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July 02, 2019

6 Signs Your Agile Scaling Isn’t Working

6 mins read

In our last post on Agile scaling, we described some signs that indicate you should consider it. In this one, we will discuss scaling anti-patterns, signs your scaling isn’t working and then provide some options for you to consider based on the principles of the Manifesto for Scaling Agility.

1. Unrelated products are too closely integrated

Signs to look for:

  • Product changes have to wait for changes to unrelated products.
  • Teams spend a lot of time waiting on other teams.
  • Increasing, and seemingly unnecessary, complexity.
  • Dependencies surface late and regularly lead to delays.

How you can improve:

  • Keep products and their teams loosely coupled to maintain agility and reduce complexity.
  • Consider duplicating infrastructure and processes to preserve the independence of teams and eliminate dependencies.
  • Allow each program to evolve its processes and infrastructures to its own specific context.
  • Decouple applications wherever possible to provide flexibility and increase business agility.

2. Communication flows one way between management and teams

Signs to look for:

  • No feedback loop from end-users to product management; uninformed prioritization of new features.
  • Standardized reporting provides little opportunity for teams to share their concerns or insights.
  • Retrospective actions that involve changes in management behavior fail to be implemented.
  • Management unilaterally imposes process changes without feedback mechanisms—like a well-defined metric—that can indicate if the change is having the desired effect.

How you can improve:

  • Be clear about what decisions teams can make on their own; management and teams can explicitly define boundaries of decision-making authority by using a Delegation Board.
  • Create space for experimentation and hypothesis-driven learning at multiple levels of the organization. You can frame experiments effectively with a template like the Lean A3.
  • Have management focus on providing contextual knowledge and enabling effective team-level decision-making. Recognize some management behaviors may have to change.
  • Fund products and value streams, not projects. Bring work to the teams and allow them to focus on the most valuable, highest priority work, while management focused on desired outcomes.

3) Processes ruling over people

Signs to look for:

  • Team members wait for planned events to collaborate, thereby limiting opportunities to react to new information.
  • Reviews and checkpoints are increasing the need for documentation and slowing the rate of delivery.
  • Increasing layers of process and oversight seem to have little positive impact and catch few real problems.
  • You have Agile teams, but don’t seem to have much agility; teams are slow to respond to newly emergent needs.

How you can improve:

  • Encourage teams to communicate regularly outside of planned events; ensure events occur with the appropriate frequency to identify newly emerging opportunities.
  • Establish collaboration-friendly environments with shared spaces, information radiators and communal boards so that teams gain an understanding of each other’s contexts.
  • Regularly retrospect at all levels to identify opportunities, potential experiments and continually evolve.
  • Consider an agile independent verification and validation approach

4) Designs and architectures lack cohesion

Signs to look for:

  • Individual teams have their own style guides and architectural guidelines that are distinct from those of other teams.
  • Customers become confused when using the product.
  • User interface components aren’t reused across teams.
  • Lack of standards make it more difficult to reuse and refactor shared code, decreasing agility and slowing deliveries.

How you can improve:

  • Establish common standards that foster the creativity of teams while providing cohesion.
  • Establish communities of practice to share effective practices and emerging standards between and among teams.
  • Prioritize experimentation for each individual team over conformity across the organization. Celebrate and share the learning that come from experimentation—successes and failures—across all teams.
  • Radiate information between and among teams to develop shared understanding and promote asynchronous communication; create visibility across the entire work system.

5) Shared services are slowing you down

Signs to look for:

  • A shared service is built but when it triggers defects the ownership is unclear, which ultimately leads to long recovery times.
  • UX standards change regularly and have cascading impacts. Seemingly simple changes (e.g., with font size) force redesigns to buttons and screen layouts.
  • Minor database changes take a long time to become available for teams, leaving developers waiting and forcing them to context switch.
  • Security reviews and assistance come late and often lead to rework. Teams feel incentivized to work around the security team whenever possible.

How you can improve:

  • Use historical performance to establish service level agreements for the shared service teams; check to see if they are sufficiently responsive and adjust if not.
  • Develop a guild structure where knowledge and skill from the shared services is embedded into each of the teams, reducing the level of interdependency.
  • Create more opportunities for feedback between the teams and the shared services provided to them; make downstream impacts more visible.
  • Provide clear ownership and objectives for shared services so that they can continually evolve towards organizational goals.

6) There is no shared vision.

Signs to look for:

  • Teams are disconnected from the customer; they feel like “feature factories” with lots of work to do but little sense of the value they provide.
  • Individuals feel like they lack enough context to help inform priorities and implementation strategies.
  • Team members are unsure of how their work fits into the bigger picture and why certain features take precedence over others.
  • Metrics to help guide decision-making at lower levels and foster team self-organization are lacking.

How you can improve:

  • Align the work of teams through a clear vision and subsidiary objectives that explain where you’re going and how they can help you get there.
  • Articulate objectives and any supporting themes at regular events to foster alignment and create common understanding.
  • Have teams regularly refine their backlogs and potential upcoming work; ensure they align to the vision and objectives; filter out work that is irrelevant or unnecessary.
  • Provide the opportunity for open demonstrations where team members can see what their colleagues are working on and how their efforts have supported it.


If you are experiencing any of these anti-patterns during Agile scaling, step back, reflect, and consider the improvement approaches we’ve identified. Usually, the problem is a complex set of dynamics, so if it doesn’t seem like there’s a quick fix, don’t be surprised. If you’ve tried a few and are still having challenges, please reach out; we’ll be happy to help you scale appropriately for your context.


Get your fill on Agile scaling with our other posts in the series:


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