Enterprise Agility For Dummies Cheat Sheet
Enterprise agility is agile for big products — typically those that require many different teams throughout the organization that coordinate with many different departments and stakeholders. While agile involves one or two teams working on a part of a product, enterprise agility may involve dozens or even hundreds of teams working on a whole enterprise solution.
Organizations that succeed in becoming an agile enterprise do so by first identifying the organization’s existing culture, then reviewing the top enterprise agile frameworks, and finally creating and executing a strategy for making big changes. These organizations become agile, instead of just doing agile. They adopt an enterprise-wide agile mindset.
The Simple Lean-Agile Mindset (SLAM)
According to a Gartner study, most organizations use one of the top enterprise agile frameworks to help with their agile transformations. These top frameworks include Disciplined Agile (DA), Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS), Kanban, the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®), and the Spotify Engineering Culture. You may notice a lot of overlap between these frameworks. They have different names for many of the practices, and some of the emphasis is different, but they all share a common theme.
The Simple Lean-Agile Mindset (SLAM), illustrated in the following figure, is a conceptual construct I created for understanding how agile enterprises function regardless of which enterprise agile framework they adopt. Think of SLAM as an overall description of a game, such as Monopoly, and look at the enterprise agile frameworks as various ways to play the game. SLAM is a high-level view of what the different enterprise agile frameworks and practices are trying to accomplish.
As shown in the figure, SLAM breaks down agility into four areas:
- System-level optimization: A collection of eight methods for improving the way people work alone and together in an organization to achieve any given objective and to engage in continuous improvement.
- Strategic vision and execution: The organization’s unifying vision, along with the three-step process for executing that vision: (1) Break it down, (2) prioritize, and (3) pull work into the teams.
- Empirical process control: The system for ensuring continuous improvement: (1) Deliver in small batches and (2) gather and respond to feedback.
- Business agility: The extension of agility throughout an organization. While enterprise agility focuses on product delivery, business agility makes every part of the organization more lean and agile, including human resources, accounting, marketing, sales, purchasing, and production. Small teams, autonomous but aligned, work toward delivering the highest value to the customer and to the organization.
SLAM System-Level Optimizations
System-level optimization involves improving the way people work alone and together to execute the organization’s strategic vision. Every enterprise agile framework includes methods for achieving system-level optimization in the following eight ways:
- Shortening the cycle time
- Clearing communication channels
- Budgeting for the value stream
- Encouraging transparency
- Working in cross-functional teams
- Respecting people
- Removing the fear of failure
Shortening the cycle time
All enterprise agile frameworks put a lot of emphasis on shortening product development cycles to optimize workflow, improve transparency, and ensure continuous incremental improvement. However, each framework uses a different approach. For example, SAFe® uses a concept called value streams — the steps between “concept and cash.” You want to optimize the stream to deliver working product increments in the shortest possible time. LeSS emphasizes queuing theory to reduce the cycle time by putting the smallest batches of work through the system. And Kanban breaks work into smaller work items and encourages teams to complete work items in small batches and reduce work in progress to optimize workflow.
Clearing communication channels
One key area all frameworks touch upon is open and honest communication among everyone involved in product development, including team members, customers, management, and the organization’s leaders. All frameworks have different ways to encourage and facilitate communication.
With Kanban, teams use a Kanban board that anyone in the organization can look at to determine product development status, find out what the teams are working on, and even gain insight into workflow issues. LeSS calls for numerous meetings, including sprint planning meetings, product backlog refinement, daily team scrums, sprint reviews, retrospectives, and overall retrospectives. SAFe has engineers that act as servant leaders for each of their areas of responsibility, including a solution train engineer, who communicates the solution to several teams, and a release train engineer who focuses on the release.
Budgeting for value streams
The third value of the Agile Manifesto is “Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.” In the past, customers would contract with an organization to provide a product with a detailed list of features. With enterprise agility, customers collaborate with the organization instead, so budgets need to be more flexible. Instead of budgeting for projects, an organization budgets for value streams, and the teams integrate functionality into the product incrementally based on the customer’s priorities.
Most enterprise agile frameworks create a budget around customer value. For example, SAFe provides strategies for lean budgets. Budgets are created for a value stream and then that value stream is assigned to an agile release train. Disciplined Agile Development (DAD) recommends rolling-wave budgeting. Instead of funding projects, funds are allocated in waves of product development.
