Teams across all disciplines are finding success with agile methodologies. It is widely understood that agile teams result in higher team productivity and morale, faster time to market, better quality, and lower risk. Yet when scaled to the organization level, agile values become lost in a sea of bureaucracies and bottlenecks: agile teams and non-agile teams clash over resources and timelines, leaders remain committed to a top-down management, and stakeholders fail to see the value and ultimately turn the ship around to the safe port of traditional work management.
So how do we right the ship? How do we navigate the uncertainty and reap (plunder) the benefits of agile at scale? First, let’s revisit the basics.
What is Agile?
Introduced in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development (2001), the agile approach challenged the traditional waterfall approach where work was planned before it started and built before it was tested. Agile sought to provide iterative flexibility. Projects would be built and tested over shorter timescales (iterations) and adapt mid-project according to frequent customer demonstrations and feedback. Tight feedback loops and the incremental approach minimize risk by allowing products to adapt to changes quickly, while leaving room to fail often and early – instead of drastically on final release.
While the customer is at the center, agile also relies on tight team interactions to drive collaboration and ensure roadblocks are removed quickly. At the team level, it is very clear who is responsible for which task and where special expertise lives – something that must considered carefully when scaling to the enterprise. Agile teams also experience a significant level of autonomy. Teams are closest to the customer and coincidently most responsible for innovation. Maintaining this autonomy and innovation is critical to retaining the successes of agile at scale.
Why do Organizations Struggle to Implement Agile at the Enterprise Level?
If all of this seems straightforward enough, then why, you might ask, do organizations struggle to implement Agile at the enterprise level? In few words, it comes down to an inability to break away from traditional management values and structures. In a few more, there are three main challenges that come up time and time again:
- Sufficient Investment in Scaling Agile: A lack of commitment to the agile transformation – especially at the leadership level – can result in a costly failure
- Clear Organizational Taxonomy: Organizations are unique and may not fit the mold of standard agile at scale frameworks. Quantification of diversity and categorization of teams within the organization is essential when planning agile at scale.
- Autonomy and trust is key: Even at scale, individual teams must retain the freedom to innovate, albeit guided company priorities, to continue seeing the benefits of agile.
The Scaled Agile Investment
Even after an organizational agile transformation, leaders often try to control agile teams with top-down management structures. This “command from above” approach removes the autonomy of agile teams and makes them less responsive to the customer and more likely to operate in waterfall fashion. To take some advice from the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) handbook, one of the many ‘scaled agile’ frameworks discussed below, ditch the slow-moving bureaucracy for “Lean Portfolio Management.” With this model, leadership teams are trained to operate with a higher degree of uncertainty, fund value streams instead of project-cost accounting, and dig into the removal of companywide barriers rather than reviewing reports from below.
It is important to remember that an agile enterprise need not consist purely of agile teams. Some parts of the organization may operate better under a traditional work management structure, but agile values should be encouraged enterprise-wide. Not only will this help those teams of the traditional structure adapt more effectively to the changing marketplace, but it will encourage collaboration with the agile parts of the organization and help drive overall change.
In the end, scaling agile across the enterprise will likely be a costly task. It could take five to seven years to see the dividends of the agile investment. But positive changes should be measurable early in the process from customer interactions to team motivation. With a proper work management tool and expert partner guiding the way, these changes lasting and worthwhile.
Clear Organizational Taxonomy
The first value of the agile manifesto is “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”  This is easily implemented on the team level, where individuals are encouraged to interact frequently and share daily progress and blockers.
At scale, these sorts of individual relationships are simply not sustainable. Dunbar’s number (150) is used by many scaling frameworks as an upper limit to ‘team of team’ sizes in an attempt to preserve natural interactions between individuals from multiple teams. Yet most enterprises grow well beyond 150 individuals and therefore require an intentional and documented breakdown of team purpose and capability. In other words, it should be clear who is doing what.
“I want to walk into an auditorium and ask, ‘Who owns the member’s change-of-address experience?’ And I want a clear and confident response from a team that owns that experience. […] No finger-pointing. No answers that begin with ‘It’s complicated.’”
