Combating Agile Objections: It Doesn’t Scale!

Scaling Agile marketing is a topic that I expect to come up more and more as Agile gains currency with marketing groups. It’s certainly coming up frequently on The Marketing Agility Podcast so this post pulls together some of my thoughts on the topic. By way of introduction to the topic, here’s a brief quote from my book The Agile Marketer I point out that:

Agile methods scale about as well as any other method. The same scale issues that arise with Waterfall tend to come up with Agile. The single biggest one is communication: The more individuals involved in a project, the bigger the challenge it is to ensure good communication. Dunbar’s number applies here; it states that there is a limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. This is, of course, an inherent barrier to scale, not unique to Agile.

There’s also a second issue to contend with, namely that Agile must be integrated with more traditional research, planning and strategy practices. In other words, scaling Agile isn’t isolated to the teams that are doing implementation. There must be a robust connection between those teams and leadership teams. This is hard and something that I discuss at length in my book but since it was published I’ve come across some frameworks that I think are very useful to consider as you grapple with scale.

I’ve embedded 3 fairly long videos in this post that get into the details of different frameworks that promote scalability. Though it will take some time, it’s worth watching these videos to really grasp some of the emergent patterns that you might be able to apply. At a very high-level I see a few of ideas that run across these frameworks:

  1. Adaptive Methods: These frameworks all highlight the importance of adapting your method in support of scale.
  2. Extending Transparency: A central idea to Agile and each of these frameworks proposes ways of extending transparency beyond the team’s backlog to the program and executive level.
  3. Self-Optimizing Pathways: Transparency sets the stage for better coordination but transparency alone is not enough. These frameworks all promote the development of communication pathways that leverage transparency but which limit the overhead associated with transparency.

Tailoring Agile to your team

A prerequisite for scaling Agile is that you can tailor your method to your team, project, and company culture. If you are not adapting your method you won’t be able to effectively scale. Of course, this is what the retrospective practice is all about. The retrospective is not isolated to the work you released in your most recent iteration, it’s also focused on evolving your Agile method (i.e. Scrum, Kanban, etc). Ultimately methods are just a collection of practices that are bundled together and the retrospective is about adjusting that bundle based on what’s working and what’s not.

I really like the Shuhari framework which breaks down to this:

  1. Shu = Follow the rules
  2. Ha =  Adapt the rules
  3. Ri = Break the rules

The final stage essentially represents mastery—not in the sense that your process is perfect and stable but in the sense that you’re highly adept at continuous improvement. The following presentations touches on this framework in more detail.


Scaling Agile Framework (SAFe)

The following is a wonderful presentation by Henrik Kniberg and Lars Roost that focused on how they’ve scaled Agile at Lego in the context of product management.  To be clear, SAFe has not come to the marketing world yet … and to be frank it’s just gaining traction in product management but it’s a glimpse into the future for marketers. As with Agile in general, marketers are taking a page from product management’s book and this will not be an exception.

You’ll see that this framework includes practices designed to scale Agile across a large team with the use of practice layers (e.g. Scrum of Scrums) and by leveraging transparency to keep leadership in alignment with implementation teams. Prepare to geek out on Agile:


Other relevant frameworks: Google’s OKR

The second video that I am sharing below comes from Google and is focused on their Objectives and Key Results (OKR) framework. This framework has come up in a few conversations recently as a mechanism for connecting leadership with Agile implementation teams The key take away from my perspective is that this framework feels a lot more like a marketing-friendly practice to achieve some of the same goals of the SAFe framework. Again, this is a fairly long and detailed presentation and it really gets into the guts of what you’d need to know to actually get started using OKRs.

Is the OKR framework consistent with Agile? It’s a fair question but going back to the Shuhari framework the question may just be a statement about what stage your team is at. The fact is that these frameworks may be early examples of an emerging dominant design. I’m personally inspired by SAFe and it’s provided depth to my perspective on my team’s Agile practice and I’m also looking forward to exploring OKR’s soon.

Finally, I’d like to share a video from Spotify on their Agile practice and how they’ve scaled it. I love the statement they make up front that Agile is more important than any method. This really speaks to the fact that methods must be evolved to support scale over time. If you really want to get into the guts of what Spotify is doing, check out this paper which was co-authored by Henrik and Anders Ivarsson.

