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Examining Different Approaches to Scaling Agile

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Scaling Agile is a source of great consternation in the agile community - what does it mean, how to scale, what framework or approach to use, what techniques need to change when adopting agile at scale, etc. For some the very thought of trying to scale agile denotes a problem and for others it is a natural growth from small team implementations to whole organisation transitions.  

There are a number of defined and documented approaches to tackling the scaling question, and a lot of confusion about which to use under what circumstances.  

Richard Dolman & Steve Spearman have built a website and a comparitive matrix looking at different agile scaling approaches.  

They state the goals of producing the comparison are:

We want to provide these 3 things to the community:
  • A populated version of a comparison matrix for the most prevalent Agile scaling frameworks - with an emphasis on objective criteria as much as possible
  • A model that you can use to make your own comparisons
  • A variety of verbatim commentary from authors, industry leaders and others so you can get more into the "opinion" side of comparing frameworks.

They recently spoke to InfoQ about their work:

InfoQ: Please tell us a little about yourselves.

Steve Spearman - I have 30 plus years now in the software industry. I do a mixture of Agile coaching and training for a variety of clients - many of which are enterprises. My certifications include CST, SAFe SPC, CSM, CSPO, PMP and PMI-ACP.
Richard Dolman – I have 25 plus years in software, consulting, financial services and other industries. I’m an enterprise agile coach and trainer. I hold CSP, CSM, PMI-ACP, PSM I, and ICP certifications.

InfoQ: Why examine scaling agile?

This is a very hot topic in our industry, but we haven’t seen much in the way of attempts to synthesize and present information on the various approaches in a fair and positive way. We don’t want to line up behind one scaling approach over another. Our goal is to provide a forum and resources to help coaches and organizations assess their needs and then understand and assess the various approaches to hopefully identify one that best serves those needs.

InfoQ: What made you undertake this work – what is the problem you are trying to solve?

We are both experienced Agile coaches who often work with organizations that are scaling. We were part of small group at the Scrum Alliance Coaching Retreat in 2013 who chose to take on this topic in a workshop. What we saw is a need for some objective ways of comparing the most common approaches to scaling.
The traditional answer to scaling was more or less to "figure it out for yourself". While this can be a powerful approach in some cases, many organizations need more than this. As Agile has crossed the chasm with larger organizations, this has led to the emergence and increased popularity of several frameworks, or approaches, for scaling. We just want to help with a way to compare those approaches and enable organizations to find the one that best fits their particular situation.

InfoQ: What is meant by “scaling agile”?

That’s actually where we start the conversation… “What is your definition of ‘scaling agile?’”
To some people, “scaling agile” means going from a few agile teams to multiple, or even hundreds of, agile development teams. There are some unique challenges that come up whenever you have an organization where more than 3 or 4 agile teams need to work together in a coordinated fashion. Most agile scaling frameworks try to offer ideas or techniques that can help in organizations with anywhere from 4 to hundreds of Agile teams that need to work together. Other definitions of scaling may be to spread agile beyond IT, seeking agility in business operations or other areas of the organization. This need is not addressed as effectively by many popular approaches.

InfoQ: What is wrong with the current ideas about scaling?

This is a longer conversation where you'll get a lot of different opinions. One of the difficulties of this effort is that there are so many different perspectives on how to best approach scaling, as well as what qualifies as a scaling framework - and the emotions run rather high in many of the postings and discussion forums.
We're trying hard not to take sides in the ongoing debates. There is in fact much that is right with the current ideas about scaling. Most share a commitment to lean and Agile ways of thinking though they vary dramatically in how much structure they propose to deal with the problems of scale.
The problem we’re focused on solving is not so much about the approaches or ideas about scaling, but rather to bring some objectivity to the conversation and to fill a gap we see in having a model for comparative analysis, based on the needs of the organization.

InfoQ: What is the purpose of your model?

We have a few different objectives in mind for our model:
We want to provide a central source of information and pointers to the most common scaling frameworks and approaches – which we call the Agile Scaling Knowledgebase (ASK)TM.
We also wanted to come up with an easy to understand decision matrix that can help people on their journey to choosing a scaling framework appropriate for their situation, by providing a structure that allows someone to compare other scaling approaches that they may wish to consider (and there are many out there beyond the ones that we cover).
Ultimately, we want a tool that can be extended to bring in different ideas and approaches and filter information based on the user’s own criteria, making it a more comprehensive way of evaluating options.

InfoQ: What are the different scaling approaches you selected for the model, and why?

Our initial focus is on the scaling approaches that are the most popular, but we're also providing a place to provide pointers to others on our website. Our comparison matrix covers something as basic as Scrum of Scrums (SoS), as well as more complex models like Large Scale Scrum (LeSS), Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD), Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). We’ve also included the method used at Spotify. These were chosen based on the amount of discussion or use that we see on these in the Industry. Users of the ASK matrix will be able to add or remove approaches based on their unique criteria.

InfoQ: What are the important dimensions you considered when putting the model together?

One of the challenges we've encountered is trying to find a balance between objective and subjective evaluation criteria. We've tried to emphasize the objective criteria first, but are also providing some subjective ratings on different criteria. We've solicited input from many experienced coaches on aspects of our model, including the criteria. Based on this, the ASK model has continued to evolve.
One key characteristic we want to anchor on is that someone using the ASK decision matrix starts by defining some key criteria that is important or relevant to their organization or situation. We also wanted to include verbatim comments from all our reviewers and statements from the authors of the different frameworks. These will be added to our website in the near future.

InfoQ: What advice would you give people about using this model to select their approach?

Remember that this is just one model for comparing scaling approaches. We hope that you find it useful as a starting point, but do your own research to find the model that is best aligned with your philosophy and needs.
And please provide us your feedback and links to other information that you find useful so that we can continue to add value to this model and the related website. We hope this becomes a valuable information resource for our industry that others can contribute to and get value from.

InfoQ: Where can readers get the model?

The latest matrix and supporting material can be found here   
We’re also presenting on this topic at Agile2014 in Orlando. So we encourage anyone interested and attending to check out our talk and bring their questions and insights to share with us.


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