More on Scaling Agile

One problem with having multiple teams working on the same project will be the tendency to compare the teams’ performance. Why is this a problem?


Why Not Compare Team Performance?

One of the main reasons is that the teams need to be collaborating not competing. There can be a small amount of friendly competition that might come naturally, but as soon as management starts paying attention to differences in team performance, the competition starts to get serious.

In the case of multiple teams working on the same project, the goal should be to maximize overall performance, not individual team performance. Too much competition can lead to unintentional or deliberate sabotage: failed communication, incomplete communication and downright dishonesty.

Motivating Teams without Comparing Them!

As Mary Poppendieck has written, measure up [pdf]. In a single-team situation this means that individuals are measured and rewarded based on team performance (their sphere of influence). In a multi-team environment, that means that the group of teams should be measured as a group and compensated as a group. This will encourage all teams to work towards the success of the overall project. I personally believe there is some room for individual-based compensation, but the way it is handled needs to be done so that it does not encourage sub-optimal behavior.

As well, each team can keep track of their velocity. Some coaches recommend using “ideal hours” or some other units to determine velocity (velocity = estimated work remaining completed / iteration). The trouble with doing this with multiple teams is that there will be a very real tendency to want to compare each team’s velocity. Since velocity is a useful measure for team capacity, it is important to still have a way to measure it. One simple way to do this to prevent comparison is to use different units for each team. Team One might be measuring velocity in Estimated Ping Pong Balls Completed / Iteration… Team Two in Estimated Bananas Completed / Iteration… Team Three in Estimated Bogo-MIPS Completed / Iteration… etc. etc.

Motivating Collaboration

First off, management must make visible commitments to eliminating barriers to collaboration. For example, it is a great sign of commitment to re-organize office spaces so that all the teams are sitting near to each other. Every time the Process Facilitator identifies an obstacle that relates to collaboration (tools, process, physical environment, etc.) management should get right on it and fix it.

An ongoing investment in team-building training, workshops and exercises is also helpful. This type of investment helps people gain the skills necessary to work effectively with other people. Again, individuals need to see and believe that management cares about and values teams.

Finally, one of my pet peeves: when a project is over, keep the team together! Do not break them up and redistribute your “resources” to other efforts. The value of those people working together is substantial. The value of those people working together as a high-performance team is incredible! In a multi-team situation, it is reasonable to take teams from the overall group and re-distribute their efforts… but just don’t break up the individual teams.


Miscellaneous Notes on Scaling Agile:Twelve is still the maximum recommended size for a single agile team. Seven is really the sweet spot. A team larger than twelve people just takes too long to get into the Performing stage of team development. If you feel like your project needs more than twelve people actively involved, then you probably want to split into two or more teams… and then you have “scaled” agile.If you have three teams of five people (or some similar configuration of people just over the 12 person limit), then they will work as a very close-knit group and a lot of the time will act as if they were a single team. They will probably plan iterations and do demos and retrospectives together.

Twelve teams working on the same project at once is about the maximum number before communication overhead is slowing everyone down too much. This is largely a factor of trust: with 150 or fewer people involved in an effort, it is possible for everyone to know everyone. More than that many people and it is no longer possible. Trust is just not an option anymore and bureaucratic controls take over.

If for some reason you need to do something in a small amount of time and you think it’s going to take more than twelve teams of twelve people…? Break the effort into smaller chunks. Divide and conquer. Division can be across functional areas, structural areas or time.

Although I have heard of agile methods being used with groups larger than this, I haven’t heard any success stories ­čÖé

Check out my earlier introductory article on Scaling Agile in a large project situation.


Dean Leffingwell has an article about practices needed for scaled-up efforts at the Agile Journal. I glanced through it, but I admit that after I disagreed with his very first point (Intentional Architecture), I started to pay less attention.He claims that refactoring of large systems is not possible (or at least infeasible). The odd thing is, most large projects that I have been involved with are being done exactly because an old system is not refactorable. A large telecom system, a large insurance system, a large data warehouse and a large GIS system are all being done with scaled up agile methods exactly because the old systems that are currently in place have become ossified to the point where they must be replaced.These old systems were originally built with phase-based development approaches. At some point, people stopped refactoring because they were not given the space to do so. This drop in code quality turned into technical debt. The technical debt accumulated to the point where it was unbearable (maintenance costs, cost of change, etc.).

The problem with intentional architecture is that it goes back to the old assumption that you can do a good design for a system without the constant feedback from review, deployment and use done on a very short cycle time. Over and over, we are faced with the painful consequences of this attitude, and that is one of the key reasons we started to work with agile methods in the first place.


Martin Fowler makes a good case that scaling agile is the last thing you should do. I don’t disagree! Scale your agile teams at your own risk!It’s nice for me to be able to say that I’ve worked on some agile projects over $10,000,000 in size, but the fact is that the cost could have been reduced substantially if the team size was lowered and the deadline extended. It is (relatively) simple to do a cost/benefit analysis of cross-team-coordination-overhead vs. the time value of early delivery of more functionality… although I’ve never seen anyone do it! If you know of an example of an organization doing this in a realistic way, I’d love to hear about it!


Are there other ways of supporting cross-team collaboration that you have seen?


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