Generally speaking, what works for one team or group of teams within an organization may not work elsewhere because no two teams and no two organizations have identical cultures. As a case in point is the well-known Spotify approach to scaling Agile that emphasizes the role of culture and people.3
In its approach to Agile, Spotify relies on success factors through a cultural prism more than a technical prism—decentralized team-driven and bespoke decision-making, increased transparency, fostering a culture of experimentation, risk-taking, shorter feedback loops, and servant leadership. In this culture, rapid failure is seen as a necessary premise to better products, happier customers, and more engaged employees.
Many companies have tried to follow “the Spotify model.” Some succeeded, some failed, but most missed the point that it was never intended to be a model, per se.4 What works for Spotify may not work for other companies.
To further this idea, Professor Danielle Wood of MIT speaks to how any given organization may have a wide variability of cultures across teams and groups of teams simultaneously. Drawing in organizational theory, she calls them “ambidextrous” organizations. As Professor Wood states, “There is a concept called ‘ambidexterity’, [which] says some organizations can actually operate with the two extremes at the same time. They can be exploring and exploiting at the same time, and they can be both integrated and differentiated at the same time in different styles.”5 Her second key point is that the underlying characteristics of an organization may, themselves, vary over time. Put differently, an organization’s ambidexterity itself evolves.6
What the Spotify example and Professor Wood’s formulation, among others7, suggest, ultimately, is that leaders who want to scale Agile successfully need to understand the underlying—and ever-changing—cultures that exist within the organizations they lead and apply Agile accordingly.
To be sure, formal Agile enterprise frameworks are prevalent, but many organizations find that they can be too rigid and eventually outgrow them. While such frameworks are, perhaps, helpful to start along the scaling journey, they are not by any means the only tool in the tool-belt, and leaders driving toward innovation are always evolving their thinking and philosophy along with the needs of the market and their respective organizations. Indeed, for leaders anything less than such vigilant self-awareness runs the risk of applying Agile in ways that do not achieve optimal outcomes.
When leaders cling to orthodox leadership practices, Agile scaling might be constrained. The CEO of a British insurance company discovered first-hand just how traditional thinking inhibits Agile transformation: “The hardest thing so far has been putting Agile into an organization. I had a very ‘old school’ head office: product, marketing, pricing—those core central areas. They operate in a hierarchical, traditional format. We put in an enterprise-wide Agile model. We went from zero to five on a scale of five and low and behold, it didn’t work, only in patches.”8
The DNA of many organizations, even today, evolved from and is still defined by the practices of the first, second, and third industrial revolutions: Management values that tend to promote silos and isolation, reward meeting financial goals over value creation, rely obsessively on traditional cost-focused measures to gauge productivity, discourage ideation, and punish failure even if it serves a larger good. Values such as these are incompatible with Agility culture.
Successfully scaling Agile requires leaders to combat fear of lost power, uncertainty, and power vacuums that can erupt from new ways of thinking and doing. When a rigid, legacy-intensive organization decides to implement and scale Agile, it can result in friction and discomfort if leadership remains indifferent.
How leaders create an environment in which Agile can thrive at any scale
Successful Agile leaders understand that successful scaling of technical agility at the team level, if done correctly, could help engender a kind of “enterprise agility” that transforms the entire organization. Here’s how leaders can better support Agile teams:
Because many, if not most, organizations are more than one thing, leaders should view each team as unique and always evolving. Even though Agile started as a shared set of values, what it should advance is what makes every individual, team, and, ultimately, each organization, unique. Leadership should allow that uniqueness to emerge. Homogeneity is antithetical to an Agile culture because context dictates culture, and every team has its own context.
Leadership needs to be willing to find what works best for each team and group within the larger organization and apply Agile accordingly. In other words, leadership should exercise self-awareness.
Leaders succeed when serving as partners or “servant leaders” to Agile teams—and do not when teams serve them. As Ben McCormack, Technical Director, Office of the CTO, at Google Cloud said, “If I'm a software engineer or a product leader, my organizational position may not be that high, but ultimately I am where value is delivered to the organization. I think leadership and management should recognize that they’re not the people that deliver value. They are there to support that creation of value and delivery of value.”9
This means forming a closed-loop relationship with teams when caring for and feeding the Agile initiative (figure 1). This may also mean letting go of fiefdoms, image, long-term power structures, and self-importance—another exercise in self-awareness. Leaders should trust and promote a culture of learning and experimentation. Leaders and organizations should empower, trust, and listen to their teams and be willing to lean into uncertainty.