The Agile Framework Should Not Be Your Top Priority When Scaling Agile

We’ve written extensively on scaled Agile frameworks like SAFe, LeSS, Spotify, and others. They’re a significant part of what we do as we help our clients pursue enterprise agility. But, we’ve found that Agile frameworks often create polarization in the marketplace, sometimes even within a given organization.

If you do research online or via social media, you’ll find strong opinions about which frameworks are best and about whether companies should get involved in the use of a framework at all. Some people and organizations are almost religiously devoted to their chosen framework while others are just as adamant that no framework should be used.

The point we want to get across in this article is that neither opinion is optimal. In fact, the current debate over Agile scaling frameworks is largely based on the wrong question.

Let’s start with some level setting by defining what an Agile framework is and what are the pros and cons of adopting one. Then, we’ll dive deeper into the real crux of the framework debate: solving business problems.

What is an Agile framework?

An Agile framework is a set of patterns and best practices that companies can leverage to scale their Agile practices to various areas of the business, and as they grow in size and complexity.

In most cases, an organization will first adopt Agile in the IT and development areas. Then, as they reap the benefits there, they may look to improve agility in other departments, such as marketing, finance, or HR. Likewise, if the development team is growing by leaps and bounds, it can quickly become difficult or impossible to manage the work in an Agile way without some sort of framework in place to build on.

Popular Agile frameworks include:

  • SAFe
  • Scrum@Scale
  • Scrum of Scrums
  • LeSS
  • Nexus
  • Disciplined Agile
  • Enterprise Kanban
  • Spotify

While these frameworks differ in their nomenclature and focus, they contain very similar features at their heart. Agile frameworks provide the scaling organization with roles, templates, processes, and cadences that help to organize the planning, monitoring, and continuous delivery of value across the Agile enterprise of any size.

An important factor to consider is that these frameworks are not theoretical in nature. They’re based on actual experiences in real businesses like yours. SAFe alone is used by more than 20,000 organizations, including 70 of the Fortune 100. You can expect the patterns the frameworks provide to work because they have worked.

But, that doesn’t mean adopting an Agile framework is a silver bullet.

The pros and cons of a scaled Agile framework

Without a doubt, scaling frameworks can offer a number of benefits to growing companies:

  • It provides structure to large and fast-growing organizations that will support a scaled Agile practice.
  • It provides a vehicle for top-down and bottom-up communication across the organization.
  • It provides tremendous transparency into the work at all levels, which strongly supports continuous improvement.
  • It provides consistency in the operating model which supports fast onboarding of new people and generally leads to smoother operation.

However, it’s important to recognize that Agile scaling frameworks have their shortcomings as well:

  • It can create a false sense of security if people believe that just because they’re following a framework, all their issues should resolve themselves.
  • It can become a blaming mechanism used by poor leaders who will insist any flaw in the workflow is the fault of the framework.
  • It can lead to detrimental compliance — the organization is so intent on following the framework to the letter, they develop a standard of work that all but eliminates innovation and will hinder continuous improvement.

Obviously, these are not the intentions of the creators of the frameworks, but they are challenges we’ve seen arise when a framework is chosen or executed ineffectively. And, many times, the companies that run into these and similar issues are simply putting too much focus on the framework itself rather than the real issue they should be addressing.

Why a scaling framework can’t be a silver bullet

We would all love to see a world where:

  • Our customers know exactly what they want
  • Our people know exactly what to build
  • The market never changes

But, obviously, that’s not the world we’re living in. Rather, in our world:

  • The most successful products are those the customer didn’t know they wanted and needed. (Think: Netflix, Facebook, or the iPad)
  • The best people in an organization are constantly learning and growing.
  • The market is constantly changing.

So, when you consider scaled Agile frameworks in light of the reality, it becomes clear that no framework will resolve all the challenges growing organizations face. Even a framework’s strengths can’t align perfectly with the reality of market conditions.


Frameworks Market conditions
Organizational structure Ever-changing skill sets
Top-down goals and alignment Ad hoc customer needs
Reoccurring patterns and consistency Constantly changing market

 

That’s why scaling organizations need to focus less on the framework and more on building a problem-solving culture and attacking frameworks from a problem-solving point of view.

Your focus should be on problem-solving

There is a gap in how organizations leverage frameworks ahead of an ever-changing market. We believe the key to bridging that gap is to enable your people to build an effective problem-solving organization.

This involves building a learning culture in your organization, and supporting and empowering your people to constantly be learning, and growing in their understanding and skills. Create space for them to learn more about the customer’s wants and needs, and about other companies and how they’re solving their problems. This incorporates the Lean concept of Gemba — go to the work, meet the customer, see where the work is done — a proven method for improving the quality and efficiency of work.

Train your people to become skilled problem solvers. When hiring new employees, make proven problem-solving skills a prerequisite over technical skills you can teach them.

A hyper-focused problem-solving organization will continually follow these steps in order to identify and attack the problems it faces in an ever-changing world.

Define a problem statement

A problem well stated is a problem half-solved. Defining a problem effectively is always the first step in solving it.

You must take the time to understand exactly what the problem is, who is involved, when and where the problem comes to light. How does it impact the organization and the customer? And, perhaps most importantly, why is it happening — can you already identify the root cause?

The importance of this step cannot be overstated. Far too many organizations are in the habit of putting out fires — trying to resolve the effects of a problem — rather than figuring out why the fires are starting in the first place. By taking the time to thoroughly understand every aspect of the problem, it becomes possible to properly prioritize, analyze, and eventually solve it.

Analyze the problem

Once the problem has been defined, it’s time to dig deeper. The purpose of analysis is to identify the root cause and determine how to resolve it. There are many analysis tools available, including:

  • The Five Whys
  • SWOT
  • TOES
  • User Journeys
  • Market Research
  • Double Diamond Triangle

By means of these and other analysis tools, you should be able to identify root causes and develop solid gameplans to resolve them.

Execute and re-evaluate

Once analysis is complete, you’ll need to try to solve the problem. Here, my advice to you is to be brave. Pursue innovation and color outside the lines. Dream big, but in small iterations. Consider how you can help to change your organization? How can you help to change the customer journey in a small, incremental way that may potentially have a big impact?

As you develop potential solutions, be sure to establish leading indicators — the means by which you’re going to measure the success of your solution. This provides the basis for the ongoing test-and-learn cycle you’re going to use to ensure you’re pursuing effective solutions and that they are adding the value you hoped for. This continuous evaluation gives you the opportunity to pivot whenever the data says it’s necessary so you’re not wasting time on subpar solutions.

Closing considerations

What can you do with what we’ve shared in this article? Hopefully, you can now see how to leverage problem-solving as a means to — among other things — choose the appropriate Agile framework for your organization. If you do, you’ll likely find that no single framework is perfectly suited to your specific situation out-of-the-box.

Rather, one of the frameworks likely offers the most potential solutions to the problems you’re facing. As you begin to execute on that framework, you’ll be able to pick and choose which aspects of the framework you need to effectively solve your problems and which are less necessary.

You can come back and change your selections down the road as the market and your company continue to change. You may even find that aspects of several frameworks work together to best solve the problems you’re facing. If so, go for it! If you’re always executing and re-evaluating, you’ll know what works and what doesn’t at any given time.

If you’d like help selecting, implementing, or changing Agile frameworks, that happens to be one of our specialties. Speak to a Cprime scaling frameworks expert today to discuss.

Speak to a SAFe expert today

Learn More
Dan Teixera, Head of Global Delivery
Dan Teixera, Head of Global Delivery