Scaling Agile: A Law And Two Paradoxes

Scaling Agile is all the rage nowadays. Apparently many, mostly big, companies have “big projects” that need plenty of people to be developed, and they want to do that in an Agile fashion in order to reap the benefits of quick feedback and responding to change, but on a grander scale. At least, this is the official reason. The real reasons, in my experience, are closer to “do more in less time”. But that’s another story—here, instead, I want to share an empirical law and two paradoxes I discovered while working in large scale software projects, and then provide some anecdotal (i.e., based on my experience) justification for them.

Fundamental law of scaling: Scaling up amplifies the bad and makes the good more difficult.

First paradox of scaling: Most projects are scaled up because they don’t fulfil the prerequisites for scaling.

Second paradox of scaling: Projects fulfilling the prerequisites for scaling have a lesser need to scale.

Before explaining the law and the two paradoxes above, here is why I think I can claim some expertise. In the last few years, I’ve been hired as:

  1. Contract developer and Agile coach on several projects involving at least 4-5 teams
  2. Methodology consultant, coach and mentor (both for teams and management) on one project involving 10 teams with ~100 developers and testers and on another involving ~80 geographically distributed teams with ~700 developers
  3. Project reviewer with the task of giving some recommendations on how to (or not to) scale up in one project involving more than 1000 developers organised in more than 100 geographically distributed teams

Interestingly, despite the difference in size, all projects above had remarkably similar issues—e.g., lack of communication, lack of shared goals, lack of synchronisation, etc.—which required similar solutions (none of them involving the use of any of the scaled agile frameworks currently available on the market).

Now, let me explain the law and the two paradoxes.

The fundamental law of scaling will be obvious after you read the following definitions of “bad” and “good” in the context of the law of scaling.

The “bad” represents any problems of any kind that negatively impact the project—e.g., technical debt, lack of communication, bad management, bad planning, bottlenecks, etc. As the number of people and teams grows the impact of those problems will become bigger, making the situation increasingly difficult (end expensive) to sustain.

The “good” represents the activities that make the project run smoothly—e.g., proper planning, automation, prioritisation, appropriate architecture and design, managing technical debt to keep it low, clear communication, high visibility, continuous delivery, etc. As the number of people and teams grows, performing those activities properly will become increasingly difficult. If that was not enough, some of those activities will require fundamental changes—e.g., planning for one team is quite different to planning for two or more (or 120)—for which people may not be prepared.

Now, let’s have a look at the paradoxes. In them I mentioned some prerequisites for scaling. Here they are:

  1. Clear shared goals—without these, people pull in different directions and there will be little or no progress
  2. High quality standards and the ability to deal effectively with technical debt—if the quality is low to start with, things will only get worse as the number of people and teams grows
  3. An architecture suitable for scaling—without it the teams will interfere with each other, resulting in slower progress and more defects
  4. Availability of hardware and software resources. Lack of resources is a common and serious bottleneck
  5. Plenty of efficient and effective automation—any manual activity has the potential to become a major bottleneck in the presence of many teams (e.g., manual testing)
  6. Effective and efficient communication channels—e.g., face to face chats, information radiators, etc. With more people, there will be more communication channels and an increased need for visibility and synchronisation
  7. People with the necessary management and technical skills—managing a single-team project is quite different from managing a multiple-teams one. Likewise, a multi-team project requires developers to improve their design, coding, and infrastructure skills
  8. Appropriate metrics in place to measure productivity and quality and other interesting aspects of the project. Without them it will be impossible to decide if scaling up was a good idea or not
  9. The ability of creating good user stories with a clear description of what is needed, and clear and crisp acceptance criteria. Bad user stories, in my experience, are one of the main causes of pain, defects, misunderstandings, and wastes of time
  10. Very good prioritisation and planning skills—they are very important for single-team projects, even more so for multiple-team ones. In particular, multiple-teams projects behave very similarly to concurrent distributed systems—therefore planning activities need to keep into account that the teams will often be out-of-sync with each other, in order to avoid nasty surprises

Let’s now have a look at how the first paradox of scaling works. When one or more of the above prerequisites is not fulfilled, the result is that the team (or teams) involved will be perceived as “slow”. In that scenario, the typical reaction of management, in most companies I’ve worked with, is to increase the number of people or teams—usually without even asking the teams already on the project—and make a bad situation worse. I’ve seen this behaviour even in situations where point 8. above was satisfied—for some reasons, managers wouldn’t look at the available data and would act based on their “past experience” instead.

As far as the second paradox of scaling is concerned, my experience is that, teams that are good at all ten points above are already fast enough that even thinking of scaling never becomes an issue. Or, if the number of requirements goes up to an unsustainable level, take some actions to solve or mitigate the issue, e.g., prioritise requirements, and bin low priority ones, more ruthlessly. In other terms, they will try to improve the way they work to avoid scaling up until it becomes really necessary.

This is the first in a series of posts about large scale Agile development. In the next post I’ll assume all the prerequisites above are fulfilled, and show how to decide if the project can be scaled-up or not.

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