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7 challenges when scaling Agile. Our recommendations.

Back in mid-2019 we published an article addressing 5 ways to overcome challenges in scaling Agile.  Understandably, much has happened since then, so we wanted to revisit this topic and add a couple more.

With the global pandemic, and increased uncertainty, we take a look with a new perspective at challenging engagements, and how to address them.  Sometimes, it could be the client that is the challenge, then other times, it’s outside forces that present themselves.   As you will see, sometimes it’s both.

Consultants need to understand, empathise, and work with organisations to understand the root cause to overcome these challenges.

Back in 2019, these were the five recommendations to overcome key challenges:

  1. Empower decision makers
  2. Change Behaviours
  3. Provide Agile coaching to leadership stakeholders
  4. Build cross-functional teams
  5. Learn new skills in work process

Let’s quickly review the five challenges that precipitated these outcomes:

Challenge #1. Leadership unable to give up traditional control.

Agile requires empowered decision makers at the team level, so if leadership is unable to give up traditional control they will slow teams down. To make this shift easier, we must focus on alignment and transparency to build trust between teams and leadership. With trust in place, leaders are more comfortable in empowering their teams.

Challenge #2.   Not changing behaviours.

After years of being told what to do, the gap towards autonomy becomes hard to bridge. Autonomy is first given through empowerment and trust. It is the role of the newly appointed Product Owner to learn to focus on guiding, as opposed to doing, and supporting the teams in finding their own solutions.

Challenge #3.  Leaders focused on traditional success metrics.

Management typically focuses on internal success measures like cost savings, time savings, process improvement, and a slew of other traditional metrics, when they should be focused externally on driving valuable customer outcomes.

We want to build the right things, not build the wrong things faster.

Challenge #4.   Silo’d teams.

Organisational structures that create silos between functional areas of the business make it more difficult to collaborate and improve speed to market. If we continuously need to hand off work to other teams we are slowed down by queues (backlogs) and prioritisation conflicts.

Challenge #5.  Sticking to ‘what you know’.

Agile ways of working require people to learn new skills, from looking at how we break down our work differently (slicing) to visual work management and new ways of tracking progress to goals. By not investing in learning these new skills we add unnecessary stress and put solid change management practices at risk.


Now a few years later,  we take a look at a couple more real case studies to expand our list.

Challenge #6.  New legislation requires quick pivots.

In 2018, an act was passed in Australia called The Commonwealth Modern Slavery Act 2018.   Its purpose required organisations with a certain threshold of revenue to disclose modern slavery risks.

One of our consultants was faced with the challenges of this new act. The client was a non-profit which needed to identify risks in modern slavery in their vendor supply chain, and quickly. In order to deliver on the project, the consultant needed to work with the client on a brand new solution (inventing the wheel so to speak),  as the act had only just been announced. 

By already working in an agile way, this allowed for quick iterative action on reporting.  So the solution for this client was to quickly create an interactive tool that allowed them to visually see the risks in real time.  It was because this organisation was aware of potential vendor supply risks and was already working in an Agile way they were able to quickly respond.   

#6 Recommendation:  Our recommendation for this challenge is to encourage Scenario Mapping with clients, to test their readiness for different emerging scenarios (like a legislation announcement)  using Agile.    

CHALLENGE #7.   The perfect storm of both internal and external forces at play. (COVID-19 while scaling agile).

This one is a little more complex.   When COVID hit, the organisations that were able to survive, did so through being able to change direction and focus quickly on how to stay afloat.  This was done in many ways including cutting back staff, asking staff to take wage cuts, changing product focus, applying for grants etc etc.  We’ve heard all the stories.  

Then layer in a business that is already in the middle of an Agile operating model design project, with several hundred people, spread across multiple locations in different countries, serving the broader business.   

This happened with one of our senior consultants and her team.  With an ambitious strategy for the function and some priority items to be addressed on top of an operating model change, it was a complex environment.

#7 Recommendation – REFRAME the challenge to “how might we’.  Flip the problem to opportunity.

We always try to take the ‘how might we…’ mindset to reframe challenges as opportunities as it can uncover fresh ideas. Our team adjusted its approach in terms of timings, workshops, and the structure of the engagement to adapt to client needs.

Empathy is required in spades in any engagement, but particularly in light of the broader situation and that people’s roles would be impacted by the change as they move to these new ways of working.

Our new list –

Seven recommendations to overcome key challenges:

  1. Empower decision makers
  2. Change Behaviours
  3. Provide Agile coaching to leadership stakeholders
  4. Build cross-functional teams
  5. Learn new skills in work process
  6. Adopt Agile, and practice scenario mapping using it.
  7. REFRAME the challenge to “how might we’”  Flip the problem to opportunity.

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