Scaling Next Generation IT and the Invisible Hand

Jurgen Appelo’s article “Agile Scaling Anarchists, Dictators and Networkers” resonated with me as I’ve been thinking a lot about the scaling issue of Next Generation IT. I think Jurgen correctly points that the extremes of Scaling Anarchists and Dictators are likely not the solution.

For the Scaling Anarchist approach to work, we need an incredibly efficient “invisible hand,” borrowing from economic theory, to provide the greatest economic value from the self-interested actions of individuals with no intentions of promoting the greater good. Conversely, Scaling Dictatorship is closely akin to Traditional IT’s false assertion that centralized planning and specialization are the best method for maximizing value; where just doing it in the name of Agile and not Waterfall. However, I don’t see Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) and Holacracy as both being at the extremes of the Scaling dictatorship. If anything, Holacracy in my opinion would fall into the realm (but not quite the extreme) of Scaling Anarchists. Between the two exist many more options such as Disciplined Agile Delivery, Large Scale Scrum and others. SAFe is the most heavyweight of the Scaled Agile frameworks and Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) arguably the least.

I think we can leverage economic practice to see that different situations warrant different approaches, with varying and emergent success. Centrally planned economies of Russia/Soviet Union, China, Cuba, etc. are poorly suited for a revolutionary change to a completely liaise-faire economy. China’s done quite well, at least in the shorter term, with their Socialist Market economy; small steps, adapt and adopt.

In correlation, IT organizations that are just evolving from Traditional IT delivery with little to no Agile culture or practices would not adapt well to the lightweight LeSS or Holacratic Revolution. I can’t imagine traditional IT leadership having the appetite for the risk with this magnitude of change. A mature Agile organization might choose a lighter weight approach though because the magnitude of change makes the risk more manageable and recoverable. After all, the founding principles of Next Generation IT like Agile and DevOps, is evolution through small iterative changes and emergent learning.

I believe the same holds true for IT cultural transformation. In fact, when approached on the question of which “scaled agile framework” for my organization this was my exact thought process. I suggested SAFe as we are just starting to adapt Agile and DevOps principles. We are not ready for LeSS or Holacracy; we need to pivot from Traditional IT first, then and adapt and adopt along the way. SAFe provides a more familiar pathway so that the behaviors, thinking and culture can actually wrap their heads around a more laissez-faire approach. Our Next Gen journey is dismantling the Traditional IT anti-patterns organizationally and culturally first to increase our immediately agility with acceptable risk, then seek the next evolution of thought and practice that results in the greatest value.

Jurgen hits it on the head with his earlier article “No. Agile Does Not Scale.” A given “Agile framework” does not scale universally; there are no silver bullets. Dogmatic Agile holy wars will only be as successful Religious holy wars; no thank you. Agility does scale though, and in my mind Next Gen IT will massively increase the amount of technology enabled value to society through the independent, self-interested actions of individuals. Perhaps the “invisible hand” is working better than we thought.