Agile at Large is largely unmapped territory, being explored by pioneers and pilgrims. If you want to join them, beware remote armchair theorists with their Can’t and Mustn’t fearmongering, telling you you’re wrong for even trying. Talk to practitioners instead to understand their journey.

Have you ever been on a day-hike? Or climbed a good sized hill? If it’s not something you do regularly, you’ll ask around and find lots of good advice from friends. Take water. Wear good shoes. Take a map, and take this route.

Now imagine that you’re going to walk half way around the world. And all you’ve heard is that it’s full of strange people who do things very differently to you. And there are no comprehensive maps. Some of those same friends will tell you you’re crazy to try. If they’re polite. Or sneer at you for wanting to go, because People Like You shouldn’t until you’ve already been on three such journeys, or that in their mighty opinion, that destination is A Bad Place where only the evil go.

This is where you find out who the people are who actually want to help you, rather than demonstrate just how clever they are.

Organisations working at scale have a different set of needs and constraints to startups and small organisations. Their response to complexity and risk is necessarily going to be different to that of small and greenfield organisations, and telling them that they need to burn everything that got them to their historic size and success level is unlikely to be useful or welcome advice.

For such organisations, traditional team-level Agile approaches are unlikely to be sufficient. But there is no single, universally accepted model of how to be, or how to get there to fill in the gaps where programmes and investment portfolios traditionally sit to manage risk.

Agile at Large is truly off the map, and in an age of explorers, pioneers and pilgrims.

If your journey is off the map, the only way to know for sure is to set off. But you might find it helpful to talk to people who have been on that journey before. If you’re lucky, they’ll come with you as a guide, knowing that they’ll be improvising with only a bit more experience than you have. Or they’ll put together some descriptions and a little sketch map for you.

Strip Map of St David's Pilgrimage: Emanuel Bowen, 1720. Source.

Strip Map of St David’s Pilgrimage: Emanuel Bowen, 1720.
Source.

There is also exhilarating footage of young Balian making his way to Jerusalem, using the 12th-century equivalent of GPS: Go to where they speak Italian, and then keep going.

Roger Ebert, on crusades movie, Kingdom of Heaven

This is what early pilgrims and pioneers were facing as they journeyed across countries and continents. All the earliest maps of unfamiliar territories were strip maps, simply showing what a previous traveller (or several) had seen along the way, to give you some confidence that you’re traversing similar territory, and that’s true from Mediaeval times to the 19th Century Oregon Trail and beyond.

So your alternatives are (in descending order of usefulness in successfully making your journey):

  1. A guide who’s been on pilgrimage before (ideally in the same area)
  2. Traveller’s journals and strip maps
  3. Anecdotes
  4. Well intentioned general walking advice (shoes, water etc) from day hikers
  5. FUD from armchair theorists and day hikers

Bootnote

Thanks to Chris Matts for the ‘Off the Map‘ image that this expands on.

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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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