– USAA COO Carl Liebert in speaking with HBR
Team-of-team structures can be organized around feature area (as seen in the Spotify model), around software platform, or any structure that makes sense. Organize and reorganize around value, however that can best be represented at your organization.
Autonomy and Trust
The fifth principle of the Agile Manifesto reads: “Support, trust, and motivate the people involved – Motivated teams are more likely to deliver their best work than unhappy teams.”  This principle is especially important at scale and especially difficult to deploy when company initiatives are planned in the traditional manner – early, in their entirety, and by management. When an organization scales agile, it is easy to cement structures and practices meant to help agile teams, but that instead bring bureaucracy, eroding trust and removing the sense of autonomy that drive motivation.
Leaders should instead strive to set corporate priorities and goals. Product owners and teams can then be left to work closely with your customers to determine the best solution. Corporate priorities should be groomed and adjusted as necessary, reflecting the agile values your organization now represents.
The Cultural Transformation
In each of these challenges, the common theme was transformation. Teams, leaders, and structures must evolve, but remain in sync with the organization’s purpose. When considering agile at scale, return to the core values of agile and ensure they are represented across the organization. Scaling agile is a cultural transformation just as much as it is a process transformation and any teams that are left behind will impede the progress of the entire organization.
The Framework Solution
While each agile expansion will be unique, you don’t have to begin your voyage without a map. There are many frameworks that attempt to simplify and standardize the scaled agile transformation. They should be studied for potential solutions to common challenges and molded to fit your organization’s needs.
Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)
The Scaled agile framework (SAFe) is a set of organization and workflow patterns intended to guide enterprises in scaling lean and agile practices . The framework is built on seven core competencies of the lean enterprise. Iterations are scaled up into Program Increments (PIs) and cross-functional teams combined to create Agile Release Trains (ARTs). SAFe takes a more top-down, planning-first approach than other frameworks, which some believe is not pure agile.
Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS)
Large-Scale Scrum takes scrum and scales it up to the enterprise, with an eye towards minimalism. At this enterprise level, teams still operate with scrum boards, sprints, and ceremonies, but may share a single backlog and sprint cadence as well as make use of an area product owner to provide oversight across the multitude of scrum teams. The LeSS framework seeks to deliver value while reducing complexity and waste through minimalistic rules and guides.
The Spotify Model
The Spotify Model is not so much a framework as an example of an agile at scale success story. The ‘model’ was introduced to the world in 2012, through a whitepaper titled Scaling Agile @ Spotify by Henrik Kniberg & Anders Ivarsson. It emphasizes the importance of understanding organizational culture and clearly defining networks for teams to collaborate and share knowledge. Team and individual autonomy are at the heart of this model, where teams can choose their preferred agile framework and elect to form or join a Guild if they are passionate about a topic. Tribes are the ‘team of teams’ format for the Spotify Model
Finding the Right Solution
As they say in the Spotify Model, don’t copy the model. You probably wouldn’t say your organization is sailing the same corporate ocean as Spotify or Netflix, so don’t try to copy their model of agile at scale. Seek instead to understand the structure, practices, and mindset behind the Spotify approach or the SAFe, LeSS, and even DA frameworks. Combine those with your own values and priorities and deploy them with flexibility in mind. Your solution will likely change over time just as Spotify’s did – and for that matter it is critical that you have the mentality and capabilities to change course alongside your solution.
At the core of these capabilities is your work management solution. Where will your teams manage their agile practices? Where will you collate data from across the enterprise – potentially from both agile and non-agile teams? Where can you build a solution today that will flex and grow with you tomorrow?
Scaling with Atlassian
Out of the myriad solutions on the market today, Atlassian is particularly well-positioned to support organizations looking to scale agile. Atlassian’s Jira products are a respected solution to team-level agile work management requirements, in use today by 180,000 customers in 190 countries. Recent investments in portfolio-level reporting, known as Advanced Roadmaps combined with the existing customization capabilities transform the tool into a robust and flexible platform for agile at scale.
