The Rise of Enterprise Agility

By Doug Rose

After witnessing the success of agile software development teams, people in the agile community began to wonder whether the concept could be scaled to large organizations that develop enterprise solutions. After all, what organization would not want to be more agile?

But large organizations aren’t designed to be nimble. As much as everybody celebrates disruptive entrepreneurship, being big has its rewards. Large organizations do a lot of interesting work, and there are real advantages to their size, scale, and deliberation. Most of these organizations focus on steady incremental improvements. The challenge is to help such organizations reap the benefits of agile without losing the benefits of being big.

Enter, enterprise agility. As agile software development was hitting its stride around 2007, the agile community started talking about how to put fast-moving agile teams into larger, more established organizations by “scaling agile.” Two early books on the topic were Scaling Software Agility: Best Practices for Large Enterprises by Dean Leffingwell (2007) and Scaling Lean & Agile Development: Thinking and Organizational Tools for Large-Scale Scrum by Craig Larman and Bas Vodde (2008). At about the same time, Scott Ambler had introduced his Agile Unified Process, but he has since stopped working on it to work on Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD).

However, the notion of scaling was never accurate. Scaling an agile team would turn the team into a lumbering hippopotamus instead of an agile cheetah. A more effective and realistic solution is to find the sweet spot between fast-moving teams and the slow, deliberate enterprise. At the same time organizations were looking to become more agile, the role of enterprise software in an organization’s success was growing, so large organizations needed their software development teams to become more agile. Yet, they needed a buffer zone between agile and the rest of the enterprise.

Enterprise agile transformations created a whole new genre of articles, books, and consultants. In a few short years, the number of people who changed their LinkedIn profile to “agile coach” went from hundreds to tens of thousands as the demand for experts who could help large enterprises navigate their transformation to enterprise agility soared. Many of the authors of these scaling agile ideas started to create their own enterprise agile frameworks. These frameworks proliferated like diet and exercise programs, and large organizations couldn’t get enough of these pre-packaged solutions.

These frameworks were so enticing that by 2016 nearly half of all enterprise agile transformations were using (or actively considering) an enterprise agile framework. Just a little over a quarter were considering building their own. The little over a half that were using an enterprise agile framework generally settled for one of the top five frameworks: Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®), Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS), Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD), the Spotify Engineering Culture, or Kanban and Lean.

Even when organizations try to build their own enterprise agile frameworks, they often rely on one of these pre-packaged frameworks as a template. So, while there is no standard enterprise agile framework, a consensus is forming around a standard set of ideas.