Supporting organisations with both Agility and Scale needs takes empathy and understanding of both. ‘Pure’ advice from either context is unlikely to be sufficiently sensitive to be effective.

Imagine this scenario…

You’re working as a Lean/Agile coach in a smallish organisation. The organisation delivers business value quickly and efficiently, and software is a significant contributor to that success story.

So the organisation grows. And gets a public name for itself.

And while it still develops many new products in a Lean Startup experimental way, the various markets (customer, supplier, employment, stock) that it operates in have expectations that some of these products are going to grow and be the revenue sources that fund the rest of the business. The Stars and Cash Cows in the traditional Boston Consulting Matrix. Because that matrix is relative, and even in a fast growing energetic market, there are some cash cows. Think of the MarioKart franchise for example. Or EA Games’ upcoming titles for the World Cup, and the 2014/15 English Premiership football.

Because of the visibility, and the urge in your competitors to kill you just to watch you die, these are high stakes games. The risk of failure in the marketplace has now shifted from are we building the right thing? to are we building the thing right?

To support these cash cows, you turn around and your 20 person company is now hundreds of people. And while there are many single pizza sized teams, there are some of 15+ people, building things that take a while, or need to be constantly flowing updates, and it needs to be of very high quality on day 1. And this is so even if you can drop new versions to the web or an App Store on a daily basis and can rapidly respond to problems.

So even if most of your output by volume is still Lean Startup Safe-to-Fail, the rest is too significant in revenue to avoid realising there is enough risk involved to make risk avoidance and mitigation a strategic priority.

This is the point at which you realise all those Big Company people aren’t entirely stupid. That process and planning can have value beyond simply having it and ticking boxes. So you start hiring operations people who know how to build out and manage high resilience and availability systems under load.

But most of those people come from traditional companies. They don’t (yet) understand that they’re not simply recreating a traditional banking or telco infrastructure. And if you are primarily hiring ‘doers’ then you’ll have a lot of people used to following process without necessarily understanding the contextual drivers of those processes. It’s the difference between the strong CMMI3 the process is what we do compliance mindset and the CMMI5 the process is what we do today, until we find a better way one.

It gets worse…

As part of this shift, there are a bunch of change consultants and new delivery executives in. They look at how delivery happens and happen upon a network of people who seem to add no value. They certainly don’t actually produce anything tangible as external outputs, but they give themselves self-aggrandising titles. So now you’re looking for a new job.

What Do You Conclude?

Well, you can come to one of two conclusions.

1. The Strategy is Wrong

Growing from the 20 person company was a dumb idea. The company operates well as a rapidly iterating incubator of ideas before selling them on to realise the value.

This is a perfectly valid argument. And may even be correct in your own fictitious context. Unfortunately, unless you’re also the CEO, this ship has sailed. Not everyone makes this strategy choice (and it is a choice). Growing is also valid, but requires different things. As the context changes, so do the operational constraints.

2. The Execution is Wrong

This is more likely. The transition seems to be happening without understanding the original context, and is trying to impose an entirely different set of assumptions from a different context that — if unamended — will break what’s already there while introducing a not-particularly-effective copy of what was done in a different context.

And those doing it are absolutely and honestly convinced that their way is the only right way to do it, because it’s worked very well other organisations to answer the challenges they were set here: control, structure, reliability, risk reduction.

So far, so familiar

Many Lean/Agile people reading this will be nodding along, perhaps with a little wry smile at having seen this a few times. Honestly, those people. They don’t understand our world at all.

Here’s the kicker:

Reverse the scenario

Every time you look at a large organisation, rooted in a world of risk reduction and high expectations, that realises it needs to be faster to realise value, more flexible in uncertainty. And you think something like All they need is… [insert Agile method of choice here] without simultaneously and empathetically thinking I wonder what different needs they have because of where they’re coming from? you’re exactly like the change consultants and delivery executives of my story.

It’s almost certain that any method grounded in assumptions of small, self-contained teams is going to struggle to understand the world of programme-sized delivery across multiple independent arms of an enterprise. And arguing you shouldn’t do that in any context you don’t intimately know is a good way to be shown the door before you’ve made your pitch. Assuming you got a meeting in the first place if your history is one of open derision of the needs and practises of your customer.

Many organisations have balanced needs for Agility and Control. Very few organisations are born with both, so most of them will be moving in one direction or the other (and possibly over time, it’ll be a pendulum until balance is found).

No matter which direction the organisation is moving, effectively making the change will take deep empathy and understanding of both ways of working to be able to sensitively introduce change that meets the needs of its context.

Postscript

Seeing organisations taking their life in their hands and making a step out into the unknown, away from their comfort zone is an incredibly exciting place to work. But it takes a great deal of empathy and willingness to get your hands dirty and work alongside them.

This is of course the Leo McGarry scenario:

This guy’s walkin’ down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.

A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, Hey you! Can you help me out? The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole, and moves on.

Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, Father, I’m down in this hole; can you help me out? The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then a friend walks by. Hey, Joe, it’s me. Can ya help me out? And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, Are ya stupid? Now we’re both down here. The friend says, Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.

Leo McGarry, in The West Wing

Some people think I should apologise for that. Some call me names for even wanting to try.

I’m not prepared to give up that easily.

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Martin Burns

Transformation Consultant at CA Inc (formerly Rally)
Previously: Leader of software delivery portfolios in large scale orgs.
Specialism: Transforming complex delivery organisations to be more Lean/Agile.
Mindset: Continuous Improvement Obsessive
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