“We are too big to be agile”

by | Jul 17, 2020

Recently I had a conversation with a former colleague, and he made this comment that struck me as odd:

“We are too big to be agile.”

Now the organization he works for is quite large, and there is a fair amount of moving parts and organizational design that does not lend itself to be an agile organization at this time. This type of comment is something I hear a lot.

“Only small software companies can be agile.”

“We have our development teams using agile, that’s good enough.”

I could go on and on. Looking deeper into what is said by people in senior management positions about agile, it feels fear is what drives out these comments.

Recently Steve Denning wrote this article in Forbes: The Irresistible Rise Of Agile: A Paradigm Shift In Management


As you read through it, you find out that Steve came from a large organization, the World bank, so he knows the organizational red tape and control that would come along with it. During his time investigating high-performance teams, he came up with the same thing that pops in any agilist’s mind when the “we are too big” comment comes about: Why not?

Size does not matter on becoming an agile organization, as Steve points out:

“The five largest and fastest growing firms on the planet were, under different labels, all implementing management practices that were recognizably Agile.

And they were generating something the big old bureaucracies were simply unable to match:

  • instant

  • frictionless

  • intimate

  • incremental

  • risk-free

  • value at scale.”

So if these large organizations can use agile in delivery and management, why can’t anyone else?

Another interesting note is that the success of these companies is what a lot of executives would like to achieve, even just a fraction of it. So what is stopping them from making a move?

Steven writes:

“When I pressed these management experts for the basis of their skepticism, they offered multiple objections: As far as they could see:

  • “Agile only works in software.”

  • “Agile doesn’t scale.”

  • “Agile can’t handle complexity.”

  • “Agile isn’t reliable.”

  • “Agile doesn’t last.”

There are two underlying thoughts in each of these comments:

  • Fear of the unknown

  • Fear of losing control

Before we get into the “Fear of the unknown,” let’s get through the “Fear of losing control.”

Where would this fear start? My guess is it would be the term Self-managed teams. For years an organization’s set up is based on a clear hierarchal fashion. Everyone had a “boss” and did what was asked or told in some cases.

Having a self-managed team means that type of control is now gone. Even now, some organizations run with “agile teams,” yet the members of those teams report to different management. This structure creates a set of silos within these teams where impediments are always in a place that impacts development. Think about a hockey or basketball team working in that fashion. Each position has it’s’s own coach, and on the playing surface, they cannot do anything until the coach sais something, or if another position needs help, they do not respond. That is unheard of when a team is trying to win. The players in these sports are reliant on each of his or her teammates to win the game. It is a fluid transition on using each other’s strengths and helping with weaknesses. An agile team is the same way. Yet letting go of that is very difficult for most in management.

What management needs to realize is letting the teams get the work done on their own with understanding the organization’s values, vision, and overall direction allows them to be more strategic than tactical. They would still have some say in what is going on. The difference is that becoming that “servant leader” allows them to grow their trust and leadership capabilities with employees. In previous blogs, I have talked about “Leadership from behind” and “Leadership without authority.” These two philosophies not only help with managing direct reports; it also helps work with non-directs. They put you in the mindset of teamwork and collaboration.

Onto the “Fear of the unknown.” Most managers see agile development as a “free for all” when getting the work done. No rules, no guidelines just get the job done fast. That couldn’t be furthest from the truth. Yes, there is faster completion of work. Look at Jeff Sutherland’s book, “The art of doing twice the work in half the time.” The overlooked element is how much discipline is needed to get the work done and going back to my team analogy how the involvement of everyone on the team is necessary.

In a Jeff Dalton interview, he goes into some detail on leadership in agile organizations. With it, an organization can become agile like ones listed above. It is a matter of learning, adapting and being agile; after that, it is off to the races.

In the end, leadership will find that they will achieve created success. Not only with clients but more importantly, with employees, as they will have a sense of ownership and pride in their work through products and services.

To find out more about how to scale your organization’s agile values, click here to get a download on how to move your team, department and organization to achieve value once thought of as unachievable.

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