How to Scale Agile at Your Organization

by Knotel: May 25, 2018

Today’s smartest business organizations are doing everything within their power to become as agile as they can, and for good reason.

Not only are agile projects twice as likely to succeed as traditional ones, an agile approach improves team collaboration and enables companies to bring better products to market faster while delivering better customer experiences.

In 2001, the agile philosophy emerged as a flexible and innovative approach to software development. Quite simply, the agile approach is rooted in collaboration, with both teammates and customers, and rapid iteration.

Instead of following an exact plan, agile developers are encouraged to respond to changes and work nimbly. Rather than focusing on one major release, agile developers work on continuous delivery so they can roll out several smaller updates more frequently.

A recent Harvard Business Review article describes agile teams as follows:

Agile teams work differently from chain-of-command bureaucracies. They are largely self-governing: Senior leaders tell team members where to innovate but not how. And the teams work closely with customers, both external and internal. Ideally, this puts responsibility for innovation in the hands of those who are closest to customers. It reduces layers of control and approval, thereby speeding up work and increasing the teams’ motivation. It also frees up senior leaders to do what only they can do: create and communicate long-term visions, set and sequence strategic priorities, and build the organizational capabilities to achieve those goals.

Over the last several years, the agile philosophy has moved from the confines of IT and software development to other areas of the organization—including HR and marketing.

Experts predict leading companies with continue to integrate the agile approach into more and more areas of their operations.

SCALING AGILE

The benefits of an agile approach speak for themselves. But how exactly can you successfully bring agile outside of software development and scale it across your organization?

First things first: Companies can definitely scale agile, but they need to be realistic. Not everything can be agile. With the right approach, however, many teams can.

Follow these four steps to scale agile at your organization:

Start small. You can’t simply decide to embrace agile, roll it out across your company, and get the results you desire. Instead, you’re much better off creating a handful of smaller agile teams (e.g., a marketing team, a sales team, and a finance team), assessing their performance over a predetermined period of time, and ultimately leveraging that data to determine what other resources the teams need to thrive.

Don’t plan every detail. Agile is all about responding to change. Resist the temptation to create a thoroughly detailed, top-down agile initiative because that approach is unlikely to work. It’s impossible, for example, to know how many agile teams you’ll end up needing from the outset. Develop a flexible agile framework, but get ready to switch things up as needed.

Assess your progress. Monitor the success of the initial agile teams you create. See what’s working and what isn’t. Collect as much data as you can and use it to determine whether agile is succeeding at your organization.

Continue scaling. After your assessment, if the benefits of agile outweigh the costs, it’s time to figure out where it makes sense to deploy additional agile teams. If the costs are too much to bear, go back to the drawing board and figure out what went wrong and what needs to be changed.

That’s the basic gist. Now for some meat.

The Harvard Business Review offers several more specific tips on how your organization can get agile to scale:

Map teams across your organization. It’s much easier to figure out which teams stand to benefit the most from agile when you clearly see how teams are laid out across the organization. The authors of the above article recommend creating a taxonomy of teams separated into three units—customer experience teams, business process teams, and technology systems teams—and then further separating those three units into as many granular teams as is sensible. “The value of a taxonomy is that it encourages exploration of a transformational vision while breaking the journey into small steps that can be paused, turned, or halted at any time,” the authors write.

Plan on making a series of small changes. Once teams have been mapped across the organization, it’s time for management to determine which teams should make the move to agile first. While it’s possible to enact sweeping changes all at once—ING Netherlands scaled agile rapidly in 2015 to keep pace with fintech startups that were threatening its business—such drastic transformations can be very difficult to pull off. To this end, companies are encouraged to make a series of small changes over time, growing agile slowly but organically. Keep in mind that agile teams shouldn’t be created just for the sake of it. Teams should be assembled to focus on major business opportunities and given the ability to iterate rapidly and work autonomously.

Teach your team to adopt an agile mindset. Agile is more than an approach to work. It’s a philosophy, a mindset. It’s nearly impossible to scale agile if your team isn’t on board with the new way of thinking. “A leadership team hoping to scale up agile needs to instill agile values and principles throughout the enterprise, including the parts that do not organize into agile teams,” the authors write. In addition to training existing employees, organizations need to hire for agile. Don’t look for the best individual performers. Hire folks who are thrilled to work in fast-paced collaborative environments who are more interested in team success than personal accolades.

Build flexibility into your tech infrastructure and business processes. Agile is all about flexibility. If your organization is relying on bulky business processes or legacy solutions, you’ll need to make some major changes in order to become an agile organization. “Implementing agile at scale requires modularizing and then seamlessly integrating workstreams,” the authors write. “For example, Amazon can deploy software thousands of times a day because its IT architecture was designed to help developers make fast, frequent releases without jeopardizing the firm’s complex systems. But many large companies, no matter how fast they can code programs, can deploy software only a few times a day or a week; that’s how their architecture works.” To become agile, organizations need flexible tech architecture that accelerates innovation. Agile teams also need the freedom to create on their own with minimal oversight. This is why leading agile organizations tend to have few layers of management.

Change the way you look at budgets. Agile also requires organizations to change the way they look at funding. “In bureaucratic companies, annual strategy sessions and budget negotiations are powerful tools for aligning the organization and securing commitments to stretch goals,” the authors write. “Agile practitioners begin with different assumptions. They see that customer needs change frequently and that breakthrough insights can occur at any time. In their view, annual cycles constrain innovation and adaptation: Unproductive projects burn resources until their budgets run out, while critical innovations wait in line for the next budget cycle to compete for funding.” Agile teams move forward quickly. While they may end up working on a number of things that fail, they also uncover “critical component[s] of the ultimate solution” faster and more affordably. If you want to make agile work at your company, change the way you think about money.

In addition to those tips, organizations wishing to become agile need to adopt an agile real estate strategy. Office space secured through traditional leases can be prohibitively expensive—particularly when business needs change and the space is too big or too small to support your objectives. Becoming an agile organization also requires adopting a nimble real estate strategy that enables you to seamlessly scale your office requirements as business needs change.

Transitioning from a traditional organization to an agile one can be a difficult journey. But it is definitely something your company can accomplish—and at scale.

Develop a plan that makes sense for your situation, be patient, and see it through. The results will speak for themselves.