Patterns of Agile Adoption

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Summary:

There are many ways to transition to an agile process. Choosing the approach that is most likely to work best for your organization can be critical to a smooth transition. Through helping hundreds of teams make the transition to agile over the years, I have identified six core patterns that teams use to initiate the transition to agile. These patterns fall into three sets of opposing pairs. You should choose the core pattern from each set that best suits your team or organization:

  • Start Small or go All In?
  • Technical Practices First or Iterative First?
  • Stealth Mode or a Public Display of Agility?

Start Small or Go All In?

Conventional, long-standing advice regarding transitioning to agile has been to start with a pilot project, learn from it, and then spread agile throughout the organization. [i] This approach is the frequently used Start Small pattern in which an organization selects typically one to three teams (of five to ten people each), gets them successful, and then expands agile from there. As agile spreads through the organization new teams benefit from the lessons learned by the teams that have gone before. There are many variations of Start Small, usually because of how many people the organization wants to transition to agile and how quickly they want to do it. Start Small can also be applied differently based on how risk-averse or uncertain about the transition the organization is. For example, in some cases the first team or teams will finish their projects before a second set of teams even begins. Other organizations will take an overlapping approach, where the second set of teams starts only one or two iterations after the first.

{sidebar id=1} The Start Small pattern isn't for everyone. In fact, Salesforce.com followed the opposite pattern. [ii] I remember answering my phone on October 3, 2006 and hearing Steve and Chris from Salesforce.com tell me that they had just converted thirty-five teams to Scrum overnight. They asked if I'd like to help. My initial thought was that they needed a psychiatrist more than an agile consultant. Not one to shrink from a challenge, though, I agreed to help, packed a copy of Freud alongside my laptop, and set off for San Francisco. Part of what I saw there wasn't entirely unexpected - teams and individuals in an uproar over such a sudden, far-reaching change - but I also saw other things that helped this large-scale, rapid adoption succeed.

Salesforce.com was pursuing the All In pattern, which draws its name from a poker player who bets all of his chips on one hand. Salesforce.com has a hard-driving, aggressive, achievement-driven culture that would not have been a good fit for a cautious Start Small approach. Once key executives were presented with a proposal to adopt agile, they were convinced. They felt that if agile was worth doing for one team, it was worth doing for all teams, so they chose go All In .

 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Start Small

The Start Small approach offers the following advantages:

  • The cost of mistakes is minimized. Making a mistake with one team is far less costly than making that same mistake with 100 teams.
  • You can stack the deck in your favor by selecting the team and project most likely to be successful. This isn't cheating. Having made the decision to transition to agile you are not conducting some double-blind, randomized clinical trial. You are trying to help your organization succeed. Often, an early success can be vital to gaining buy-in from skeptics or fence-sitters.
  • It seeds the organization with people who can be the ambassadors and mentors for others as they begin to make the move.

There are of course drawbacks to the Start Small approach:

  • Conclusions may not be compelling. Success on a small project staffed by handpicked people does not necessarily mean success will follow on every other project.
  • It obviously takes longer to Start Small and scale than it does to take the plunge and go All In.
  • It may be seen as a small, tentative step, indicative that the company is not fully committed to agile. In some environments this will bring out sufficient additional resistance to squash even this first

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