • Understand and attempt to out-deliver new product features at a rate faster than your competitors can react to each product feature release. Sometimes this is a feature-per-day. Sometimes this a unique feature-set per quarter. Either way, it means the company must be able to…
  • Understand the market demand cycle and adapt just before or at the point of inflection in the adaptation cycle.

Again, merely scaling “agile” (noun) won’t make a company agile (adjective). For most organizations, especially those late-adopters and laggards, it means fundamentally transforming to continuous, adaption of the business model for market-fit.

Special thanks to Elinor Slomba of Arts Interstices for the kick-in-the-pants to get this out and for being the other set of eyes.
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About devinhedge

Devin Hedge is a change agent focused on enabling businesses to deal with complexity and changing market conditions. Devin Hedge brings almost two decades of experience working in the IT Industry in his role as an Executive Coach, Organizational Agility Consultant and Lean Product Development specialist. Devin lives in Apex, NC with his wife and two daughters. When not helping businesses change, Devin spends his volunteering to help those that are forced homeless back on their feet and back into a home. You can find Devin running, biking or hiking all over the South.