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BLOG:Universal Mind + Agile

Universal Mind + Agile

Universal Mind has long embraced agile development methodologies, including Scrum and Kanban. Our Delivery managers are experts in leading agile projects, and we’ve invested heavily in agile training and tools so that we can successfully apply agile on a wide variety of projects, from development to user experience design and strategy work.

In the last few years, we’ve seen a number of clients adopting new agile frameworks that promise to scale agile within large organizations, including:

Large Scale Scrum (LeSS)Disciplined Agile Delivery (DaD)Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

All of these frameworks attempt to bridge the gap between the basic agile premise of small, self-organizing teams and the clunky mechanics of enterprise-level portfolio planning.

Scaled Agile: Why Care?

Should Universal Mind hop on the scaled agile bandwagon? SAFe and its relatives have their fair share of critics. Many critics argue that processes designed to coordinate the work of multiple agile teams hinder the autonomy of those teams, and leads to a kind of “waterfall” thinking that is anathema to true agile. Other critics bemoan the lack of affordance provided by these frameworks to user experience design and other non-development activities.

Spirited debate about SAFe within the agile community has sparked considerable conversation inside Universal Mind. Do these new flavors of enterprise agile thinking have anything to teach us about the work we do? After all, Universal Mind collaborates with clients in a variety of capacities, not just on large-scale product development initiatives.

The short answer is that there is much that we can learn from the new enterprise agile frameworks. We believe that they provide a useful lens for looking at the organizations we work with, even if not all of their specific prescriptions are applicable across all of our engagements. In particular, SAFe and other frameworks teach us to look beyond individual teams to larger organizational structures so that we understand how work flows downhill in an organization.

Levels Of Scale

SAFe, the most widely adopted of the new enterprise agile frameworks, describes three levels of scale within an organization, and these have provided us with a useful vocabulary for understanding client engagements:

  • Team. At the team level, small agile teams of developers, designers and testers work with scrum masters and product owners to deliver work in two-week sprints or as part of an ongoing Kanban flow.
  • Program. At the program level, teams of agile teams coordinate their work to deliver larger work items as part of a longer-term release cycle.
  • Portfolio. At the portfolio level, a cross-functional portfolio management team translates enterprise business objectives and strategic themes into large initiatives that are vetted before being sent to program teams for implementation

SAFe, LeSS and DaD all seek to solve the problem of providing transparency and alignment across all three levels of an organization, though they differ in how rigid that alignment should be and their specific prescriptions for achieving that alignment.

The Alignment Test

SAFe’s definitions of scale provide a useful checklist for evaluating how work flows from one level of an organization to another:

  • Do individual teams understand how the work in their backlogs relates to the “big picture” objectives of the business?
  • Do teams know where their work fits into a larger release cycle, and what dependencies they have on other teams?
  • Are the strategic objectives being communicated by different parts of the organization consistent?

If the answers to questions like these are “no”, an organization has opportunities for improvement in communication and work definition. Its work may be at risk – for example, teams may end up delivering features that don’t match an organization’s strategic objectives, or that don’t live up to expectations of an executive team that is tracking different success criteria.

Of course, as consultants we need to understand that we may not always have the leverage to prescribe a new development framework like SAFe for an organization in order to minimize such alignment problems. We may not even have access to the stakeholders who are responsible for managing its top-level portfolio of initiatives. But understanding the level that we’re participating at – team, program or portfolio – is the first step towards identifying solutions.

Conclusion

The jury is still out on LeSS, DaD and SAFe. Agile purists worry that these new enterprise agile frameworks are little more than waterfall process masquerading as agile. However, our experience at Universal Mind has taught us that these frameworks can provide a useful model for evaluating the organizations that we work with, and identifying opportunities for increasing alignment between different parts of those organizations, including team, program and portfolio levels.

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