Spotify Engineering Culture – part 1 from Spotify Training & Development on Vimeo.

A Brilliant Team Building Lego Exercise

Every year I host an annual offsite meeting for my team. We’re a distributed organization, so we pick someplace nice and all get there for a few days. I have several goals for this get together but they all benefit from stepping outside of our day-to-day working context. It provides an opportunity to reflect on how we’re doing as a team and to spend time getting to know each other better. Of course, we also get some work done—this year we focused on how we might expand our team and charter if we were given the opportunity to do so.

This was also the first year that we brought in a facilitator—Mark Sato of Kaz Consulting. We wanted someone who would really understand our working context and Mark was the perfect fit because he is a former Oracle employee and is married to a close colleague at Oracle. To get the ball rolling at our offsite Mark introduced us to a team building exercise that I had never heard of before but that really impressed me—I’m going to share the details of that exercise below so that you can share it with your team.

Before I do that, however, I want to preface the instructions by saying that I’m generally quite skeptical about team building exercises. Before agreeing on this one I threw out several suggestions to do exercises based on the Myers-Briggs and other personality tests (thanks to my wife who is a psychologist I discovered they don’t have validity).  What I wanted was something that would help us understand and build around our social norms. If you haven’t already read this research on teams at Google you should read it before proceeding.

Finally, I also want to give special thanks to Kerry Gibbons of LIW—a global leadership consulting company. This exercise was developed by LIW and Kerry gave me permission to share it with you here.

What makes this exercise brilliant

The brilliance stems from what the teams do not know when they start the exercise. There are several aha! moments that I saw each team experience during the process. Perhaps the most pronounced was when people realized that the teams were not competing with each other but that they must collaborate to complete the process. It’s quite fascinating that people’s default mode is to assume that it’s a competition!

There were other insights that had to do with how work was divided among teams. While each team was unique there were common roles that emerged (e.g. the keeper of the clues, the negotiator, the strategist, the communicator, etc). Because of the constraints of the exercise I felt that it was easier to spot social norms …. which leads to a great conversation after the exercise is complete. You should plan to make at least 30 minutes to discuss the experience when done.


What you’ll need

This exercise requires a group of at least 8 people and I suspect that it would work well with up to 20 people.

You’re going to need some lego. I recommend getting oversized lego blocks as they are easier to manipulate (e.g. LEGO Education DUPLO Brick Set 4496357 (144 Pieces). Specifically you need 66 pieces in the following configuration:

  • Large Rectangular Blocks (these have 8connector bumps in a 2×4 orientation)
    • 6 Red Pieces
    • 6 Green Pieces
    • 6 Blue Pieces
    • 6 Yellow Pieces
  • Small Square Blocks (these have 4 connector bumps in a 2×2 orientation)
    • 12 Red Pieces
    • 10 Green Pieces
    • 10 Blue Pieces
    • 10 Yellow Pieces

You’ll also need a room that has four separate working areas or tables.


Preparing the team

  1. Get group to form 1 large circle,
  2. Go around the circle with each person numbering off into 4 groups (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, etc),
  3. Each of the four groups should get together in a different part of the room,
  4. Read out instructions to all participants:
    1. Each team will receive a set of clues that will enable them, as a team, to build a structure to a detailed specification—each participant should keep his/her cards to him/herself.
    2. There is no talking during the exercise
    3. You are allowed to communicate in any other form except showing each other your clues, using a pen and paper etc. to write or draw
    4. Hand signals, facial expressions, grunts, groans and squeals of frustration are all expectable
    5. The rules may be changed as we go along, by the facilitator
  5. Handout the clues (below) to each team and distribute them as evenly as possible amongst the team members—there are 10 clues so it may not be possible to ensure the each team member gets the same number of clues
  6. Explain terminology used in the clues:
    1. Color – refers to the color of the blocks
    2. Square vs. rectangle – refers to the shape of the block
    3. Bumps – refers to the connectors that allow the blocks to connect together
    4. Width – refers to the number of blocks wide when assembled
    5. Area – refers to the area of the blocks when assembled
  7. Place all the blocks in the middle of the room (away from each team’s working area),
  8. Let the participants know:
    1. there will be a time limit 30 minutes
    2. there are exactly enough blocks for each team
    3. all blocks must be used
  9. The objective for each group is to complete their structure. The exercise is not completed until all groups have met their objective ….. GO!

