Agile at Scale, Simplified

By Chris Maniates

Agile at scale in a large enterprise can seem confusingly complex with all the acronyms, layers, ceremonies, and artifacts. First, Agile isn’t all those things. agile is a set of values and principles focused on sustained innovation and value. It is not an operational process, like waterfall project management. Simply put, agile at scale is the ability to manage large projects with multiple teams based on a conceptual framework.

Finding the Right Framework

When navigating a multifaceted organization, a complex environment necessitates a complex configuration to scale agile. However, complex doesn’t have to mean confusing.

While the use of agile methods has been growing since its introduction in 2001, agile at an enterprise scale, or agile at scale, is relatively new. Agile practitioners should find the framework which best supports agile in their dynamic environment and culture. It may not be easy to choose from the many options, including Disciplined Agile, Spotify Squadification, or Scrum@Scale. Make your choice thoughtfully, or you will be transforming to a new scaled agile framework down the road.

This primer simplifies the initial constructs of the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®), one of the most adopted agile at scale frameworks in use today.

Building Agile at Scale

To start, implement the smallest SAFe® Essential Configuration, an Agile Release Train (a team of Agile teams). Build the Agile Release Train (ART) with the absolute minimal viable components (role, competency, skillset, event, and artifact). After that, enhance it, but only as necessary; do not add complexity unless required. Lean-Agile coaches will regularly advise to pare down the configuration and get back to basics. Listen to them.

Are you ready to scale?

Start with the Lean-Agile principles. These will be your guide at all times.

Add people.

  • Roles, the minimum viable component of an ART, focus on the WHAT we build, HOW we build it, and Operations/Execution.
  • On each Agile team, the roles are Product Owner (what), the team (how), and Scrum Master (operations).
  • An Agile Release Train (ART) is a team of Agile teams with a few extra roles to handle the added coordination. To support the responsibilities of the team, we add the Product Manager and Business Owners to work alongside the Product Owner, a System Architect/Engineer supports the teams, and a Release Train Engineer becomes the Scrum Master of Scrum Masters.
  • Sometimes, you may grow beyond the ART. At this point, you will add more roles using the same What/How/Operation role guardrails.
  • In all configurations, Lean-Agile leaders lead the agile work. The Agile Teams and ARTs are fully cross-functional.

Add the three Essential core competency skills and their practices.

  • Team and Technical Agility – Build in Quality, Agile teams, and ARTs
  • Agile Product Delivery – Customer Centricity and Design Thinking, DevOps and the Continuous Delivery Pipeline, and Develop on Cadence
  • Lean-Agile Leadership – Leads the agile transformation by exemplifying core values, mindset, Lean-Agile attitude, and SAFe Principles.

Add cadenced events for the Agile Release Train to synchronize and improve.

  • Program Increment (PI) Planning and Iteration Planning
  • Inspect and Adapt (I&A) with system demo, metrics, and problem-solving workshop
  • ART Sync (individual Scrum of Scrum and Product Owner Syncs)
  • Innovation and Planning (IP) iteration

Add artifacts to support coordination and integration.

  • Objectives, solution, solution context, vision, and roadmap
  • Epics and features
  • Program Kanban, program backlog, team backlog, and a board
  • Architectural runway

The above is a simplified view of scaling agile, with many terms that beg for a more in-depth explanation. Until then, remember that every minimal viable component described above (role, competency, skillset, event, and artifact) is a safety net designed to keep the process faithful to agile (a set of values and principles) and the Scaled Agile Framework (Lean-Agile values and principles). Agile at scale is not only doable but has also been done and done well.

Note: SAFe and Scaled Agile Framework are registered trademarks of Scaled Agile, Inc.