Scaling Agile: A Guide for the Perplexed: An Interview with Sanjiv Augustine


In this interview, Sanjiv Augustine, the president of LitheSpeed, sheds light on a handful of scaling frameworks, including the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS), and the simple scrum of scrums meeting.

Josiah Renaudin: Today, I'm joined by Sanjiv Augustine, the president of LitheSpeed and speaker at out upcoming Agile Development, Better Software & DevOps Conferences East. He will be delivering the presentation “Scaling Agile: A Guide for the Perplexed.” Thank you very much for doing this today, Sanjiv.

Sanjiv Augustine: Thank you very much, Josiah. It's always a pleasure to speak with you. I appreciate your time today.

Josiah Renaudin: I appreciate your time, too. First, could you tell us just a bit about your experience in the industry?

Sanjiv Augustine: Sure thing. Hard to believe, but I'm actually over the twenty-five year mark. (laughter)

Josiah Renaudin: Congratulations.

Sanjiv Augustine: Thank you. Hopefully, I'm learning as I go. I've at various points been everything from an advertising production person, to an engineer, to a computer programmer, to architect project manager, program manager, and now entrepreneur and agile and lean consultant.

Josiah Renaudin: Why has agility—and this is a pretty basic question for your overall keynote—why has agility become such a massively important aspect of organizational success?

Sanjiv Augustine: I'm so glad you're asking that question right up front because it helps set the context of what we are about to talk about. If you look at our business environment, especially this has really accelerated after the 2008 recession and such, it has become completely imperative for all organizations. This does not matter whether you're in the public sector, or private sector, or anywhere in-between. It's become imperative for all of us to be able to better respond to change, and to do it quickly, and with a reasonable cost or low cost. Right?

Josiah Renaudin: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sanjiv Augustine: There's an amazing statistic that I saw a couple of years ago. This is that the average life of a company on the S&P 500 Index has dropped and is trending downwards. It used to be forty-five to fifty years on the index, and that is about fifty years ago. Now, it's trending towards fifteen years.

Josiah Renaudin: Wow.

Sanjiv Augustine: Think about this turn. Companies are being created, compete for a little while, and become unable to compete because these are changing so rapidly. We live in an age of extreme flux. It's really up to all of us to be able to respond to change much more quickly.

Josiah Renaudin: It makes it seem like an uphill battle in order to maintain a company like that. We're becoming faster. We need to adapt more to change. What is the process of scaling early agile adoptions beyond individual teams and all the way to programs, portfolios, and the enterprise as a whole? How intensive is that?

Sanjiv Augustine: Well, it's intensive because at the very foundation we have to change our model. We have to change our own operating system, if you will. Most organizations have been built up with a mechanistic model. Right? We have bureaucracies that have been built up over the years to be able to perform efficiently and quickly as long as nothing changes. In order to change that operating model, we have to move from a mechanistic model to more of an organic, flexible, humanistic model. That's a mouthful of words, but as we get into it, maybe we will talk a little bit more about it. Essentially, we need to move from more mechanistic to more flexible and organic.

Josiah Renaudin: What are some of the latest scaling frameworks that you're seeing? Highlight certain ones. Which ones are the most successful in your mind?

Sanjiv Augustine: The most popular framework that's known, with technical complete framework, is the Scaled Agile Framework. More recently, in the US, we are seeing more of the Large-Scale, or LeSS, framework, and that's because the gentleman who put it together operates more in Europe. If you look at VersionOne, VersionOne is a tool company, and they do this state-of-the-art agile world survey. If you look at their particular statistic on scaling, it turns out the humble, simple, scrum of scrums is actually the most popular scaling method. Now, I wouldn't call it a framework, because it's a simple meeting, but right now that means that people are just doing the very bare minimum, or not even that.

Josiah Renaudin: Your presentation is titled “A Guide for the Perplexed.” A lot of this is about new ideas and new things that people can't fully grasp yet. Why are so many of today's scaling frameworks not yet fully understood? What will it take to get a better grasp of them?

Sanjiv Augustine: Right. That's a great question. I didn't fully mention the other options that are out there. There is also the Disciplined Agile Delivery framework put together by a gentleman called Scott Ambler, and the Nexus framework that is put together by none other than Ken Schwaber, who initially created Scrum. All these frameworks offer a plethora of choice. Before we can go to try out any one of them, my personal belief is that we have to get the fundamentals right. All these frameworks are based on applying lean thinking to our production system—applied to product development, that is what we call lean. All of the scaling frameworks take time-honored practices and procedures and principles from Toyota and lean and apply them to agile at the program and portfolio level.

