How agile experts do agile at scale

Lessons from the companies Forrester Research calls agile experts.

It used to be that software was something you had in your business: you used it to manage work and control your hardware, or you sold it to customers to generate revenue.

In today’s digital world, software is your business.

Whether you’re a B2C or B2B organization, it’s likely that software underpins your entire business operating system—driving your sales, your brand, your manufacturing, your supply chain, your communications, your infrastructure, your relationship with your customers … maybe even your thermostat and your coffeemaker.

Many of you have discovered that an agile approach is the best way to build and deliver great software, faster. In a recent webinar with CA Agile VP of Product (and former agile coach) Ryan Polk and guest analyst Diego Lo Giudice of Forrester Research, Diego shared results from Forrester’s Q2 2015 Global Agile Software Application Development Online Survey, citing that a third of firms surveyed have been practicing agile for more than five years. Agile’s ubiquity in software development circles now is such that, as Diego explained,

“No one I talk to now would say, ‘No, we’re not doing agile at all.’”

Yet many companies with experienced agile teams still aren’t seeing the results they’d hoped for, in part because they haven’t been able to successfully scale their efforts. Forrester Research reports that only 54% of firms have successfully scaled their agile practices to more than half their teams. Why?

In our webinar, Ryan shared the stories of several notable companies: two had been practicing agile for more than a decade, while the third had been at it for just a couple years. Contrary to what you might think, it was the third company that was seeing the best results—improvements in velocity, quality, and delivery of valuable customer features—while the more experienced companies suffered from slacker agile practices, little visibility into their work, and resistance to management.

Agile principles may be simple, but agile at scale is hard. As Ryan put it,

“Agile’s not all roses and puppies.”

Among the issues Ryan cited as common even in experienced agile companies are teams trying to practice agile in matrix organizations, with six different managers vying for control of the work; teams forgetting that they’re in service to the business, which is responsible for delivering value to the market; aggressive “resource management,” where the business re-arranges agile teams and assigns them work rather than letting the teams decide what they can build and deliver; and a lack of commitment to delivering features (instead of a backlog of user stories.)

So what differentiates the companies that succeed in scaling agile from those that have tried and failed, or haven’t even tried? Here’s what the experts do.

Focus on cultural change to drive behavioral change. Nearly twice as many of the agile “neophytes” (78%) as experts (42%) surveyed by Forrester struggle with behavioral change as their biggest obstacle to agile adoption. The best way to overcome this obstacle is with executive-level support and agile training, which send the signal that you’re all-in on agile.

Develop solid practices. Just like playing a musical instrument, agile improves with practice. Training and coaching are helpful in getting over the bumpy parts. If you slack off on your practices your agile won’t improve—much less deliver the results you were hoping for.

Connect upstream and downstream. To get the most out of agile, you need to connect your agile development both upstream (to your business’ highest priorities) and downstream (to DevOps and continuous delivery.) This builds a streamlined pipeline for building and delivering customer value, from “concept to cash.”

Organize for the work. No one wants to hear the words, “You need to change your whole organizational structure,” but siloing agile in your development group prevents you from seeing bigger results. Cross-functional teams and coordinated, interdepartmental planning are key. As Diego questioned, “Why are you even doing agile if those decisionmakers from the business are not involved?”

Employ a framework. A framework for scaling agile—like SAFe®, LeSS, DAD, or Nexus—can provide guidance for organizing, planning and delivering across teams of teams. Frameworks don’t need to be prescriptive, but they help manage the complexity of synchronizing and coordinating the work and the people with an eye on delivering results.

Mix methodologies if you must. Many large organizations make “water-agile-fall” work, and this approach is certainly better than abandoning agile because you can’t achieve 100% adoption. Some companies even use mixed methodologies with an agile framework.

Use the right metrics. Finishing all your stories in an iteration is a nice achievement, but the right metrics (predictability, productivity, quality) can help you measure whether you’re achieving business value and identify where you need to focus. The agile experts continuously improve their practices and measure results with value-based metrics.

Want to learn more? Check out the Forrester webinar recording.


Jenny is a Principal Product Marketing Manager who loves market strategy, data analysis, customer feedback…


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