How to scale agile: 6 keys to success

Pairing the agile methodology with a low-code platform can provide a common environment for interaction and for working together to iteratively develop solutions to meet evolving needs

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Clem Onojeghuo (CC0)

Embarking on agile methods of software development, organizations will generally start small with a few tight teams experimenting and learning on innovation-led projects. An organization may then seek to extend and scale. The question is how to scale agile successfully?    

Perhaps driven by business demands for digital transformation and the pressure to compete with digital natives, agile approaches to software development have received a great deal of interest of late. The promise of being able to build digital solutions via a process of collaboration and iteration is attractive, especially for pursuing hazy, innovative business ideas that change and develop as thoughts mature. Agile is certainly well suited for small, rapid development initiatives. But it’s also becoming accepted for bigger more strategic projects.

A recent Gartner survey reveals that agile continues to gain traction in enterprises of all sizes. In 2015, 45 percent of organizations surveyed were using waterfall methodologies for development, and 37 percent were using agile methodologies. In just one year, waterfall declined to 41 percent, while agile rose to 41 percent. This data illustrates that agile adoption has reached its tipping point and has made significant headway in the enterprise.

While organizations are increasingly adopting agile and extending its use, it can be tricky to scale. Yet that’s where the true value of agile is to be earned. Learning the secrets to scaling agile can pay big dividends.

I’ve worked with many of our customers around the world to help them scale their agile environments. Here are six considerations I’ve learned for scaling agile successfully:

1. Choose the right teams

An agile team needs to be well-rounded when it comes to skill sets. Choose motivated, communicative, and multidisciplinary folks who have a foot in the business and a foot in IT. With the tools and technology now available, IT leaders can hire non-IT professionals for IT roles. You need to include people who are capable of being customer-facing, are able to manage processes, and are technically-minded. They’ll need commitment, vision, and curiosity. Over time, evaluate who has these particular skills and build a talent list from which to draw from for future projects. From agile successes, identify the skill sets that contributed to the completion of projects and reprioritize hiring for those skill sets as you build additional agile teams.

2. Learn to trust people

Your leadership role is one of vision and high-level direction. Identify and prioritize the projects agile teams will pursue, set the budget, and select the team members. Once the team is selected, don’t be overly prescriptive on goals or on how teams should pursue and report on projects. Keep an interested observer’s eye on progress, but you’re going to need to trust people and empower them, not micromanage them.

3. Facilitate cultural change

If the existing environment is bureaucratic and structured, or aligned to traditional development approaches like waterfall, you’ll need to facilitate cultural change. For example, a senior software engineer at Erie Insurance explained the shift from waterfall to agile requires a different mindset. Some people will be reluctant to change or will simply find it difficult to alter the way they work. You need people to shift away from being strict with requirement specifications to being quite flexible instead. People will need to learn to communicate effectively across all team members. They need to move towards collaboration and trust, pursuing solutions together with users/customers and doing what’s right, rather than what’s prescribed. Full-scale agile implementation requires a cultural commitment from all levels of the organization.

4. Provide the means for collaboration

Business stakeholders do not usually understand application software code; the parlance of programmers and other technical members of the team. The lack of a common language can limit cross-party interaction. To overcome this, I’d suggest you consider a low-code platform or visual workflow development environment as opposed to traditional coding. The visual nature of low-code platforms allows users and developers to confer, since both can see exactly what’s being developed and the progress made. Built-in feedback widgets enable users to provide instant feedback directly in an application. Workflows can be easily adjusted to accommodate change, making low-code ideal for collaborative, iterative and agile development. According to the report “The Forrester Wave: Low-Code Development Platforms for AD&D Pros, Q4 2017,” low-code development platforms continue to gain traction in the market due to their ability to enable enterprises to rapidly build and deploy custom apps, including for large enterprise applications.

5. Celebrate success, but accept and learn from failure

Show off successes and praise teams, while encouraging them to share their secrets of success. Discuss what went right. What went wrong or could have gone better? Know that in any new process, especially around innovation, they’ll be hiccups along the way. The point is to allow failure, but learn to spot the signs early, before getting in too deep. Promote experimentation to help teams discover which approaches work best and likely offer the greatest return on investment (at acceptable levels of risk).

6. Avoid a big bang (probably)

Unless the needs of an organization are critical, and it accepts the risk, I suggest that the learning and cultural change requirements of agile dictate the scaling speed. Rapid change is always an upheaval, but, that said, it will be necessary or even positive choice for some. Organizations that ignore agile in an aggressive market may eventually be faced with little choice but to adapt quickly or lose out to savvy competitors. Others may see huge competitive advantage as worthy of the risks of jumping right in with a big-bang approach.

When organizations adopt agile methodologies correctly, they can expect increased productivity and reduced costs through faster product delivery. But perhaps most important, they can expect better outcomes for the enterprise. There will be challenges, such as supporting an effective cultural change and facilitating collaboration between business and technical people but pairing the agile methodology with a low-code platform can provide a common environment for interaction and for working together to iteratively develop solutions to meet evolving needs.

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