Scaled Agile Frameworks: Do we need them?
I am currently working for several large customers who are trying to improve their agile capability. They are looking to take their agile up a level, having had lots of local successes.
They want agile to work in a global context where they are consistent across the whole organisation. Most importantly they are leveraging agile and agile ways of working at scale.
Scaled agile frameworks
As part of several discussions with these organisations, and the research being done by them, I have been quite surprised by the abundance of scaled agile frameworks now available.
Many of these have grown up in the last few years with the intention to help you scale agile. It seems that everywhere I go on the web these days there is a framework that will solve all our agile problems!
Define the problem
But what exactly is the problem that these frameworks are trying to solve? Are they trying to solve a problem that has already been solved?
Solution delivery and project management
I may be oversimplifying things here, but I believe that most of these agile scaling frameworks are trying to use techniques that are good at solution delivery and use them as a substitute for agile project management.
The problem though is that project management isn’t the same as solution delivery. Project management is trying to do something different from solution deliver. It also has a different set of needs. I don’t think we should be looking to manage programmes and complex projects with ‘giant to-do lists’!
The most popular agile approach today by far is Scrum. Scrum is quite simply a team-based approach to working through a backlog of features.
However, what about multi-team situations or dispersed teams? What about strategic alignment and projects with fixed deadlines? What about compliance issues?
There’s a long list of questions to answer and the agile techniques that work in a small-scale delivery context are not likely in my opinion to be the answer in a large-scale real-world context.
Big versions of scrum
This is where I think the problem lies with several of these frameworks that are, if you like, big versions of Scrum and are trying to give Scrum-like solutions to problems that actually Scrum is not designed to sort out.
This is not a problem with Scrum in itself, in fact quite the opposite. Scrum is very good at the solution delivery level because that is where it is aimed at and that is what it was built for!
You need control at scale
To get agile to work in the real world and to work at scale we need structure and discipline that helps us to stay in control in imperfect situations and in complex situations. Scrum doesn’t have this.
Programme and portfolio needs
If ‘big versions of Scrum’ aren’t the answer to real world project needs at the programme and portfolio levels, then what is the answer?
The answer I believe already exists and I think this will surprise most people particularly in the agile community and particularly amongst agile purists.
The fact that agile is different in many respects to traditional thinking is certainly true but is there really need to reinvent the wheel? Why don’t we just look at decades of tried and tested thinking that has already been used to address complex situations? Do we really need to build something new?
DSDM agile framework
I am referring to things such as the DSDM framework which has been around since the mid-90s and has always focused on both the project needs in an agile context as well as the needs of solution delivery. It can be used ‘standalone’ or it can be used to complement Scrum. It’s quite happy in either setting but again we don’t need to reinvent anything.
So my view is that if you are using Scrum ‘at the coalface’ to deliver solutions but are looking to add layers of project management and governance around it without losing that agile feel and mindset then help is already at hand. Further to this you also get a controlled start (sometimes referred to as ‘up-front’ work).
A good test of how scalable an organisation’s agile has become is to look at how well defined the early stage of a project is. A classic error here is to just use the first part of a traditional waterfall approach – I often find that a cocktail for many problems down the line.
So quite simply – if you are using Scrum, wrap it with DSDM and off you go to addressing the needs of large scale agile.
Agile Project Management (AgilePM)
I am not sure how well known this fact is but the DSDM framework is the basis for the Agile Project Management qualification (AgilePM) by the APMG.
Agile at scale
AgilePM is currently the fastest-growing agile project management qualification globally. By the end of 2020, more than 150,000 professional AgilePM exams had been sat worldwide.
In today’s marketplace people are updating their CVs with modern and relevant qualifications. With AgilePM, people can embrace this new wave of agile, or more accurately as I call it, the second wave of agile i.e. agile at scale.
The case for agile at solution delivery has clearly been made; the next big step for agile is to make its case on large-scale and complex projects.
There is nothing wrong with Scrum so we don’t need to replace it. There is nothing wrong with scaled up frameworks like DSDM so let’s not replace this either! Play to the strengths of both and create a blend that suits your own organisation.