Scaling Agile Projects

More and more, organizations are applying agile methods to large projects or efforts that require more than a single team. There are three dimensions or concerns of coordination. It is critical that all three be addressed, but there are many ways of addressing them. Here I will simply list these three types of coordination and make some simple suggestions of how to implement them.


I have now had the opportunity to work with several clients where they are applying agile methods to projects with budgets that are greater than $10,000,000. All of them are using multiple teams to work on the same overall project/program. Out of this experience (along with some good reading along the way), I have come to understand that the following three types of coordination are the essential ones:

Value

In order to maintain the “early and frequent” delivery of value that agile methods propose, it is important that the work of the effort be coordinated to maximize early delivery of value. From this perspective, there are often many cooks in the kitchen. I have seen a “Product Owner Team”, a “Customer Team”, and a number of variations of this type. In order to do the coordination work effectively, it is still necessary to make sure of two things:

  1. Maintain a single Work Queue that prioritizes the work and from which all the teams select items.
  2. Have a single person in the “buck stops here” role who can make final binding decisions about work priority and content.

These two items have some implications for the organization.

First, the teams must be organized to be generalist: each team should be able to handle any item on the Work Queue. Not every team is going to be equal in abilities and this can be accomodated in a number of ways. My favorite so far comes from an excellent agile coach Dave West who suggested that teams bid on the items in the Work Queue at the start of each iteration. This should be done in a collaborative fashion so that it isn’t just a simple low-bid-gets-the-work, but rather the teams learn from each other and have an opportunity to adjust their bids.

The second implication is that the customer or product team (Queue Master) must have the availability to support multiple teams in a timely fashion. Ideally, there are individuals on each team who can make judgement calls about features, functionality, constraints etc. on the work and provide quick answers to questions. This is not always easy since the people doing this often have a special area of expertise and it is difficult for them to work outside this area. Just as team members are asked to become generalizing specialists, so must the people who are responsible for determining value in a project.

Process

An agile process endeavors to provide a minimally structured way to do three things: deliver value early, then learn about what is high in value and deliver that more, and finally, learn how to deliver value more effectively.

That third activity, learning how to deliver value more effectively, is facilitated by the Process Facilitator. The Process Facilitator keeps a visible list of obstacles and works collaboratively with the Team and the Stakeholders to resolve obstacles on the list.

In a multi-team environment, there may be a single Process Facilitator working with each team. Like with the Work Queue, it is often necessary to have a single Record of Obstacles for the entire project.

Technique

People develop skill and knowledge in the use of their tools. Most types of work have a special vocabularly that only makes sense to other people also doing that work. For example, the field of computer programming has programming languages, integrated development environments, build tools, testing tools, algorithms, and a host of other techniques. The field of film-making has cameras, film, directorial techniques, lighting, story structure, it’s own esoteric vocabulary, and other techniques. Likewise for construction, law, medicine, drama, education, etc. etc. etc.

In a large Agile Work project, teams need a way to coordinate their technique to produce integrated, consistent and compatible results. As well, individuals on the teams may discover or create new ways of doing things that would be valuable for the other teams to know about and use.

The most effective way of coordinating technique across teams is for strong members of each team to gather regularly to review the way work is being done. This “technical support group” can look at tools, reuse, automation, patterns, vocabularly and any other “how to” aspects of the work. It is critical that these people are actively involved in work being done on a delivery team so that efforts of the technical support group do not become academic or “ivory tower”.

In certain environments, it may be useful to have this techincal support group become a team with a clear allocation of time apart from the regular delivery teams. In this case, this technical support team would have its own Work Queue that consisted of requests, ideas, concerns, and opportunities presented by the regular delivery teams.


I have seen all three aspects of coordination implemented in large multi-team projects. Some of the common challenges include:

  1. Generalist Teams.
    It is difficult enough to create cross-functional teams where people are willing to become generalizing specialists. While it is important to create generalist teams, most organizations should expect to set up non-ideal specialist teams (sometimes by line-of-business) and support their development into generalist teams.
  2. Technical Coordination.
    Often organizations have a design or technical review group composed of the “experts”. These people are often isolated from the actual work being performed by the teams. It is difficult, yet critical, that these people actually be involved in day-to-day work on the teams.

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