September 28, 2020


News for Agilists

Less Is More When You Scale Agile

Adding processes, tools, and layers to manage scale leads to eroded team engagement. To go big, we will be more successful if we first go small.

This requires us to subtract traditional behaviors that sabotage us at scale. We must avoid propagating siloed teams, reliance on prediction, and control tactics. Instead, our methods should replicate at scale what works without scale. At scale, less is more.

Let’s discuss four enablers for keeping team engagement high as we scale. These enablers work for one team or many.

Figure A — The four enablers of engagement at scale

1Keep Teams Whole. The long-lived, small, works in a one-team environment. It also works in equal measure within a multi-team situation. This simple act removes complexity at scale. And it is fertile ground for collaboration. Keeping the team whole results in a large number of wasteful dependencies dissolving in an instant.

At scale, you must resist the urge to segregate skills and place like skillsets in one team. Rather, create a team comprised of cross-functional members. Each team needs all the skills needed to realize value for its customer and its business. This results in autonomy that each team can feel at scale.

“Scrum Teams are self-organizing and cross-functional.”

Mastery in this mode is about each team pursuing a state of self-sufficiency. Each team and each team member strives to build all capabilities to deliver value on their own. This requires cross-skilling through collaboration within the team and between teams. And it results in engaged teams in complete control of their outcomes and impact.

These focused, complete teams develop a . This ownership propagates within a single team and in a group of teams focused on a common purpose.

2 Focus on Value. A common, meaningful purpose drives teams at scale as much it does for a single team. There is no purpose in delivering a certain scope within a timeline and within budget. Instead, teams at scale should to solve. Give them a reason “why” they exist.

To innovate at scale, each team and team member in a multi-team environment must empathize with the needs of the customer and the business. This requires direct engagement with end-users and stakeholders. Resist the urge to form proxy teams or individuals that empathize in place of the team.

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”


When shifting from output to a customer outcome and business impact focus, our innovative mind awakens. All team minds focused on customer outcomes and impacts are a force multiplier. Great things happen. Now, imagine how powerful multiple teams focused on outcome and impact will be.

3 Lead with Experiments. Embrace the uncertainty and complexity that product development brings. It does not vanish at scale. So we must stop trying to predict at scale. We must stop trying to define the full scope, plan, budget, and return-on-investment upfront.

Instead, we should opt for an . This allows us to learn fast and chart our product course based on evidence. This is more akin to using a compass to chart the course rather than a map. Trying an idea and evaluating the outcome beats drawn-out, up-front prediction any day.

Experimenting at scale will create a learning environment at scale. This requires you to distribute decision making to the teams. The teams need to decide how to build the right thing and how to build the thing right.

When we use an empirical process at the team level and the system level at scale, great things happen. Many teams working together must retrospect both their intra-team dynamics and inter-team dynamics. This embeds continuous improvement for the entire system.

4 Shift Managers to Agile Leaders. To support engagement at scale, managers must shift their behavior. The shift moves away from command-and-control towards team and individual trust and ownership. This is the essence of an . Subtracting control and providing support will increase team autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Agile Leaders must craft an environment of safety. This will allow experimentation to flourish. To support empirical behavior, Agile Leaders must avoid rewards for predictive behaviors. Instead, they must celebrate the empirical process and learn from failure and success. This will help solidify a safe environment for learning.

Supporting the teams replaces managing the teams. The Agile Leader provides the team with the support and environment they need to get the job done. An Agile Leader will not manage the team for the things within the team’s control. Instead, an Agile Leader removes organizational obstacles that are out of the team’s control.

Sitting in an office is not the purview of an Agile Leader. An Agile Leader gets out of the office and visits the “Gemba” — the actual place of work. This high-touch approach provides the information the Agile Leader needs to help the team. This will also result in a better sense of where things stand than a status report can provide.

Finally, Agile Leaders must teach their teams how to think on their feet. They must build a . This requires removing the dependency on a few people to make decisions. Distributed decision-making works better and captures the power of every mind. To achieve this, the Agile Leader develops problem-solving skills in all teams and team members.

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