Some Things In Agile Don’t Scale


I see that hashtag in my Twitter feed on an almost daily basis. Either from startup founders who want to grow their business more in the coming feed or from Agile leaders who want to help make their framework more consistent at the office. Scaling is big business right now because if you can teach someone how to do it on a consistent basis, you can charge a lot of money for that service.

Cue all the consultants firing up their Scaling Agile seminars in 2015. (Full transparency, I’ve thought more than a few times about attending one.)

The PMO I help lead at Bottle Rocket is all aboard with scaling, because the more consistent we can make teams the better. People can know what they are getting into, produce more consistent work, and have a much better experience along the way. Who wouldn’t sign up for that?

And yet, this strange pang in my stomach starts the deeper I get into this scaling business. I’ve just been reluctant to ask why.

It’s hard to be counter to this idea when the co-founder of Scrum — and someone I look up to — is part of the horde pushing this scaling mentality, and yet I was wondering if I should be focused on the part of Agile that doesn’t scale in 2015. Just as this idea was reading critical mass, Twitter came to the rescue. Over the holidays I saw a tweet of a classic Paul Graham post about doing things that don’t scale (it was actually a tweet of a post linked to it, but either way: thanks for the assist Leo).

Startups think constantly about things that don’t scale because they often have to start one user at a time. The best products have to get 10 users before they can get 10,000. In the same vein as great startups, Agile can’t lose sight of how important it is for 1 team to function well before it can scale the entire organization. If I have 50 teams running Scrum (or any other Agile flavor) poorly, it can be exponentially worse than going back to Waterfall.

So for my “start of 2015” post, I would like to suggest doing things in your office that don’t scale. Sure, you won’t make any money teaching a seminar on these items. If you neglect to do things that don’t scale first, though, parts of Agile that do scale will fall flat on their face.

Woo team members individually. Every individual member of the team knows they aren’t the only co-worker in my life (heck, they know they aren’t the only collective team I have), and yet if they were polled without repercussion they would absolutely say they want to feel that way. The simplest way for a person to know you care is for you to treat them as an individual rather than a cog in a larger wheel.

Seems too simple to be possible, right? Fret not my friend.

Play a game with yourself. When you interact with those around you, listen for one new thing they talk about. You can be as meticulous as you want in your record keeping, but I would encourage it on a small scale at first. Find that one thing that’s new, and then re-engage that person in a conversation about that subject. Will it seem awkward in some instances? Without a doubt, but it communicates one thing: you’re paying attention.

“But Chris,” you might say, “how in the world am I to do that with every single person? That’s a lot of people!”

Before you go too far down that road, I am currently involved with 5 different teams of co-workers. If I can do this with all of them, so can you. You can play this game once a day or once a month, the value remains the same.

Put your laptop away. I was just complaining to my wife today about how people act in meetings these days. We come in a couple minutes late (at best), sit down, open our laptops, and make a comment about not knowing what this meeting is for. We jump right back into our email or IM instead of paying attention. At least one person will ask halfway through the deck if they could have the slides sent out afterward.

What you just communicated is, “you’re not worth paying attention to, please excuse me if I announce how important I am while not participating in the meeting.” I hope that stung for some of you, because I have been guilty of that crime more than a few times.

Your attention can’t scale, because it’s not possible to focus on two things at once.

Find a way to at least put your laptop away for the majority of the meeting. Many have suggested turning hour long meetings into 45 minutes, and buffering the front and back ends with time to deal with the day. Instead of barely paying attention for 60 minutes, think of how much you could gain from 45 minutes of full attention. That’s 15-30 more minutes of productivity!

Use one simple phrase in conversation. As someone who talks for a living, I know a thing or two about miscommunication. I’m under no grand illusion that every word that falls out of my mouth is gold. I also don’t think that stopping altogether will fix anything. I’m human, therefore I will miscommunicate.

Once we all get over ourselves and acknowledge our shortcomings, we can help move conversation forward by adding clarification. It adds a beat to your thought process so you don’t go off emotionally before getting all the facts in. Clarification provides context and furthers understanding. So what one phrase could possibly help this?

Simply start your response to anyone with the phrase, “what I think I heard you say was…”.

It communicates what I heard to the speaker. If I want bonus points, I can add, “am I correct” to the end. it allows the speaker the chance to clarify anything I might have missed. There’s just as good a chance I wasn’t listening that well, too. Regardless of my misunderstanding, asking the speaker to validate what I heard makes sure we are on the same page.

My boss taught this to me a while back, and it’s helped me tremendously with my conversation skills. It in no way makes me an expert, but it has helped avoid a few fires from even starting.

Nobody’s going to take your cert from you if you skip out on any of these, but think if we can all commit to trying these things in the new year. One might argue this could take away from the work on the big picture, but this is merely an application of the broken windows theory. If you focus on the smaller scale of better functioning teams, the big picture will take care of itself.


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