If you want to scale agile – watch out for the heroes. They might bring you down

I was in two related conversations recently – what is the secret to being agile (mentioned here).and “how do you scale agile to work in big organisations”.

I will publish the secret to scaling agile soon, but I realised that there is one danger that you need to be aware of before you start to scale – heroes can be great for small teams but they don’t scale well.

Where the success drivers for agile are in place the team will slowly gain rhythm and momentum and then start punching out value. Everyone becomes happy and things are great.

But sometimes the team appears to be agile in spite of some of the key factors being missing.

This can take many forms – It is hard to learn from feedback with no releases but the team have the experience to know what to do, testing is hard but they don’t make many mistakes; The organisation does not support learning and risk taking but this team do it anyway and they are so indispensable that they get away with it.

These teams are succeeding because they have adopted what we might call HDD – Hero Driven Development.

Thus through hard work, long hours, luck and great skill, a team can be successful in spite of the way agile is being adopted rather than because of the way it has been adopted.  Then, since they are successful, we can claim that agile is successful … since they are “doing agile” and they are successful.

This is dodgy but can be done with a small team.  The logic is flawed but the outcome is good and everyone is happy.

The problem is that a few heroes engaging in epic battles against deadlines and dragons can pull a small team across the line, but it is harder for them to keep winning those battles as the organisation scales.

Heroes can deliver a project, but they can be overwhelmed when 8 projects are happening at once.  Instead we need some of the processes, reward structures and corporate goodness to do the work alongside the team instead.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but you can allow heroes to be heroic locally if they want to, but you need to stop them trying to be heroes on a global scale.  You need to catch them and tell them to slow down and let the processes and other un-heroic things do the heavy lifting.

If you fail to do this then your heroes will scale a bit but then they will break (or leave).  Then your other team members will start to be exposed to the growing demands of people expecting heroic delivery and they too will break.

This is the first key lesson in scaling agile.

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