McKinsey: What are some successful strategies that have worked to actually scale agile?
Scott Richardson: To start with, I recommend a central Agile CoE (center of excellence). Everyone brings their own flavor of agile to the table, and arbitrary differences can slow you down in the early days of a transformation. The CoE is useful in standardizing vocabulary, best practices, etc., to bring a useful level of consistency. Central seed funding is also helpful, as it’s often necessary to bring in expert coaches to jumpstart the process, and most local groups don’t have the means to fund their own coaches. The CoE can share the coaches across the organization until such time as the gains from effective agile practices can self-fund the program on a broader scale.
The CoE also plays an essential role in establishing training programs and assessing organizational maturity with agile, and it can provide important guidance on more substantial changes, such as revising an existing SDLC (systems development life cycle).
I like the approach of starting small—one to three teams, with the right leaders and people— because this allows you to focus your energies on getting it right. It’s very important that the early teams are successful, because they become beacons that attract others and prove that it can work here. Also, with the early teams you will encounter difficult organizational issues, and it’s important to overcome many of them early on, because subsequent teams won’t fare well until you clear the big boulders from the road.
Another key to scaling is creating two communities of champions. At the lower to middle level, local champions can learn from each other’s experiences and build off each other’s energy and best practices. This is a very productive way to shift the local culture and encourage self-sufficiency in overcoming hurdles. But you also need champions at the executive level. You need executives to promote it actively in their areas. This is what ultimately moves the late adopters.
One simple technique for creating executive champions is for the CIO or other top executive to track one simple metric: the number of agile teams per division or business unit. You’ll find that if a C-level executive reports on this in the monthly business review, it won’t be long before the divisional or business unit leaders naturally compete to have the most agile teams. That kind of productive peer pressure creates a real incentive to drive change.
McKinsey: Who needs to drive an agile transformation?
Scott Richardson: There is debate in the industry about whether you’re better off driving an agile transformation from the bottom-up (activity on the front lines) or from the top-down (upper management steers the process). I’ve always found that both are required.
Bottom up requires local leadership on the ground and teams that are forward-leaning and energetic. But that will only get you so far, because ultimately they will run into the broader constraints that exist within the rest of the organization, which are beyond their ability to change. And people won’t overtly oppose an agile program, but you’ll frequently encounter passive opposition, especially in the middle ranks.
To work through this, you absolutely need top-down support at the highest levels to achieve broad and lasting change. This often doesn’t require much more than a public endorsement at first. Then as you begin to scale, the continued clear, public, top-level support creates an environment where agile is allowed, encouraged, and inescapable.
McKinsey: How did you select your early agile teams?
Scott Richardson: Creating a new team is probably the most important thing managers can do, so make sure you get it right. When we created our initial agile teams, I was personally involved with structuring them and selecting team members. It might sound crazy to get so involved in this level of detail, but it is critical that the early teams become true beacons for success.
I led the management team through a series of discussions about the team’s business objectives, scope of work, and what cross-functional skills were needed. We chose people with the right mix of skills, seniority, attitude, etc. We created teams that were set up for success. By the fourth or fifth team, my direct reports knew what questions to ask and how to structure a proper team, and they could scale up on their own from that point forward.
I’ve seen environments where teams were formed based on whoever was available or was on the last waterfall project, and most often it didn’t lead to success. The teams had to be reshaped within a couple of months.
As a leader, it’s important to model the right behaviors early on as well, such as paying attention to what’s important, ceding authority and responsibility to those doing the work, teaching people to be self-sufficient, and stepping out and letting go from there. But being active in the early days is very important.