Saturday, October 12, 2013

Basic Agile ‘scaling’ terms

Below are several key terms used often when we discuss ‘Agile Scaling.’ And we want to discuss them.


Our experience is that when the community talks about these issues, they use these words in a very loose way.  The problems behind these words are quite real. And can at least be somewhat improved if we work hard and use the best ideas.  But the lack of clarity in the word usage gets in the way of good communication and good thinking.  And then the actions are muddled.

Let’s review these terms:
  • Scaling
  • Broader Agile Adoption
  • Agile Transformation
  • Cultural Change
  • Distributed Agile or Scrum
What do each mean?  While the issues often overlap or come at you at the same time in the real world, I think each is different.  And that being clear about the differences can help us think and act in a more useful way.

Here are my definitions.

Scaling: Means having multiple [Scrum] teams work together on one Product.  In some sense, they are ‘in the same code base’ if it is a software product.  Two teams working together is one kind of problem. 3-7 teams is one kind of problem.  8+ teams is another kind of problem.

Broader agile adoption:
Means  to have more and more teams using Agile. Or new departments or divisions using Agile.  For purposes of this idea, assume that each team is working completely independently.  Note however: If your group is say 100 people, usually you also will be having some scaling as defined above (ie, here and there, at least, several teams are working together).  Very common.

Agile Transformation:
Means mainly having the whole organization become truly agile, in values, principles, and practices.  Not just the ‘development’ department (or whatever name your firm uses for that group).  This often covers many different kinds of issues.  However, it is fair to say that just introducing Scrum to a few teams almost inevitably leads to a kind of ‘transformation’.  It tends to affect, as we say, ‘everything.’
It can be said that even a small company with one Scrum team will have a kind of Agile Transformation. And then a company of 100 people people will have a more complex Agile Transformation. And then a company of 300,000 people might have a far more complex Agile Transformation.

Often this term is used to encompass ‘everything’.  Meaning, all the changes needed in a big company ‘going agile’.  ‘This is our Agile Transformation initiative’ is a sentence one could hear.  OK, but then those two words many lots of different things to different people.  Even with my relatively narrow definition, it starts to mean too many disparate things, in my opinion.

Cultural Change: This is where the culture of your group (team, department, company) must change because of Agile, or to make Agile more successful.  This is almost always needed to some degree with most any of these other changes.

Again, cultural change is often assumed in the phrase ‘agile transformation’.  And in a way, that is fair, almost always.

But at least in theory one can imagine a situation in which no cultural change is really required — the firm though could still need an Agile Transformation in terms of hierarchy, incentives, HR things, ways of managing, etc.  I think it is useful to think of the culture change as a separate issue.  Yes, as we are seeing, all these different things interrelate.  This is in part why the words have been mushed together.

Distributed Agile or Scrum:
Covers two situations:
(a) one team has members in more than one location.  In fact, if people are on two different floors, that is a ‘distributed’ team. Often distributed also means that at least one person is in a different time zone than another person on the team.  And, typically, the wider the time zone split, the worse the problems.
(b) two or more teams must work together, and each Team is in a different location.

You might want to call (a) distributed team and (b) distributed agile.

I also use the term ‘disbursed agile’ to mean a team where no two people on the team are in the same place.  I find this to be particularly hard to deal with. Typically.
Many people assume that ‘distributed’ is the biggest problem in scaling (or agile transformation — whichever their favorite word is). And yet many firms can be doing scaling or agile transformation without doing any distributed agile at all.


Maybe there are more terms to add to this list.  And maybe these definitions can be improved. But it is one set of eyes on these ideas.

This post does not try to provide any solutions. In fact, it barely hints at what the real problems are. The only purpose is to give you some basic tools (ie, words) to start to think about what the problems really are.  If we identify the problems better, then we have a better chance to fix them properly.

I have mentioned these ideas to a few other people. Some have been, at least I thought, rather cynical.  And with some reason, I think.  They see lots of consultants and others running around using words for marketing, and the feeling of these people is that consultants running around throwing around words is not helping. I have some sympathy with that concern.  But I have not become cynical.

Second, I think they feel that these words and issues have become hopelessly muddled. I think their feeling is that talking about them publicly is a waste.  Or, at least, humorous in a cynical way.  (Maybe talking about these words in one room with 7 people is useful, but not in public.)  Again, I do agree that getting many people to agree on common definitions of these words is almost hopeless.
Still, I obviously think that discussion in public is not hopeless. Although it is difficult.

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