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June 18, 2019

How Do You Know When to Scale?

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Written by

Jaap Dekkinga

Sr. Enterprise Agile Transformation Lead

Trent Hone

Scaling is a hot topic. Over the past several years, the Agile community has reacted to the need to make Agile effective at scale by creating a series of frameworks — SAFe, Scrum@Scale, Nexus, LeSS, Kanban, etc. — that give structural guidance and pathways for scaling. These frameworks and their various permutations can be very effective in a variety of different contexts, but a core question remains: When is the right time to scale, and how do you know when to do it? We believe there are three prerequisites.

1. Prove Effectiveness

The most important prerequisite for scaling is proven success with a single Agile team. If you have an Agile team working well, then you can consider scaling its approach to other teams and other parts of the organization. Many organizations start with an Agile pilot involving one team, or a small collection of them, but still aren’t ready to scale. Creating an Agile pilot “bubble” can help Agile gain traction as you scale.

It can also expose additional challenges like resistance to change, inadequate management support and sponsorship for Agile, as well as friction with the established organizational culture. In the latest State of Agile report these were the top three challenges to adopting Agile and scaling it effectively; address these common challenges if you want to scale.

2. Aim to Meet Demand

If you have Agile working with a single team, you can consider scaling but it doesn’t mean you should. Scaling is challenging to do well and needs to be done with a purpose. The best reason to do it is because your single, high-performing Agile team cannot meet the current demand. If your business cannot accomplish its goals with a single Agile team, it’s time to scale up to a network of teams by building a healthy ecosystem and expanding on your initial success.

3. Craft a Strategy

That brings us to the last prerequisite for scaling: a strategy for aligning your network of teams around a common goal. Your strategy should proactively address the problems highlighted above related to management support, organizational culture and promoting effective change. We recommend being very deliberate about it, but also remaining Agile in your approach. Some points your strategy should address:

  • What is your vision? What are your goals and objectives for scaling?
  • How will management align around them?
  • How much flexibility will teams have to adapt and adjust to best meet your goals and objectives?
  • What is the minimum level of structure and overhead necessary to maintain alignment between, and among, teams as they explore the best ways of working?
  • How will you regularly retrospect on your scaling approach and inspect and adapt based on new information?

Scale with Purpose

Those are our three prerequisites for scaling; together, they can help you decide when you need to scale. Our approach is reflected in the Manifesto for Scaling Agility. Two of its values are worth keeping in mind as you think about scaling: “Organic growth over pre-defined structure,” and “Shared vision over aligned processes.”

“Organic growth” means structures ought to emerge based on your specific needs and particular context. Keep your scaling approach Agile; allow inspection and adaptation. You may need entirely new structures, but you don’t want to introduce new structures right away. You want to explore, learn and introduce changes that make sense for your particular environment.

Think of it like a garden: We allow different structures to emerge based on our goals and objectives. If we want vegetables, we’ll create one structure; for flowers, another. Our goals and objectives — and the emerging patterns — inform our approach.

Those goals and objectives create our “shared vision,” something that guides us and is an essential part of your scaling strategy. Use it to answer crucial questions: Where are you going? What do you hope to achieve? What is the scaling for? Your vision is an anchor that guides your teams and enables their effective self-organization. Organic growth guided by a shared vision is essential for organizational agility at scale.

We invite you to reflect on this post and determine whether or not you need to scale. If so, or if you’re already part of a scaling initiative, please continue on to our next post where we discuss some common anti-patterns we’ve observed with scaling.

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

Do you want to learn more about how to successfully scale Agile? Download our Agile Scaling eBook now!

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Jaap Dekkinga

Sr. Enterprise Agile Transformation Lead

Trent Hone

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