For enterprise teams, Atlassian has released Jira Align, a purpose-built platform that lets you implement and extend any framework at scale – including SAFe, LeSS, DA, Scrum@Scale, and Spotify as well as custom frameworks. Jira Align is ideal for enterprises committed to a specific scaling framework. It incorporates key framework terminologies and reporting summarizations out of the box and builds on top of existing or new Jira Software deployments. No less capable, however, is a custom deployment of Atlassian’s cloud premium product suite with Advanced Roadmaps and tailored reporting capabilities. Jira Software, Confluence, Bitbucket, and Jira Service Management are already familiar products for many teams and can be scaled alongside the enterprise to deliver flexibility and autonomy to teams and enterprise visibility and management to leadership.
Jira Align helps solve business agility challenges by connecting strategy to work execution and outcomes. It helps visualize teams’ progress, status, and any red flags. It’s built to improve value delivery at every level – across programs, solutions, and portfolios. Jira Align is the only solution that can support your choice of framework, including custom or hybrid versions.
We won’t dive into Jira Align here – that topic is large enough for it’s own post – but we will discuss briefly how Atlassian (even without Jira Align) is a robust solution for enterprise agile at scale.
Flexibility and Autonomy at Scale with Atlassian
Jira Software supports multiple agile work styles – Kanban, Scrum, or combinations of the two (Scumban anyone?) – allowing teams to work in their preferred way. Issue hierarchies allow management to build and track longer-term initiatives or programs without disrupting the teams below, who manage work on the feature or epic level, depending on your implementation. Advanced Roadmaps cleanly displays projected work at a high level, but provides tooling for drill-downs. Estimation of effort is seamless across the enterprise an quickly summarized within Advanced Roadmaps for strategic planning and value-stream funding allocations.
Portfolio for Jira helps you visualize the work happening in Jira Software. It’s a great fit for teams of agile teams, up to the program level. It helps you create a realistic plan, manage dependencies, manage capacity and share a visual roadmap of future releases.
Atlassian tools also support multiple areas of work – Jira Work Management can support marketing, HR, finance, and other business teams. For any traditional areas of the enterprise that best operate in a waterfall fashion, Jira Software can support them as well. Lastly, Jira Service Management prevents your support desk from becoming siloed from the rest of the company as the core tool capabilities are rooted in Jira Software and easily cross-reported and integrated to quality metrics and bug tracking.
If the base deployment of Jira Software does not appear to meet your enterprise needs, reach out to Oxalis for an assessment of your agile maturity and personalized agile transformation roadmap.
Atlassian is investing in Cloud
Cloud provides faster time to value for new best practice tooling and Atlassian is keenly targeting this space with their resources. Atlassian has recently trimmed their offerings to Cloud Standard, Cloud Premium, and Data Center (an on-premise version). This move proves their investment in bringing the best tools for agile into their products while still retaining a robust option for compliance-heavy organizations. For more information on this breakdown, or to understand what product may be best for your organization refer to our whitepaper: Atlassian Compliant Cloud vs Data Center.
Deploying Atlassian for You – How Oxalis can Help
The key to unlocking agile at scale is clear understanding of your organization’s existing structure, culture, and work management solution. Yet scaling agile is not an easy task – it requires testing, measuring, learning and adjusting to meet your organization’s specific needs. Whether or not your organization uses Atlassian today, Oxalis can work with with your team to design a tailored solution to meet your company’s needs with a robust discovery effort, best-practices implementation, and dedicated expert support.
If you are looking migrate or consolidate to Atlassian, the Oxalis cohort-based migration approach has proven success in consolidating disparate teams onto one platform.
Where do I begin?
Recall the key recommendations for scaling agile: Invest in agile through an agile mindset at all levels of the organization – solve problems and remove constraints rather than delegate to drive agility across the enterprise. Enable effective and individual interactions through an organizational taxonomy. Lastly, implement the feedback mechanisms and transparency to generate and sustain a culture of trust and autonomy. There are many more aspects to be considered, but this is a good place to start. Dividends may not arrive for several years, but signs of positive change will come sooner.
An investment in agile at scale seeds the ability to adapt at the enterprise level – developing organizational agility to react to changing markets, business opportunities, and growth. By investing in best practices now, your are enabling the future of your organization and putting the costs up front instead of later down the line when you encounter the issues that best practices seek to avoid.