It is very critical that we actually understand the lean underpinnings of any of these frameworks before we can actually make a choice between any of them. Then, also, the more we understand lean, the better we can actually apply those frameworks once we make our choice.

Josiah Renaudin: I think you used the term plethora of options, or plethora of choices. That's usually what we like to think about when we are talking about different scaling methods, different methodologies in general, with agile at the front of our minds. So often we look at a company or an individual, and we'll look at agile and say, "That's the solution. We're going to do that. It's going to work moving forward." It's so important to keep in mind what specific team needs you have. What does your team need to do in order to become stronger, in order to produce more things more quickly? What does a team need to do, in your mind, to best understand which of the different scaling frameworks you mentioned is their best unique fit?

Sanjiv Augustine: That's also a great question. Let me back it up a little bit. Put the frameworks aside for a second. Really, what we are talking about is three tiers. Earlier on, you asked me about projects, programs, and portfolios and the enterprise. At the very bottom level, we have our individual teams. This level has become very common. Right? People have been doing agile for fifteen years or so. We know how to roll out Scrum on XP, or Scrum on kanban. We do it really well at the team level.

If you're not doing Scrum on XP or kanban, whatever your agile method is, well, at the team level, then you should pay attention to do that. Unless you have a strong foundation, it's going to be very hard to build on top of it. No point trying to build a ten-story house if your first bottom two stories are rotting or not built properly.

At the bottom level, we have to build up those teams. The next level up is the program level. This is coordinating work across multiple teams and multiple projects. This is where we have a couple of options. Most people default and say, "Okay, I've got five teams. I'm going to get one or two people from each one of those five teams and they're going to have a weekly meeting." That's our very famous scrum of scrums. Then they get stuck there. There are also other options.

One of the things that I worked on earlier, about three or four years ago, is something called an agile program management office. Now we're talking about a second tier. Either a scrum of scrums at a minimum or something more formal like an agile program office is what we would recommend setting up over there. Once you start to look at coordinating across multiple teams, then you can get into concepts like the release train from the Scaled Agile Framework and coordination across these multiple teams.

Then, the third tier, once you've gotten the program level built up properly, then the third tier is the portfolio level. The portfolio level is listing out strategic themes, looking at options of investments, and then allocating those investments to the different programs. It's really a three-tier approach, if you will. Bottom tier, the teams and/or projects; second tier the programs; and the third team, the portfolios. My recommended approach would be, focus on the fundamentals at each level as you build them up.

Josiah Renaudin: Just to follow up on that question: I feel like so often we see, at least more lately, a lot of people swear by agile. They see it as this end-all, be-all methodology that works for everyone. When you're, like you mentioned, you're looking at the best fit for someone, when you're evaluating a team or a company, for you, is there ever a time, personally, where you're like, "Agile is not the best fit for you, and you should either choose a different methodology or just continue what you're doing"? Do sometimes people use agile more as a crutch?

Sanjiv Augustine: Yes, as a crutch, or worse, to pay lip service and jump on the bandwagon, if you will. It comes down to those core disciplines. This is why I strike the point of the lean discipline underneath all of the agile frameworks or the agile methodologies at the team level and also for the scaling frameworks. Unless we understand lean, unless we get the basics right, we're just putting lipstick on a pig, if you will.

Josiah Renaudin: (laugh)

Sanjiv Augustine: To an extent, what you say is absolutely true. Agile doesn't work everywhere, especially if you don't understand it.

Josiah Renaudin: Yeah, absolutely. I don't want to give away your entire keynote. I know people are definitely looking forward to it. More than anything, what one message do you want to leave with your keynote audience?

Sanjiv Augustine: I do have a book. It's called Scaling Agile: A Lean JumpStart. My message would be, see if you can get a copy of the book and read it before you come to the keynote. In the book you're just going to find the same thing that I'm saying: Focus on the core disciplines, build from the ground up, build a foundation, and add on the building blocks, paying attention to each tier as you go along.

Josiah Renaudin: Fantastic. It's always great talking to you, Sanjiv. I appreciate the time. I'm looking forward to hearing the whole story at your keynote at the conference.

Sanjiv Augustine: Thank you very much, Josiah. See you in November.

Sanjiv AugustineSanjiv Augustine is an industry-leading agile and lean expert, author, speaker, management consultant, trainer, and founder of the Agile Leadership Network. He is the president of LitheSpeed, an agile consulting, training, and product development company. For more than fifteen years, Sanjiv has managed agile projects from five to more than 100 people, trained thousands of agile practitioners through workshops and conference presentations, and coached numerous project teams. He is the author of Managing Agile Projects, Transitioning to Agile Project Management: A Roadmap for the Perplexed, and The Lean-Agile PMO: Using Lean Thinking to Accelerate Agile Project Delivery.

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