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Can agile scale and does it matter?

Matthew Heusser | Jan. 20, 2016
Most of the literature on scaling addresses overcoming objections and how best to do it. Matthew Heusser posits that ‘Does agile scale?’ is simply asking the wrong question.

Google, Facebook and Spotify all grew incredibly quickly and need to coordinate massive numbers of people. Spotify has been loud and public about building engineering culture, while Google and Facebook have quietly moved to tens of thousands of employees, some large percentage of them in software delivery. None of them seem to struggle with "going agile" or "doing agile." One reason why: They all started without any hierarchy (outside the founders), which is the real problem. 

Big companies have layers and layers of people who have been promoted out of technology. Architects, analysts, managers and directors of a specific discipline. If we change to teams of teams, what do we do with the managers? 

The managers are threatened. To them, agile looks like a lose-lose proposition. In an agile conversion, for a manager to go back to technical work, or even mere product management, is to lose face. To try to stick to line management probably means to lose their job. At most large companies, organizational inertia – the hierarchy itself – is self-perpetuating, preventing any significant change. 

A little perspective on managing change 

Just as the personal computer threatened the mainframe, streaming music threatened the CD business and Uber threatens the traditional taxi, a real agile adoption threatens whatever came before it. This isn't a new idea. Clayton Christensen explained it in his groundbreaking book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, as the reason that most innovation tends to come from outside established companies. Those that work in the company face strong incentives to add to the existing line of business, as success with the new idea will make the old structure obsolete. This will work just fine, according to Christensen, until someone from outside happens on the innovation. When that happens, the company may face a crisis that can force a change. 

Agile methods, on the other hand, offer only to improve the speed and value of IT services. While that might work for a software company, established companies with existing offerings, like automobiles, financial services and insurance won't face a crisis for ignoring a change. They can simply over-pay for their IT, which will be a little less responsive. As Hseih pointed out, they probably will anyway. 

Without management support at multiple layers, the best an agile initiative can do is to improve delivery within a few groups. But that itself is nothing to sneeze at. When Tom West was assigned a small team to improve Data General's processors while a much larger, ambitious team was going to develop the next generation, West's team ("Project Eagle") actually got it done, producing the Eclipse MV/8000. The story, documented in The Soul of a New Machine, earned Tracy Kidder a Pulitzer Prize. 


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