The Clues

Click here to download a .pdf file that has printable versions of the following clues in card format.

  1. Team #1 (blue cards)
    1. There should be 3 colours in your structure.
    2. Your structure is 9 layers high.
    3. All except 2 layers are the same size and shape.
    4. The 3rd and 4th layers from the top are 8 bumps wide.
    5. Most layers consist of single square bricks.
    6. You are the brick collector.
    7. The 3rd layer from the top must be of only one colour.
    8. Your completed structure should contain only 11 bricks.
    9. The bottom 5 layers are the same size and shape.
    10. The top 2 layers must be the same size and shape.
  2. Team #2 (green cards)
    1. You can only use 2 colours.
    2. Your structure must have 10 layers that are square in shape.
    3. 5 layers have an area of 16 bumps.
    4. 5 layers have an area of 4 bumps
    5. The top 5 layers have a smaller area than the other layers
    6. You are the brick collector.
    7. The colour of the layers must alternate.
    8. Each layer can be of one colour only.
    9. Only 4 rectangular blocks can be used.
    10. Your structure should consist of 21 blocks when completed.
  3. Team #3 (red cards)
    1. Your structure is 7 layers high.
    2. Your structure is a square donut, i.e there must be a hole in it.
    3. Your structure must include red bricks.
    4. Your structure is 8 bumps wide.
    5. There must be just 6 rectangular blocks in your structure.
    6. You are the brick collector.
    7. There are 16 bricks in your structure.
    8. The top 2 and the bottom 2 layers must be mirror images of each other.
    9. Your structure can be of ONE colour only.
    10. 2 stacks of at least 3 square bricks will be needed to complete your structure.
  4. Team #4 (yellow cards)
    1. Your structure must contain bricks of all 4 colours.
    2. Your structure’s height is 7 layers.
    3. Your structure should be 8 bumps wide.
    4. All joins should interlock. Your structure should look like a brick wall.
    5. Each colour must be represented by at least 2 bricks.
    6. You are the brick collector.
    7. There are only 2 red bricks in your structure.
    8. There should be no more than 2 colours in any layer.
    9. At least 3 layers should be one colour only.
    10. 3 of the layers consist of only 2 bricks.

The Structures

When you’re done, the resulting structures should look like the images below. Note, that it is possible for some variation such that two colors are switched.

Team #1 Structure



Team #2 Structure



Team #3 Structure



Team #4 Structure



Facilitation notes

As this exercise proceeds—depending on how the group in question is doing— the facilitator may adjust the rules. As an initial adjustment, you can allow the participants to share their clue cards with each other. At about 10 minutes into the exercise, this helps each team bring their respective specifications into full-focus. As a secondary rule change, you can let the participants communicate verbally. This is a dramatic change but may be necessary to complete the exercise within the 30 minute limit—this change can be made in the last 10 minutes.

I some ways I think it’s actually preferable to make these rule changes because it tends to shed more light on the group dynamics and lead to interesting conversations after the exercise is over.

The Marketing Book Podcast Get Agile

It’s been a few months since my book came out and I’m starting to hear from marketers who have had a chance to read it. I”ve also had the opportunity to do a few presentations on the book at industry conferences and to teams that are looking to become more Agile. So far so good.

Like any author (maybe?) I’ve also gotten feedback that made me say “doh, I should have done it that way!” Who knows if I’ll revise the text down the line but I’ve been taking notes. And, I’d be trilled to have your feedback. In the meantime, here’s a conversation that I had about the book with Douglas Burdett of The Marketing Book Podcast.


If you’re interested in my book than you’ll probably enjoy his podcast. If you’re like me you have to be picky about what you read—there’s just not enough time. This podcast is a great way to zero in on the content  you’re most interested in. And, for those books you won’t read it’s a great way to get an introduction.