Scaling Agile: Is it The Next Big Thing?

“What’s the next big thing in Agile?” is a question I’ve been asked a lot over the years. Answering used to make me a feel a little awkward. It was almost as though the questioner is treating Agile as a fashion, one that includes many fads. My usual answer has been, “Whatever your team decides to make it” reflecting my deeply-held conviction that Agile in general, and Scrum in particular, is fundamentally about self-managing teams. More recently though the tone of the question has been different, and has reflected the fact that there are people now with real track records in applying Agile approaches to software development, and they have a real thirst for more learning. So, when the question was asked of me for the umpteenth time recently, I found myself answering “The next big thing is scaling Agile”.

What Does It Mean to Scale Agile?

Scaling Agile usually involves two things: developing products that require more resources than one small development team can supply, and making organizational changes to accommodate the approach. Let’s be clear, Scrum and eXtreme Programming (XP) both started with enterprise applications. There have always been big projects that have used Agile, albeit a small minority of them, but now the software development community has reached a stage – or at least is rapidly approaching  it- when the use of Agile for big projects will be the norm.

The evidence for this is increasing. As my company, Emerald Hill Limited, is a partner of VersionOne I have just received early release of its ninth annual State of Agile Survey report. It makes interesting reading. The first thing that struck me was the respondent demographics. 53% of those answering the questions were in organizations that employed more than one thousand people in their software development organization. 35% worked in enterprises that employed five thousand people or more, and 1 in 5 were in very large organizations with more than 20,000 people. Big organizations run big development projects! It doesn’t take long for even a modest implementation of Scrum or some other Agile method to raise questions about how to do it at scale. At the same time Scrum Alliance has introduced new ‘advanced’ certifications, with  training courses leading to them, and the first one announced is about scaling Scrum.

Scaling Frameworks

You can expect to see a lot of hype about scaling frameworks in the near future. Currently the best known is the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) developed by Dean Leffingwell and owned by the SAFe Academy . According to the VersionOne survey 19% of respondents already use SAFe. One of its big attractions is that managers can immediately see where they fit into the Agile ecosystem. SAFe’s Big Picture identifies three levels (team, program and portfolio) with different backlogs, different content levels and different decision-makers at each level. While Scrum (and XP) are used at the team level, Kanban systems are used at the “higher” levels. It’s probably true to say that SAFe scales Agile rather than scales Scrum. SAFe mandates two-week long Sprints, normalized estimation of effort, and uses the concept of the Agile Release Trains (The train leaves the platform on time, whether or not you are on board) as a forcing function to make other, synchronized events happen. SAFe is controversial in the Scrum community. While both the co-chairs at the New Orleans Scrum Gathering in May last year were SAFe Program Consultants (as am I, by the way), Ken Schwaber has had a swipe at the SAFe academy, and Mike Cohn has gone as far as to create a spoof website lampooning the approach.

Large-Scale Scrum

Only 3% of The State of Agile survey respondents claim to use LeSS (Large-Scale Scrum). I suspect that actually many more are doing so – but without knowing it. The evidence? Well, 69% claim to use Scrum or the Scrum of Scrum’s tactic (A regular meeting of team representatives to enable collaboration between team’s working on the same product). LeSS is owned by Bas Vodde and Craig Larman and flies under the strapline that “Large scale Scrum is Scrum”. There are two flavors of LeSS. The one for 2-8 teams is virtually indistinguishable from ‘plain vanilla’ Scrum. There is a single Product Backlog with a single Product Owner. The teams Sprint together, collaborating intensively through the Scrum of Scrums and/or any other ways they deem appropriate. Each development team has their own ScrumMaster, their own Sprint Review, Sprint Retrospective and Sprint Backlog. There is an overall Sprint Planning meeting which sets a Sprint Goal and the separation of concerns between the teams, followed by the individual teams meeting to plan their own Sprint Backlogs. At the end of the Sprint there is an overall Sprint Retrospective involving all of the teams.

‘Huge LeSS’ is for any number of teams more than eight. The main addition is the scaling of the Product Owner role with Area Product Owners each having a separate view into a single Product Backlog, based on customer-facing themes. A Chief Product Owner owns the Product Backlog as a whole and provides strategic business insight, while Scrum teams, each with their own Product Owner are grouped under the requirement area themes ‘owned’ by the Area Product Owners.

The key difference between LeSS and SAFe is that Vodde and Larman stress empirical process control and self-management at all levels of scale while Leffingwell advocates the centralization of some decision-making. LeSS definitely scales Scrum, while SAFe uses Scrum but scales Agile. If that is the case, then given the predominance of Scrum in scaling efforts to date, why is LeSS not more popular? The acronym is less well-known because it is really a codification of two influential books by Craig Larman, one on Scaling Lean and Agile Development and one on Practices for Scaling Lean and Agile Development,  that didn’t use the acronym. However, it is pretty obvious we will hear more about LeSS in the near future. A new book called Large-Scale Scrum  is due out in September and there is already a website promoting it , including training courses and certifications. Mike Beadle is also bringing out a book in the Autumn, by the way, on yet another scaling framework called Enterprise Scrum, so there will be plenty to choose from soon enough if your organization is looking to scale.

Organizational Impact of Scaling

It is not always completely understood by adopting organizations, but scaling Scrum (or Agile) inevitably impacts the wider organization. Part of the attraction of SAFe, as I mentioned earlier, is that managers can see where they have a role to play, and there is no doubt that many think that means that the organization of the software development function might change, but the things which surround it will remain familiar. But even SAFe recommends that the ideal organizational structure is one which is built around its value streams. That in itself can cause radical upheaval. The fact is that most large organizations have a legacy structure in which the flows by which they add value to their products and services are often well-hidden. And don’t think for a moment that large-scale Scrum is a way of avoiding organizational change either. When J.P. Morgan adopted LeSS, for example, they found themselves dissolving departments and component teams, and removed an entire layer of ‘command-and-control’ level-1 managers (most of whom ended up in the Scrum teams). I strongly suspect that it is the experience of these organizational impacts that will dominate the Agile community’s debates over the next period.

Going Big with Agile

It is a tribute to the Agile Model that we have got to the point that many large organizations are looking at ways to scale Agile development. Agile development  is now mainstream, for sure. How to Go Big with Agile, is the next big thing in Agile in my opinion. Expect a lot of hype, a bunch of new literature (some good, some toilet paper) and, if you are contemplating scaling, a whole lot of impediments in your way. But you definitely will not be alone, so you can also expect a lot of support from the Agile community as you make your efforts.

Learning Tree offers the following courses for those wishing to scale Agile:

Leading SAFe – SAFe Agilist certification is a 2-day course you can take in one of our centers where you will learn to implement Lean and Agile principles across multiple teams. Plus, you will leave this course prepared to take the SAFe Scaled Agilist (SA) certification exam.

Scaling Scrum , is a new 1-day course you can take online that will introduce you to a broad application of Scrum principles for both multiple team development and the wider organization.


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