Running Agile at scale: Three challenges

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Across large enterprises, IT leaders are developing a new operating model to respond to digital demands. This model presumes that applications development will need to scale the use of Agile methods if teams are to support digital products and services at the cadence of continuous delivery.

In their quest to run Agile at scale, many organizations have made substantial investments in tools, training, and frameworks like SAFe. But these investments by themselves are insufficient. When it comes to implementing and scaling Agile, most frameworks, training, and tools ignore or overlook business constraints — not the least of which is the simple fact that many of the partners an Agile team has to engage with do not “speak Agile.”

CEB has found, based on data collected from nearly 300 Agile teams across the last five years, that for Agile to deliver results in a large enterprise, IT leaders need to solve coordination challenges between Agile teams and three critical partners in delivery: product owners, finance leaders and delivery teams.

Challenge 1: Product owners are made, not born

Despite business demands for all things digital, the actual work of implementing a digital initiative is harder than many business leaders realize. Most interpretations of Agile can make it seem like the only qualities needed in a business “product owner” are a willingness to engage and previous experience in IT projects. But these are table-stakes, rather than true markers of effective product ownership. To run Agile at scale, IT leaders need to work to build three qualities among

product owners: capability, clarity and commitment.

Capability refers to the competencies that enable product owners to provide effective business leadership of an Agile project: a strategic mindset, strong stakeholder management and entrepreneurial leadership. The first two are relatively easy to come by, but entrepreneurial leadership can be more difficult to find, as it requires a keen customer focus and a bent toward innovative thinking. Leading organizations recognize that entrepreneurial leadership can be built with the help of competency models and training for product owners.

Product owners also need clarity around the responsibilities they need to execute to ensure success on an Agile project. Many Agile teams confuse their business partners’ enthusiasm for digital with their knowing how to contribute effectively to an Agile project. Leading IT organizations create checklists that detail the activities, stakeholder input and deliverables needed for a product owner to carry out his or her responsibilities, ensuring results regardless of previous experience.
Finally, product owners must commit to maintaining engagement and delivering business value. This commitment is best built when IT leaders provide a network of support through which product owners across the enterprise can exchange best practices and provide peer guidance and coaching.

Challenge 2: Legacy-funding processes can sink even the best of Agile intentions

Conventional IT funding processes have largely been optimized to work with Waterfall methods and project-centered delivery. Agile at scale — iterative and nimble in nature, and oriented around continuous delivery and enhancement of digital products — requires more flexible, dynamic approaches to funding and resource allocation.

More IT organizations are experimenting with alternative approaches, like value-stream funding, team capacity-based funding and venture capital funding models that match the pace of Agile efforts. The ability to run Agile at scale will require IT leaders first to understand the pros and cons of alternative models, and educate business and finance leaders on the need for these alternatives.

The experience of leading organizations shows that a wholesale change to “Agile funding” doesn’t need to happen overnight. IT leaders can experiment with a portfolio of both older and newer funding models to match the different delivery methods and digital project types across the portfolio. The benefit of such experimentation is better education for business and finance partners, as the enterprise learns firsthand the advantages of applying a venture capital approach for projects that are more akin to proofs of concept, or value-stream funding for digital products.

Challenge 3: Agile has to be part of a ‘loosely coupled’ process ecosystem

Although some organizations will attempt to make Agile universal, most will continue to use and benefit from multiple delivery frameworks and methods. The key is not to think of “monolithic Agile,” but about how to build Agile, Waterfall, ITIL and other frameworks into an interoperable, “loosely coupled” system.

Responsibility for interoperability starts with the Agile team. While many Agile teams focus on the “voice of the customer,” few focus on the “voice of coordination” with other delivery teams and IT functions like infrastructure and security. Leading IT organizations assign coordination as an explicit, team-level responsibility — whether in terms of managing upstream and downstream dependencies across projects, or representing, for example, “security user stories” in projects. Leaders that emphasize the “voice of coordination” draw attention and focus to the translation needed between Agile and other functions and frameworks, so that Agile’s benefits are not lost once the project leaves the hands of the development team.

The importance of Agile ‘ambassadorship’

When it comes to running Agile at scale, IT leaders (with the best of intentions) typically focus on evangelizing the benefits of Agile to promote change management and champions among development teams. Almost counterintuitively, these efforts can actually present risks when trying to scale Agile in a large company setting where partners aren’t used to the language of user stories, product ownership, kanban and so on. While some amount of evangelizing may be necessary to get started, scaling Agile instead depends more on ambassadorship — the ability to collaborate to ensure successful delivery of outcomes. As many organizations have learned — sometimes painfully– it’s the outcome that matters most, rather than faithful adherence to method.

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