A key part of continuous improvement is making sure team members are transparent about what’s working and what’s not. SAFe lists transparency as one of its four core values. LeSS includes transparency as one of its ten principles. DAD has as its fourth principle for effective agile delivery governance, “Transparency into teams provides better insight than status reports.” The Spotify Engineering Culture uses retrospectives, captured learning, and improvement boards to identify and address issues in the product and the process for creating it. And Kanban has “visualize the workflow” as the very first of its core practices.
Timeboxing involves allocating a fixed amount of time to any given activity. All enterprise agile frameworks and certain agile practices rely on timeboxing to ensure predictability and eliminate waste. For example, stand-up meetings are limited to 15 minutes, and sprints are often limited to two to four weeks. You can’t break the box to get more to fit, such as by letting a meeting run over or extending a deadline.
Working in cross-functional teams
Many organizations are structured according to functional areas, such as marketing, software development, quality assurance, and business analysis. Each area focuses on its own slice of the project. The business analysts work closely with the customer and then communicate what they learn to software developers. Then software developers create the product and hand off their work to a quality assurance team. Each handoff adds a wait time to the project and requires functional areas to coordinate work.
To eliminate handoffs, agile organizations use cross-functional teams. Team members work collaboratively on the product and often develop skills that cross the traditional functional boundaries; for example, a software developer may do some work related to business analysis or testing. Each enterprise agile framework includes a version of the cross-functional team, such as the agile release trains in SAFe, feature teams in LeSS, and squads in the Spotify Engineering Culture.
A core principle of the Lean-Agile Mindset is respect for people. In practice, respect for people involves the following:
- Listening and giving due consideration to everyone’s opinion.
- Letting people do their jobs instead of micromanaging.
- Encouraging people to achieve their full potential through cross-training and continuing education.
- Encouraging experimentation without the threat of punishment for failures.
Removing the fear of failure
To drive innovation and continuous improvement, organizations must promote a fearless culture. The top enterprise agile frameworks approach fear in different ways: The eighth principle of SAFe encourages organizations to “unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers.” LeSS focuses on using engineering practices such as continuous integration to encourage developers to take risks; Lean leaders are responsible for giving employees autonomy and encouraging them to work without fear. The developers of DAD emphasize the importance of creating a culture of psychological safety in which employees can function without fear. The Spotify Engineering Culture values trust over control and recommends “limiting the blast area,” so teams can fail more safely.
Start Enterprise Agility with a Strategic Vision
An organization’s strategic vision specifies the organization’s unifying goal and its overall strategy for achieving that goal. Strategic vision comes from the organization’s business leaders, who have a high-level understanding of the organization’s needs, the customers’ needs, and enterprise agile product development. The organization then turns that strategic vision into tactical work through a three-step process:
- Break it down: Team members work with the customer, management, and the other teams to break down the work required.
- Prioritize: Work is prioritized to deliver the most essential and highest value items first.
- Pull the work into teams: Teams pull work from the system to complete it.
Each enterprise agile framework has its own approach to setting and executing the strategic vision. For example, SAFe® recommends executives create high-level strategic themes based on the organization’s budget and goals and on customers’ needs. LeSS has a head of the product group, who creates a prioritized list of work items that a product owner distributes to different teams. The head of the product group may create the strategy for the entire organization and dozens of individual teams. DAD encourages teams to develop a common vision, where executives, managers, and stakeholders collaborate with the teams on high-priority goals. Spotify’s approach distributes the vision among different product owners. They can work together to find common goals, but it’s up to them to do what works for their teams (or squads).
Breaking it down
After your organization’s leaders establish a strategic vision, the rest of the organization breaks it down into something that can be delivered. For example, suppose an organization’s strategic vision is to create a version of its product that runs on smartphones. This vision doesn’t specify any of the particulars for implementation. Does it mean all smartphones or only Android and iOS smartphones? Should it be an app or just a mobile version of the website? These are questions the executives may not know the answers to and that the teams should answer in collaboration with customers and other stakeholders.
To implement the strategic vision, the organization must transform it into something more tactical. This transformation is a higher-level version of Scrum‘s divide between the “what” and the “how.” The strategic vision is the “what.” Breaking it down provides the “how,” which is up to the product development teams to decide. Each enterprise agile framework has its own approach to breaking down the work:
- SAFe breaks down strategic themes down into epics, which can be broken down further into user stories and delivered over multiple product increments.
- LeSS does something called an initial product backlog refinement, during which the product owner works closely with the team to refine the backlog into something that can be delivered.
- Kanban breaks larger work down into work items recorded on Kanban cards, and work items may be written as user stories.
