A theme of scaling Agile, or Lean for that matter, is all hot these days. You will hear it all sorts of contexts: as broad as Agile and as specific as one of the methods we use. No wonder. It sells.
You can tell that looking at tracks at Agile or Lean conferences. You can tell that looking at a rise of approaches that specifically aim at the big scale as their main target (SAFe, anyone?)
The interesting part of the whole dispute is how rarely we question scaling up strategy. I mean it seems to be some sort of unquestionable paradigm and when you decide to go against that everyone looks at you as you were an alien. I sometimes feel like rolling out a huge program to introduce Agile or Lean in the whole organization was the only thing there was for big companies.
How does it work for us so far? Not so well. We don’t have lots of success stories and those few that are available seem to be share at pretty much every Agile or Lean event there is. This tells a story about our success rates with scaling agile too.
Unscaling strategies are almost never mentioned in the dispute. It is so despite the fact that we actually know at least a couple of different approaches we can use there.
One is skunk works. The basic idea is to create a group within a company that operates pretty independently on the rest of the organization. This creates an opportunity to try out a lot of stuff that would be hard to implement in a broader context. At the same it creates an environment of much smaller scale.
Applying Lean Startup within a big organization goes along the same lines. On the top of a product development strategy we create a context of work that is autonomous and that operates in small scale.
Quite a different approach is when an organization decides to find a partner to outsource some of their work to. With such a situation one thing that is easily done is scaling the context down. A difficult part is to find a partner that would live be the right values and employ the right practices. But then again, it may be used as a viable unscaling strategy too.
Interestingly enough, such approaches are rare. One exception may be outsourcing. However, outsourcing done in a common way has nothing to do with scaling down and very frequently criteria used to choose an outsourcing partner only make the whole situation worse. Believe me, I’m actually in this business on a receiving end so I’ve heard all the motivations for sending the work near-shore or off-shore.
If you wonder why unscaling is so unpopular you aren’t going to be surprised with the answers. Either of these scenarios means losing control and that is something that management is generally allergic to. Also to make it work you need trust as high autonomy is one of key parts of the setup. Finally, there’s a risk of doing something not exactly in a standardized way which may produce unpredictable outcomes.
Have I just said between the lines that one of the main drivers of scaling up Agile and Lean is complacency? Oh well…
Anyway, unscaling strategy not only makes it much easier to adopt Lean or Agile but at the same time it enables fresh ideas as many constraints are typically relieved. Not to mention that it goes along the lines of autonomy, mastery and purpose which drives individual motivation.
So the next time you hear about scaling Agile why not consider unscaling it?