Implementing Agile in very large enterprises

Many Fortune 2000 companies are implementing an Agile methodology. Learn what experts and consultants are saying about how successful it is.

The bigger the company, the bigger the challenges are for scaling Agile. However, it's not impossible. In fact, global 2000 companies like IBM are achieving success with the Agile methodology. But practitioners and pundits alike issue caveats, and some are passionate.

For IBM's Harish Grama, vice president of Rational product development and customer support, the three keys for a larger enterprise implementing Agile are process, tools and discipline.

"Big companies, because their problems are bigger, they can't afford to have sloppy practices," says Jeff Sutherland, co-inventor of the Scrum Agile development framework and CEO at Scrum Inc. However, he is adamant that Agile methodologies can work for companies of all sizes. "There is a lot of nonsense going around about the scalability of Scrum; people are radically ignorant", said Sutherland. "Scrum is a disruptive technology. Applied well, it makes it impossible for your competitors to compete with you." 

Still, scaling Agile in larger companies "is exponentially more difficult," said Robert Holler, CEO of Agile project management tools vendor VersionOne Inc. He cites the impact on communication, culture, human resources and distributed teams. "You have to treat Agile transformation as a change management process," he said.

Theresa Lanowitz, voke inc.'s founder whose firm recently completed a research study on Agile, cautions that large organizations first need to determine if Agile is a good fit for them, particularly in firms where documentation and process are very important or where compliance requirements, global distribution, offshore projects, etc., make following Agile practices like stand-up meetings and colocation difficult.

"It's OK for organizations to say we're large, we like working in the style of what a large organization requires and make the appropriate choice of development," Lanowitz said. "It's perfectly OK to say we're not in a situation within the culture of our company to use what Agile is suggesting we do."

Agile practices adopt hybrid methodology

Most agree that Agile practices among global 2000-size companies as well as small and medium businesses (SMBs) are the same, but different, and often a hybrid methodology.

"Agile starts typically around a critical project with a lot of sponsorship," said IBM's Grama. "The SMB might have fewer of these projects, the enterprise more, but the challenges faced by both are the same."

But in terms of the specifics of the Agile Manifesto -- self-organizing teams, face-to-face meetings, very quick iterations and so on -- Grama said he doesn't know of any company that "really follows that literally other than a 20- to 30-person company." But because bigger may have trouble conforming to that view, that "doesn't mean they can't be Agile. You take those concepts and stretch them," he said. IBM has dubbed that concept agility at scale.

For example, Grama said, larger companies may have development teams larger than 10 people who also may be geographically distributed, which makes Post-it notes on a whiteboard impractical. "As you increase team size and distribution, even in different buildings, you need better tools that give you the same notion of putting Post-its on a whiteboard," he said.

According to the voke research study, 26% of survey respondents indicated exclusive use of Agile; 14% were involved in Agile pilots. Further, 27% reported the use of Agile practices when appropriate, "indicating that the most appropriate development methodology is selected based on the type of project," the report states.

More attention for some apps than others

Kelly Emo, director of applications product marketing for software in the enterprise business at HP, says large firms believe in the benefits of Agile, such as velocity and alignment with business, but large mission-critical applications often have unique requirements. "There are aspects of enterprise applications, whether from legacy implementations or that have mission-critical SLAs, [in which] more rigor is needed in how to plan or change and test for quality," said Emo.

For large organizations, Agile "may not be able to be 100% adopted across all areas," she said. In certain areas, Agile will fit very well, while others because of legacy or requirements in the product need to put more traditional software practices in place. "You can adopt an Agile approach," she said, "but for pure Agile -- self-managing, self-organizing -- I have yet to see a really large organization dealing with compliance requirements, etc., that can get to that level."

For the Boeing Defense, Space & Security (BDS) business unit, which has the largest share of software developers in Boeing, "a deployment of Agile for a program is a separate deployment. Scaling stops at the program level and we don't deal with enterprise-level Agile scaling," wrote Curtis Hibbs, lead engineer, Boeing Agile Software, in an email interview. "Some programs are quite large and scaling comes into play in these cases. But we mostly deal with implementing individual Agile teams or just scaling to a handful of teams."

At IBM, Grama says about 70% to 80% of development is now Agile, after the development process underwent a transformation over the past five to six years. "For most, part of what needs to be Agile is Agile; some things still need to get there," said Grama. "For small startup products, it's easy to be true to Agile. For larger projects that have been around a while with a large customer base, we do more iterative development. The development cycle is longer simply because the user validation period is a long time -- you can't mess it up."

However, Grama added that extensions to legacy products are developed with Agile, such as those for Notes and Domino.

There are definitely challenges to scaling Agile for huge enterprise development projects. "We do have some very large programs for which scaling is a significant issue," wrote Hibbs. "Our approach is to use Lean principles to guide our scaling decisions. This is also where Agile coaching plays a huge role. Our coaches are very experienced with scaling Agile implementation, and they work hand-in-hand with our program teams to scale and fine-tune their Agile implementation over time."

At HP, Emo said Agile is being used more in the products organization than in IT, but "it's definitely scaling. I wouldn't say it's adopted enterprise-wide. … I think it's important for large organizations to not do blind adoption. Look at your current business requirements, your current capabilities and goals, and where it makes sense to do a whole scale adoption of Agile, or a hybrid delivery model, like 'Scrummerfall.'"

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