Agile at Scale: Insights From 42 Real-World Case Studies

16 Aug 2021 by Scott Middleton

Even though most large teams are already on an agile journey, many are still looking for how to make agile work at scale. There is no shortage of opinions available, including my own, but I wanted to get deeper than just opinion and look at what the independent research says.

One of the more thorough and comprehensive research papers I found was an aggregation of 42 real-world studies into making agile at scale work. The paper is Challenges and success factors for large-scale agile transformations: A systematic literature review from 2016 authored by Kim Dikert, Maria Paasivaara and Casper Lassenius from MIT and the Aalto University in Finland. 

Agile has reached the plateau of productivity where teams need to focus on incremental improvements to how they run agile. So, the insights from a paper like this provide an interesting lens to diagnose problems and make those incremental improvements.

In this post, you will get an overview of the insights from the paper:

  • 35 challenges organised into 9 Challenge Areas
  • 29 success factors organised into 9 Success Factor Areas

What Insights Were the Strongest

The list of challenges and success factors is 64 items long and worth going through in detail but to save you some time, here is a brief overview of the factors that the researchers deemed the strongest. 

The Challenge Areas that came through strongest: 

  1. Agile being difficult to implement (48% of studies), 
  2. Integrating non-development functions (43%),
  3. Change resistance (38%) and Requirements engineering challenges (38%). 

The Success Factor Areas that came through the strongest:

  1. Choosing and customising the agile approach (50%), 
  2. Management support (40%),
  3. Mindset and Alignment (40%),
  4. Training and coaching (38%).

Challenge Areas for Agile at Scale

There are a number of challenges that you, your team and your organisation will face in making agile work at scale. Many of the challenges identified by the research will likely resonate with you. 

This list can be helpful in debugging and articulating the problem you are facing. The Challenge Areas are:

  1. Change resistance
  2. Lack of investment
  3. Agile being difficult to implement
  4. Coordination challenges in multi-team environments
  5. Different approaches emerge in a multi-team environment
  6. Hierarchical management and organisational boundaries
  7. Requirements engineering challenges
  8. Quality assurance challenges
  9. Integrating non-development functions in the transformation

Each of these is expanded out below into more specific challenges.

1. Change Resistance

People are inherently resistant to change. Here are some of the specific challenges around resistance to change when it comes to agile at scale:

  1. General resistance to change
  2. Scepticism towards the new way of working
  3. Top-down mandate creates resistance
  4. Management unwilling to change

2. Lack of Investment

Making agile work requires some investments. A lack of investment in some specific areas is a challenge to making agile at scale work:

  1. Lack of coaching
  2. Lack of training
  3. Too high workload
  4. Old commitments kept
  5. Challenges in rearranging physical spaces

3. Agile Being Difficult to Implement

There are some difficulties specific to agile itself:

  1. Misunderstanding agile concepts
  2. Lack of guidance from the literature
  3. Agile customised poorly
  4. Reverting to the old way of working
  5. Excessive enthusiasm

4. Coordination Challenges in Multi-team Environments

There are some challenges specific to coordinating across multiple teams:

  1. Interfacing between teams is difficult
  2. Autonomous team model is challenging
  3. Global distribution challenges
  4. Achieving technical consistency

5. Different Approaches Emerge in a Multi-Team Environment

When you’re doing agile at scale, different approaches emerge which present these challenges:

  1. Interpretation of agile differs between teams
  2. Using old and new approaches side by side

6. Hierarchical Management and Organisational Boundaries

The organisation’s structure presents some challenges:

  1. Middle managers role in agile unclear
  2. Management is in waterfall mode
  3. Keeping the old bureaucracy
  4. Internal silos kept

7. Requirements Engineering Challenges

At scale, requirements in agile present some challenges:

  1. High-level requirements management largely missing in agile
  2. Requirement refinement challenging
  3. Creating and estimating user stories hard
  4. The gap between long and short term planning

8. Quality Assurance Challenges

Making agile work at scale means facing some challenges around quality:

  1. Accommodating non-functional testing
  2. Lack of automated testing
  3. Requirements ambiguity affects QA

9. Integrating Non-Development Functions in the Transformation

Once agile starts to move beyond the development team, which is inevitable at scale, then there are some challenges in involving other parts of the organisation:

  1. Other functions unwilling to change
  2. Challenges in adjusting to incremental delivery pace
  3. Challenges in adjusting product launch activities
  4. Rewarding model, not teamwork centric

Success Factor Areas for Agile at Scale

The research identified 29 factors that can help make agile work better at scale and grouped them into these top-level areas:

  1. Management support
  2. Commitment to change
  3. Leadership
  4. Choosing and customising the agile approach
  5. Piloting
  6. Training and coaching
  7. Engaging people
  8. Communication and transparency
  9. Mindset and Alignment
  10. Team autonomy
  11. Requirements management

1. Management Support

Management support is a key part of agile succeeding at scale. The individual factors are:

  1. Ensure management support.
  2. Make management support visible
  3. Educate management on agile

2. Commitment to Change

Agile needs a commitment to change, specifically:

  1. Communicate that change is non-negotiable
  2. Show strong commitment

3. Leadership

Leaders can play a role in success. The factors at play here are:

  1. Recognise the importance of change leaders
  2. Engage change leaders without the baggage of the past

4. Choosing and Customising the Agile Approach

There are some specifics to how you customise agile that can set you up for success:

  1. Customise the agile approach carefully
  2. Conform to a single approach
  3. Map to the old way of working to ease adaptation
  4. Keep it simple

5. Piloting

A pilot can help agile succeed, specifically:

  1. Start with a pilot to gain acceptance
  2. Gather insights from a pilot

6. Training and Coaching

There are two key success factors when it comes to upskilling your people and teams for agile at scale:

  1. Provide training on agile methods
  2. Coach teams as they learn by doing

7. Engaging People

People play a key role in making agile work at scale. The specific factors around engaging people in the journey are:

  1. Start with agile supporters
  2. Include persons with previous agile experience 
  3. Engage everyone

8. Communication and Transparency

There are some success factors for communicating:

  1. Communicate the change intensively
  2. Make the change transparent
  3. Create and communicate positive experiences in the beginning

9. Mindset and Alignment

The success factors for agile around mindset and alignment are:

  1. Concentrate on agile values
  2. Arrange social events
  3. Cherish agile communities
  4. Align the organisation

10. Team Autonomy

Team autonomy has two factors that enable success with agile:

  1. Allow teams to self-organize
  2. Allow grassroots level empowerment

11. Requirements Management

There are also two factors when managing requirements that can help enable agile at scale: 

  1. Recognise the importance of the product owner role
  2. Invest in learning to refine the requirements

More on Agile:

Scott Middleton
CEO & Founder

Scott has been involved in the launch and growth of 61+ products and has published over 120 articles and videos that have been viewed over 120,000 times. Terem’s product development and strategy arm, builds and takes clients tech products to market, while the joint venture arm focuses on building tech spinouts in partnership with market leaders.

Twitter: @scottmiddleton

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