Shift November 12, 2018

Agile shifts in large companies

Christophe Rosseel

Client Services Director

Tom Van Helleputte

Agile Coach

‘The future is no longer about big tankers, but small, agile ships’, is a phrase you’ll often hear on the topic of organization design in the Information Age. Many people point to Spotify, a large company that consists of small, self-organizing units. It’s easy to forget but Spotify’s structure is not a model for large-scale agile transformation; their org chart grew organically with the company.

How do you change the course of a large tanker that’s been around for longer than a few years? We’ve had a chat with two people currently working on such a challenge: Thomas De Rycke (Proximus)and Jurgen De Smet (Co-learning, currently working with KPN on a transformation project).

Where is agile transformation on the list of strategic priorities?

Thomas: To transform the way we work is today a strategic objective at company level. Proximus has, since several years, been investing in changing the Proximus culture to support our “back to growth” strategy. This new culture maps very well with the agile mindset and paved the way for us to start addressing elements of the operating model - new leadership styles, governance and funding, transversal teams, new official agile roles & functions, performance management- allowing for the agile teams to flourish.

What is the purpose of the transformation you are working on?

Jurgen: Companies often transform to improve the time to market. If, with eight teams in one sprint of two weeks - eight hundred work days - you can’t deliver anything decent because the teams don’t work efficiently together, you are faced with a huge problem. In addition, employee motivation and engagement are now often also reflected as possible reasons for an agile transformation.

Which approach has been chosen and how did it work out? Were there specific examples or frameworks that were invested?

Thomas: We saw the rise of a kind of ‘mushroom agile at team level’, in which everyone creates their own interpretation and terms. In a project-driven corporate like Proximus, where you need a lot of inter-team dependencies to deliver value, you need to create a common language for agile. More so, if you’re not envisioning a big bang transformation, it’s important that this Agile language understands the waterfall language and vica-versa. They need to be able to co-exist. It’s one of the reasons why we opted for the SAFe framework to scale agile gradually in the company. The incremental rollout approach we’ve chosen at Proximus, makes that you don’t need to have everyone in the transformation from the start and don’t need an army of coaches. We work with a relatively small group of agile coaches, making it easier to stay well aligned, learn and adapt quickly to optimize our way of working. We’re creating a solid base to accelerate safely later in our agile transformation journey.

Jurgen: I am in favor of Large Scale Scrum, also known as LeSS. With this framework you will adjust structures, which is necessary for transformation to grow. I applied this approach at BASE Company and now at KPN. I noticed that it is better to start with volunteers who want to move forward, a group large enough to see the effect. Afterwards you can get the mandate for a broader transformation. I personally find SAFe very descriptive, so you have the danger that the behavior remains the same and there is little change in the matter.

What are the main obstacles that you encountered? And how were they eliminated?

Thomas: We’re only at the early stages of the transformation and we’re revisiting elements of the operating model that require trade unions approvals. We try to be as transparent as possible with the trade unions and not ‘sell or implement’ elements that were not approved. It’s a balancing act when it comes to communication. A second challenge is to create a common understanding with our leadership team on what Agile, and more particular what Agile@scale, really means. Debunking common myths around agile, like “agile is anti-planning”, is something I need to do for more often than initially anticipated. The shadow of the leader is not to be underestimated and having them to understand Agile and the impact it brings, vastly accelerates the rollout. If someone has a magic recipe, a would love to have it, for now we ask them to free up time to be trained, mentored and coached. Something linked to our incremental rollout strategy is the fact that being in a hybrid model brings the risk of putting governance over governance. That’s why we’ve introduced the role of an end-to-end feature manager at train level, who shields the rest of the people of Agile Release Train from the traditional governance.

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