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Scaling Agile with Set-Based Design

I wrote a while back about set-based design, and just recently about a way to frame scaling Agile as a mostly technical consideration. In this post I want to continue with those themes, combining them in a model for scaled agile for production and research.

Scale

In the previous post, we found that we can view scale as a function of the possibilities for functional decomposition, facilitated by a strong focus on communication through code (customer tests, developer tests, simple design, etc.)

This will result in a situation where we have different teams working on different feature-areas of a product. In many cases there will be multiple teams working within one feature area, which can again be facilitated through application of well known design principles, and shared code ownership.

None of this is very new, and can be put squarely in the corner of the Feature Team way of working. It’s distinguished mainly by a strong focus on communication at the technical level, and using all the tools we have available for that this can scale quite well.

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Innovation

The whole thing starts getting interesting when we combine this sort of set-up with the ideas from set-based thinking to allow multiple teams to provide separate implementations of a given feature that we’d like to have. One could be working on a minimum viable version of the feature, ensuring we have a version that we can get in production as quickly as possible. Another team could be working on another version, that provides many more advantages but also has more risk due to unknown technologies, necessary outside contact, etc.

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This parallel view on distributing risk and innovation has many advantages over a more serial approach. It allows for an optimal use of a large development organization, with high priority items not just picked up first, but with multiple paths being worked on simultaneously to limit risk and optimize value delivered.

Again, though, this is only possible if the technical design of the system allows it. To effectively work like this we need loosely coupled systems, and agreed upon APIs. We need feature toggles. We need easy, automated deployment to test the different options separately.

Pushing Innovation Down

But even with all this, we still have an obvious bottleneck in communication between the business and the development teams. We are also limiting the potential contributors to innovation by the top-down structure of product owner filling a product backlog.

Even most agile projects have a fairly linear look on features and priorities. Working from a story map is a good first step in getting away from that. But to really start reaping the benefits of your organisation’s capacity for innovation, one has to take a step back and let go of some control.

The way to do that is by making very clear what the goals for the organisation are, and for larger organisations what the goals for the product/project are. Make those goals measurable, and find a way to measure frequently. Then we can get to the situation below, where teams define their own features, work on them, and verify themselves whether those features indeed support the stated goals. (see also ‘Actionable Metrics at Organisational Scale‘, and ‘On Effect Mapping and Pirate Metrics‘)

set_based_design_image_3This requires, on top of all the technical supporting practices already mentioned, that the knowledge of the business and the contact with the user/customer is embedded within the team. For larger audiences, validation of the hypothesis (that this particular, minimum viable, feature indeed serves the stated goals), will need to be A/B tested. That requires a yet more advanced infrastructural setup.

All this ties together into the type of network organisations that we’ve discussed before. And this requires a lot of technical and business discipline. No one ever said it was going to be easy.

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