Prioritizing the work
Prioritizing the work is a key aspect of enterprise agility because it ensures the most essential and high-value work is completed first, providing the organization and its customers with the most value as early as possible. Teams strive to “stop starting and start finishing,” so they can produce potentially shippable product increments. Each top enterprise agile framework has its own approach to prioritizing the work:
- SAFe has several different levels of prioritization. At the top (portfolio) level, managers and executives prioritize their epics on a portfolio Kanban board. Middle managers prioritize the work in program and solution backlogs. Finally, individual teams have their own product backlogs. Each of these steps is a way to zero in on the highest priority solution.
- LeSS relies on frequent product backlog refinement meetings. The initial product backlog refinement breaks down the work. Then subsequent refinements prioritize the work based on customer feedback.
- DAD includes prioritizing the work as an agile best practice — a part of each of its different delivery lifecycles. Agile teams deliver the highest value product as a way to increase the customer’s return on investment. Customers get more of what they want early.
Pulling work into the teams
Unlike traditional product development, in which management pushes work onto teams, Lean-Agile has teams pulling the highest priority work items from a product backlog or similar list to complete the work at a pace within their capacity for completing the work. The pull method also supports several system-level optimizations, such as shortened cycle times, timeboxing, and respect for people.
Each of the top enterprise agile frameworks has its own way of pulling work through the system. For example:
- SAFe recommends using Kanban boards at every level of the organization. Portfolio epics are pulled based on the budget, then different parts of the product are pulled across a Kanban board and into an agile release train.
- LeSS focuses on pulling work through the teams by applying queueing theory, which suggests the flow of work through the system can be increased if you break things down into smaller batches.
- Kanban is the most straightforward. Simple swim-lane diagrams are created on a board that shows the team’s capacity. Then, work is pulled across the board as it is completed.
Take an Empirical Approach to Products, Operations, and Innovation
Heavily influenced by Scrum, enterprise agility encourages an empirical approach to products, operations, and innovation — experiment, learn, and adapt. This approach is in response to the traditional method of speculating what will work best and investing considerable time planning a solution only to discover (upon delivery or implementation) that the solution doesn’t work or the product doesn’t deliver what the customer wants or needs. With an empirical approach, a team has an idea, tries it out, and gathers feedback before investing a lot of time and effort. The empirical approach is consistent with the Agile Manifesto’s fourth value: “Responding to change over following a plan.”
All the top enterprise agile frameworks support the empirical process and break it into two stages:
- Pulling in ideas, features, and tasks
- Delivering small batches to gather and analyze frequent feedback
Pulling in ideas, features, and tasks
The idea of pulling work into the teams is further broken down into three types of work: ideas (innovation), features (product), and tasks (operations). The type of work dictates how it’s pulled into the system:
- Ideas: Data-driven organizations may be interested primarily in mining new ideas by collecting and analyzing large volumes of data.
- Features: For teams focused on product development, most of the work being pulled into the system is in the form of features, epics, or user stories. Teams select the highest priority features and work toward integrating them into an enterprise-level product.
- Tasks: If you’re primarily focused on operations, such as a helpdesk or DevOps, work orders are in the form of tasks. Many helpdesks, for example, use a tool similar to a Kanban board to track workflow. They may have color-coded tickets, such as red, orange, and yellow to prioritize items. DevOps may use a similar approach to manage infrastructure, creating a prioritized list of tasks that must be completed to perform a major operation, such as installing a new server or creating a testing environment.
All the enterprise agile frameworks have ways to pull features into the teams:
- SAFe® starts with strategic themes at the enterprise level that are broken down into solutions by solution train engineers and then broken down further into release trains by release train engineers, which are then passed along to various agile teams.
- LeSS has one product owner who maintains an evolving product backlog from which the agile team members pull their work.
- DAD has a three-phase delivery lifecycle, during which the team members plan their work (inception), do the work (construction), and release their work to the rest of the organization (transition).
- The Spotify Engineering Culture follows a “think it, build it, ship it, tweak it” approach that leaves it up to the teams to pull work and complete it.
- Kanban relies on a Kanban board, which serves as a to-do list for teams. Many enterprise agile frameworks use Kanban boards to create a prioritized list of work items that teams use to manage workflow and communicate work status to the rest of the organization.
Delivering in small batches
The success of empirical process control hinges on delivering work in small batches, collecting and analyzing feedback frequently, and making adjustments. With small batches, team members learn from their successes and failures and can apply that learning to improve the product and the process for creating it.
Think of the small batch delivery and feedback loops as the engine of the empirical process. This engine enables teams to frequently experiment with the product and the process and zero in on the best solutions, resulting in both a better product and a better process. It also encourages a culture of continuous improvement, which is a key factor to improving overall enterprise agility.