Scaling agile to increase portfolio visibility

Imagine this common scenario: your organisation is putting a business strategy into action, working hard to achieve its objectives, and you are overseeing a big chunk of the projects involved in meeting that company-wide goal. The trouble is, right now you can’t see the wood for the trees; until you get your next status report, you don’t know exactly what is happening or where. Add a demanding line manager or client to that mix, and it’s entirely likely that sleep will be lost and headaches will occur.

If you are using a waterfall approach, this will almost certainly be the case – but even if you’re using traditional agile, it remains a risk when projects get very big and very complex, and/or epics (large bodies of work that can be broken down into a number of smaller tasks, or stories) and portfolios are highly challenging (as they generally tend to be). While the advantages of agile methodology are largely accepted, it does not inherently reduce the complexity of complex works. Where different teams are working to achieve the same end, it can become difficult to track and manage processes in real time and, crucially, difficult to intervene if things seem to be going awry.

This is when the ability to scale agile – to take the best of agile methodology and tailor it precisely for use in complex, large-scale projects, in a systematic way – becomes enormously helpful. In particular, this approach gives everybody concerned a real-time overview of the project or portfolio as it unfolds, allowing you to identify (and fix) bottlenecks and other issues as they arise. In short, with a scaled agile framework (referred to as SAFe) there is transparency throughout every step of the project.

How does it work?

Scaling agile means breaking down a project at all levels and prioritising tasks according to business need. So, there may be various epics, stories and tasks, but with scaled agile they all are visible in real time and fully traceable.

So, to return to our original example, if a colleague or client calls and wants to know exactly what is happening with any given part of their update or new project, with scaled agile you always know what’s going on – allowing you to give an update on request.

Consider a bank, for example, and imagine a scenario: when the director of mortgages wants to launch a new product. A scaled agile portfolio board would give them an overview of the epics required to get the job done, as well as visibility of the smaller pieces going through the system and being delivered/rejected according to priority. The result is a much smoother path from idea to product, allowing plenty of space for flexibility and intervention during the process. This is a stark contrast to the waterfall approach, where chunks of work are effectively siloed and can’t be examined or critiqued until a status update is issued.

Scaling best for DevOps and big projects

As we have seen, the scaling of agile requires the user to tailor conventional agile to fit bigger projects and development operations. This is due to the very distinctive nature of these projects; they tend to involve multiple developers – and quite possibly in a variety of locations – all with different business ideas, whilst using the same systems. Obviously, this creates plenty of opportunities for miscommunication (or lack of communication), as silo working essentially obscures a wider project overview. In fact, it is not uncommon for businesses to decide to scale agile but do so inadequately, and subsequently, find themselves falling back into the waterfall approach instead.

What differentiates successfully scaled agile from failed scaled agile lies largely in the planning and establishment of an appropriate version of the SAFe methodology – as there are different iterations for full SAFe, portfolio SAFe, large solution SAFe and essential SAFe. Large-solution SAFe incorporates a level called the solution train, which expedites the creation of large-scale, multi-disciplinary and complex systems. That simply isn’t needed in other versions of the methodology, so should not be included. By tailoring the framework to the project, both leanness and agility are maximised.

Peace of mind

All of this is good news, for both the business involved and the agile epic owners — as proven, SAFe methodology can be scaled with maximum efficiency. In the process, transparency is available at every step of the way, and a real-time overview is always available.

As long as scaling is carried out in accordance with tried and tested frameworks, and efficiently — meaning that the correct framework is applied rather than trying to shoehorn one that fits a different project model— this approach will reduce misunderstanding, remove obscurity and, most importantly, assure accountability and transparency throughout all processes until the project has been finalised. And that is something that should let even the most anxious portfolio owner sleep more soundly at night.

Written by Andy Fulluck, Development Portfolio Manager, Netcompany