Scaling Agile And The Resource Curse
Prefer to watch this as a video? Click here.
One of the hot topics at the moment is around scaling agile. As an approach, agile and its associated frameworks have been around long enough and had enough successes, both in theory and in practice that people are keen to see it spread more widely. This could be about spreading from a few development teams into more teams, or spreading into larger projects with multi-functional teams, or spreading even more widely across entire organisations, into new contexts and cultures, such as marketing, or finance, or risk and legal.
As a result, there are two ways of looking at scaling agile. The first is in making the team or project bigger, which is largely where frameworks such as SAFe or DAD or LeSS come in, and the second is in spreading agile into new parts of the business, which is where more cultural and organisational change perspectives come in.
To my mind though, there’s a potential third perspective here that often gets overlooked. Fundamentally, if you’re scaling agile, you’re saying something about the organisation or organisations in which is is being scaled. You can only scale something, if there is already something of scale there to scale it into. In other words, you can only scale agile in large organisations, or projects big enough to involve multiple organisations.
I first used agile and scrum at a small start up agency, where any thought of scaling agile would have seemed absurd. When we started, finding ‘seven-plus-or-minus-two’ people for the team was a big enough challenge in itself, and being all crammed into one small office, we didn’t need frameworks to ensure we all got together, talked and collaborated.
So if you’re scaling agile, you’re doing it in a larger context, and here’s where a risk comes in that seems often overlooked. There’s an interesting phenomenon called the resource curse. It’s an economic theory about countries with large amounts of natural resources, but I think it transfers really well to organisations too. Countries with large amounts of natural resources are seen as not emphasising the importance of education and learning because they don’t think they need it. They are also more susceptible to experiencing armed conflict, becoming less collaborative and more likely to be run autocratically rather than democratically.
Does that sound like any of the organisations you’re aware of? In my direct personal experience, this resource curse theory mirrors how large, affluent and financially secure organisations behave, and are the exact opposite of how small startups on the perpetual brink of bankruptcy act. If you’re large and affluent, with ample resources, then the risk of bankruptcy and failure are remote. If you come across a problem, you don’t need to test, learn and innovate in the simplest way possible to find the right solutions, you can just throw lots of money at the issue and be pretty confident that it will get fixed. You don’t need to learn anything, or train your employees too much. You just need to make sure they do the rights things at the right time to keep the winning formula stable. How do you do that? Through autocratic, hierarchical authority. Meanwhile, employees spend lots of their time fighting each other for profile and praise, in order to secure the biggest annual cash bonus possible.
All of this of course is hugely toxic to the agile mindset and the successful adoption of agile. Which then raises a fundamental question about scaling agile.
If agile can only be scaled in organisations that are large enough, and those organisations typically experience the resource curse, can agile ever really scale? I suspect of course that it can, and that there are good examples of it doing so to be found out there. However, until we start considering the resource curse as an integral issue for scaled agile, the risk to successful scaling of agile is substantial.