Don’t scale agile – descale your organization!

Agile organizations are lean, flexible and adaptable. This is accomplished less by “agilizing” existing structures and processes but rather by consistently questioning these. The solution, of course, is not to fall victim to the cognitive bias of Maslow’s hammer and to apply the shiny new agile methods to all existing calcified organizational structures and their wasteful procedures. Rather the motto is “Don’t scale agile – descale your organization!”

Form Without Function

At the level of the individual team or a few teams working on a single product, agility is still quite straightforward. Scrum as the best known and most used framework is well described in the Scrum Guide and has proven its value practically over two decades. It starts to get exciting when we go beyond that level and when tayloristic organizations that have grown and become encrusted over decades try to become more agile. When viewed from a distance it often happens what Richard Feynman described as a “cargo cult”: form without function.

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Richard Feynman, 1974

Law of the Instrument

So someone at the top end of the organization’s hierarchy has decided that from now on they want to be agile. Against the background of VUCA and digitalization, this sounds quite plausible and nobody can object to a bit more self-organization and self-responsibility amidst all the bureaucracy that has developed over time. So they embark on their journey, read books, attend training courses, obtain certifications, employ hordes of coaches and consultants, visit Spotify, travel to Silicon Valley and so on.

Gradually everything is turned upside down and changed to agile. Of course, in most cases without substantially going to the structure of the organization and the accustomed procedures. Agile projects do not lead to agile organizations if they are embedded in encrusted structures, from the approval of the project to the obligatory steering committees.

In order to breathe a little more agility into this paralyzed circus, everything gets “agilized” – no matter how well it is suited. Committees then suddenly become agile committees that work in sprints or with Kanban. And the process model also gets a product owner and teams. Done.

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

Abraham Maslow

This insidious form of cargo cult is based on a cognitive bias called Law of the Instrument or Maslow’s Hammer. The shiny new agile methods are applied to all existing structures and processes without questioning them and rethinking them in terms of customer orientation and the optimal value stream for it. Because then the proper conclusion would be that these committees are perhaps not needed at all and that the process model will be further developed in a suitable(!) way in a community approach by those who work within this model.

Something is wrong if workers do not look around each day, find things that are tedious or boring, and then rewrite the procedures. Even last month’s manual should be out of date.

Taiichi Ōno

Photo: Russ Hendricks

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Dear Marcus,
Enjoyed your article . It speaks to the mind and the quotes are beautiful. I just send you your latte for tomorrow morning.

Your articles “hit the pain button” however I am also looking for the medicine. :-)
How to scale down in an organisation that is looking at agile as a succes formula? So can you provide some wisdom on how to (re)solve it ?

Kind regards, Geneviève

Dear Geneviève, thanks for the coffee and for your comment. You raise an important question that I probably should have answered in the article. Honestly, I don’t have a success formula. My suggestion would be to start small, focus on the customer and optimize the value stream to provide value to the customer. And then gradually scale the organization team by team. Whenever those teams are colliding with the sluggish rest of the organization you will know where to descale …

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