There’s a lot of discussion in the Agile community on the matter of scaling agile. Should we all adopt Dean Leffingwell’s Scaled Agile Framework? Do the Spotify tribe/squad thing? Or just roll our own? Or is Ron Jeffries’ intuition right, and do the terms scaling and agile simply not mix?
Ron’s stance seems to be that many of Agile’s principles simply don’t apply at scale. Or apply in the same way, so why act differently at scale? That might be true, but might also be a little too abstract to be of much use to most people running into questions when they start working with more than one team on a codebase.
Time and relative dimension in space
When Ron and Chet came around to our office last week, Chet mentioned that he was playing around with the analogy of coordination in time (as opposed to cross-team) when thinking about scaling. This immediately brought things into a new perspective for me, and I thought I’d share that here.
If we have a single team that will be working on a product/project for five years, how are they going to ensure that the team working on it now communicates what is important to the team that is working on it three, four or five years from now?
Now that is a question we can easily understand. We know what it takes to write software that is maintainable, changeable, self-documenting. We know how to write requirements that become executable, living documentation. We know how to write tests that run through continuous integration. We even know how to write deployment manifests that control the whole production environment to give us continuous deployment.
So why would this be any different when instead of one team working five years on the same product, we have five teams working for one year?
This break in this post is intentionally left blank to allow you to think that over.
This way of looking at the problem simplifies the matter considerably, doesn’t it? I have found repeatedly that there are more technical problems in scaling (and agile adoption in general) than organizational ones. Of course, very often the technical problems are caused by the organizational ones, but putting them central to the question of scaling might actually help re-frame the discussions on a management level in a very positive way.
But getting back to the question: what would be the difference?
Let’s imagine a well constructed Agile project. We have an inception where the purpose of the product is clearly communicated by the customer/PO. We sketch a rough idea of architecture and features together. We make sure we understand enough of the most important features to split off a minimum viable version of it, perhaps using a story map. We start the first sprint with a walking skeleton of the product. We build up the product by starting with the minimal versions of a couple of features. We continue working on the different features later, extending them to more luxurious versions based on customer preference.
As long as the product is still fairly well contained, this would be exactly the same when we are with a few teams. We’d have come to a general agreement on design early on, and would talk when a larger change comes up. Continuous integration will take care of much of the lower level coordination, with our customer tests and unit testing providing context.
One area does become more explicit: dependencies. Where the single team would automatically handle dependencies in time by influencing prioritization, the multiple teams would need to have a commonly agreed (and preferably commonly built) interface in existence before they could be working on some features in parallel. This isn’t really different from the single-team version above, where the walking skeleton/minimal viable feature version would also happen before further work. But it would be felt as something needing some special attention, and cooperation between teams.
If we put these technical considerations central, that resolves a number of issues in scaling. It could also allow for a much better risk / profit trade-offs by integrating this approach with a set-based approach to projects. But I’ll leave that for a future post.