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Large-scale Agile development doesn't work. Or does it?

It might be heresy, but Agile coach Michele Sliger isn't buying Agile on a large scale. Here's why she thinks it's just not ever going to work in that environment.

"I don't believe Agile works in large organizations," well-respected Agile coach Michele Sliger said as she addressed a crowd at the April 2016 Boulder Agile User Group meeting. Sliger admitted that she wanted to be proven wrong and went on to discuss the reasons for her skepticism and a new offering by the Scrum Alliance that might help remedy the problem.

Why doesn't it work?

Sliger's opinion created some buzz in the crowd. Typically, those who love Agile will tell you it works in every situation, so it can be a bit unnerving to hear a coach tell you she doesn't think large-scale agile development works. Sliger, as a good Agilist will do, encouraged the group to challenge her. "Just say, 'Oh, Michele, you’re so full of hooey,' about the many things I want to be wrong about."

But before anyone told her she was "full of hooey," they asked her to say more about why she thought Agile didn't work at scale.

"I tend to believe it's due to a lot of things," she said. "There is often a mismatch in values. The corporation believes in one set of behaviors, and Agile asks you to believe in something else. Office politics are terrible. Some do the absolute minimum to be called Agile."

Sliger went on to talk about other issues with teams being expected to jump through hoops for the methodology du jour. Buy-in is never achieved, change agents leave and everything goes back to the way it used to be.

Leaders must be engaged

Sliger said she never had a problem with buy-in from teams, but she didn't have the patience for the politics of the executives who want things faster, cheaper and better. Executives have a lot to take care of, and they don't have the time to get into the details of large-scale Agile development or really changing their style of leadership. "I don't believe it will work if management and leadership haven't been fully engaged," she said.

When asked about SAFe, a large-scale Agile framework that mandates executive training, Sliger remained skeptical, feeling that the short management training wasn't really enough to affect the cultural shift that was needed for successful transformation.

Findings from the 10th annual State of Agile survey

Sliger's wish to be proven wrong may have come true by the recent results from Verizon One's 10th "State of Agile Report."

"Agile is succeeding at scale," the first line of the executive summary said. The report stated that "the number of large enterprises that are embracing agile continues to increase each year."

The top three tips for success with scaling Agile, according to the report were:

  1. Consistent process and practices.
  2. Implementation of a common tool across teams.
  3. Agile consultants or trainers.

However, the report did state that key barriers to large-scale Agile development adoption and success included company culture, resistance to change and management support. These issues are consistent with the lack of leadership buy-in that Sliger spoke of.

The Certified Agile Leadership (CAL) Program

Sliger ended the evening by disclosing a new program from the Scrum Alliance that she hoped would help remedy the situation: the Certified Agile Leadership (CAL) Program. It's clear that in order for Agile to be successful, leadership acceptance and engagement are crucial. Adopting Agile means more than simply changing your software methodology, it's a cultural shift -- a different way of thinking and leading.

The CAL Program offers two credential levels. Credential Level 1 is the introductory education-based program, meant to bring awareness of Agile leadership thinking, focus and behaviors to the leader. Credential Level 2 consists of advanced education, validated practice and peer-based sharing.

Will this be enough to overcome the current leadership issues in large organizations? There was some concern that those who would enroll in the program would be those who were already bought in to the Agile mindset. However, it provides more opportunities for leaders to get additional education and support in moving towards an Agile mindset, even if not everyone takes advantage of it.

DevOps and Millennials help move toward Agile adoption

Though the experiences of the group varied from failures to successes, the group remained generally optimistic about the use of large-scale Agile development. One member said, "When you go to DevOps, there's no way you can do Waterfall. Teams and direct managers are bought in. It's easier to transition when there's no other choice."

There was also talk of Millennials and how they tend to be collaborative by nature. The general consensus was that the workforce will become more Agile as more Millennials move into leadership positions.

In the end, Sliger commended the group, and one member, in particular, for his optimism. Personally, I appreciate that she didn't come in with the usual hype about Agile, but was honest in her skepticism and the challenges she's encountered in large organizations. The discussion that ensued was honest and revealed real issues. Though an Agile mindset within a large organization doesn't happen quickly, it appears Sliger, the crowd, the "State of Agile Report" and the Scrum Alliance's offering all lead to the same conclusion: The growth of Agile continues, and leadership needs to get on board. There will be successes and failures and, hopefully, we will learn from both and continue to improve.

Next Steps

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Why do you think it's harder when scaling Agile development?
I work for Heartland Payment Systems (now a subsidiary of Global Payments). We ONLY do agile. As one of the largest payment companies in the US, I'd say that we have scaled rather well.

But, that said, I also have to say that we have deep management buy-in and that every level of the company is committed to agile methodologies (specifically our own flavor of SCRUM). It may not be perfectly agile (things like 2 week sprint are almost impossible to change) but, it's certainly a lot more agile than the vast majority of companies for whom I have worked.
One of the challenges in scaling is that the dependencies increase and the Scrum of Scrum needs to get highly efficient. Cross-purposes could delay also.
It is harder because the more people you have on the team the longer it takes to work out mutual understanding and agreement. Plus, consider modern rates of turnover.
What are the best examples of  "really large scale" agile developments that were successful?
HP claims to have had success at large-scale agile development with their firmware for laser jet printers.
First off I am not even exactly sure what Agile means in this context, but it seems most folks equate with Agile with iterative development and Scrum.

Given that as a starting point,  I see 3 large hurdles for Agile to scale: 
  1. A measurable connection to the business and business metrics. Small projects don't really need formal metrics but on large projects metrics are key - especially given the atrocious failure rate of large projects. 
  2. The insistence of many IT organizations to continue to use project based management - not product based management. For me project based management is in direct conflict with the notion of Agile at scale.
  3. Finally Agile faces the same issues as scaling any human process - at scale you can no longer assume that everyone is "above average"  and will do the right thing (unless you are from Lake Wobegon:). Most agile teams are currently above average - that doesn't scale.
I blogged about it here 
Anything of great worth, or worth doing, requires sacrifices.  Choices must be made, the process executed and managed.  Saying that AGILE development does not work for 'such-and-such' is IMHO, exactly like saying: "Lean Manufacturing doesn't work!", "Six-Sigma doesn't work!", "S&OP doesn't work!"
As I like to say: "It all depends...(!)
We successfully executed AGILE in a large, corporate environment while implementing COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf) software.  We were told it would never work.  We smiled and waved!
There are, in my mind, several reasons AGILE would not work:
1. Lacking the correct 'toolset' or 'resources' - both literally, and figuratively.
2. Pessimism
3. No 'top-down' leadership/ownership.
4. Incorrect 'scoping' of the project, and subsequent sprints (ie: 'biting-off-more-than-you-can-chew'!
It's interesting that an Agile coach missed the fundamental barriers to agile adoption within large organizations. Agile is about a leadership style that demands you think about the problem differently.

Large organizations are going to be peppered with people who have built their lives around a particular way of doing things. Unless they are leading the charge, they won't follow into a new space, unless there's a compelling reason for them to do so.

Apples don't grow off the trunk of a tree, they grow out where the new growth is happening.

Start by budding out new growth on the perimeter of the organization. (Sometimes you need to prune back to encourage new growth.)

Make sure the nutrients can get to the new growth. Some branches may die off, but encourage many buds. Use the large organization to sustain the teams, not the other way around.

Soon, with careful attendance, you'll have a bountiful harvest.