Scale Agile by Scaling Autonomy

Erwin van der Koogh bio photo By Erwin van der Koogh Comment

The current holy grail in the Agile community is ‘Scaling Agile’. Every agile conference worth its salt has it as a theme. Every CIO on the planet talks about it with his management team and we even have a ‘Scaled Agile Framework’ (SAFe).
And most recently we had a string of blog posts on the issue I would like to respond to.

If you had a twisted sense of humor it would be hilarious to see what we as an industry are trying to accomplish. We are trying to fit the Agile Process™ into our enterprise command & control process governance model. In. The. IT. Department!

Now if we take a look at what really makes agile work, we find only 3 things:

  1. Short iterations focused on delivering value
  2. Continuous improvement of both value & value delivery
  3. Autonomous cross-functional teams

We can’t scale the first 2, only improve them. Having shorter iterations with more value makes you more effective. Improving both the product and the way you work make you more agile.
No, if you want to scale agile, we only have option 3 to work with.

Scaling autonomy

Which basically means that the only way to scale agile is to scale autonomy. But how the hell do you scale that? Let’s first look at it in the small to see if we can find some clues what would happen at scale.

Exercise: Tenure line

One exercise I do as a warm up and icebreaker at the start of almost every training is the Tenure Line. It is a very simple exercise in self-organization. You should try this sometime at the office. Get everyone to stand at the back of the room and sort themselves based on how long they have worked at their current company. Pretty the same thing happens every time:

It usually takes about 20-60 seconds for someone to ask what end of the line should go where. When I tell them I don’t care, it takes them another 20-40 seconds to decide between themselves. Then it is over very quickly with people talking and moving around. When I then ask the group if they are sure that they are in the correct order, everyone glances left and right then nods. Despite the fact that they have not actually checked with everyone else to see if it was done right.

Then we go over the 3 essential building blocks of self-organization, which they inevitably get right:

  1. A clear goal
  2. Peer to peer communication
  3. Trust

So what are the issues when we start scaling those?

A clear goal

Simon Sinek calls it the Why, Daniel Pink Purpose and David Marquet talks about Clarity. It is all the same and what it boils down to is that you have to be crystal clear what problem we are solving. What are we here for?
When I said I wanted the line sorted by tenure I was not clear enough for example. However, this is absolutely no excuse to tell people how to solve the problem.

The hard thing with scaling goals is that we have to make sure all the intermediate goals add up to your organizations purpose. It does have one besides making their shareholders filthy rich right? Oh…

Peer to peer communication

This does not mean that everyone should be talking to everyone else. That certainly won’t scale. But it does mean that everyone should be able to talk to everyone. Unfortunately this is currently not a given in most organizations. Hierarchies and hand offs between department often prevent people from talking to all stakeholders, users & customers.
Internal Social Media tools such as Yammer or SpeakAp are solving some of those problems, but in the end the only real solution is to focus teams even more along the entire value chain.


Trust is the only thing that is really hard to scale. Research done by Robin Dunbar shows that humans can only form meaningful social relationships with about 150 people. So if we want to scale autonomy and self-organization we need to limit a group of people with a common goal to a maximum of 150 people. This is why the maximum size of a tribe in Spotify is 100. It is how WL. Gore & Associates scaled autonomy to 10,000 employees and counting. Github takes it to the extreme and only has teams consisting of only a few people. And Svenska Handelsbanken has the branch as its basic building block in the bank.


I agree with Jonas Bandi (@jbandi) when he wrote in “Why I don’t believe in scaling Agile to the Enterprise” that we will never really scale Agile in our current corporate environments.
But I also disagree with him because I think we can scale agile in larger organizations. As long as that big organization is split into smaller groups (tribes) of people with a clear (business) goal and has all the people & resources to achieve that goal.

But that means integrating many or all our support functions into these tribes and thus getting rid of the IT department and integrate them with ‘The Business’. And that isn’t just going to happen overnight. Possibly ever.

What are your thoughts on scaling agile?