Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The "Mini Team" Approach to introduce Enterprise Agility

When an organization has decided to "go agile", there is often the question: "How do we do this best?" - unfortunately, since the organization does not yet have agile experience, this is a problem of working in the realm of the "unknown Unknown", i.e. we don't know what we don't know about what we need to know in order to be successful. Since the empirical approach of Scrum includes learning, this is not problematic if approached properly. 
In this article, I will summarize quickly how we typically approach the first steps with Scrum in huge, Waterfall-oriented companies. I have dubbed this approach "Mini Team", because it is intended to be minimally complex for maximum effect. The reason for calling this "Mini Team" is because of the huge amount of "Minimums" in setup.

1 - Find a Challenge

The best way to introduce Scrum is by actually working on something that is both urgent and important. In the best case, this would be some kind of major crisis or incredible opportunity. The reason why we would want to start with a Challenge is to get everybody's attention that this is important. This concerns workers and management alike.

2 - Get the right people together as a team

A challenge is usually not mastered by managers, but by people actually doing some work. Consider the following questions: "What are we really trying to do?" - and "What do we need to get that done?". Put together a minimal amount of people who are capable of mastering this challenge. Get some core domain experts who span the biggest possible scope of expertise in regards to the challenge, ideally between 4 and 6.
Do not give these people a manager or team leader.
We call this "Working with minimum viable skillset".

3 - Free Pass on Processes

The Challenge is set up to imply that "this can't be done with our current organization". As such, the existing processes will most likely be inadequate to master the challenge. We would claim "We don't know what the right process looks like". Therefore, we permit the team to simply ignore existing company processes whenever they do not seem helpful - and take whatever shortcut is helpful to master the challenge.
Do not let them design processes upfront for getting their work done, much rather let the process evolve.
We call this "Working with minimal process".

4 - Apply rigorous Scrum

Working agile implies being flexible, but the experts may not be familiar with agility itself. Using Scrum based on the Scrum Guide will help the team orientate quickly in the world of empiricism without making too many beginner mistakes.
Do not "customize" Scrum in any form or fashion.
We call this "Working with minimal deviation".

5 - Define a meaningful goal

The Mini Team will not be able to "solve World Hunger" problems, but they can make a significant contribution in a very short timespan. Therefore, the team should not be bogged with a long-term vision or objective, but much rather focus on producing something tangible in a minimum timespan. Since the objective of Mini Teams is both resolving a challenge and getting familiar with an empirical approach to work, a period of no more than 3 months is good. Set a "SMART" goal.
Do not give the team a significant amount of time, like a year or more. Challenge them!
While the goal may or may not be a software or physical product, their target is a "Minimum Viable Product (MVP)".

6 - Discover the solution

Traditional companies often struggle with the notion of not planning the entire journey before taking the first step. However, in the case of our challenge - nobody in the company knows how it can be resolved (otherwise, it would be routine work and no challenge). A specific result may be desired, but nobody knows what the outcome will actually be. Similar to planning a field trip - it's kind of difficult when you know neither where your destination is, nor how to get there. 
Christopher Columbus in the discovery of the New World knew pretty much how long he had to sustain his crew, but not what the journey would bring. The best thing he could do was start to "Sail West". Every once in a while, he observed the Sun and steered back on course. This is what a Mini Team does - decide roughly who will be on the journed to the defined goal for how long, but there is no way to plan the trip. It's an adventure - a journey of discovery!
Abolish long term plans, most of all, resource allocation - since you don't know if it will help.
Instead, plan for short iterations (I suggest: weekly) and check how you must adjust your course.
We call this "Working with minimal upfront design".

7 - Effective Learning

To be successful in the endeavour, it is essential that the team make their own decisions and learns from feedback quickly. Since time is strictly constrained, a seasoned coach/Scrum Master is vital to guide discovery and learning in this learning period. This concerns both within the Mini Team and within the organization. There is no problem with doing something wrong, because nobody in the organization would have known how to do it better.
Accept failure, as long as something new has been learned and action is being taken.
We call this "Minimal feedback cycles".


A "Mini Team" minimizes organizational and technical constraints in order to deliver a feasible solution to a new challenge. With this, the Mini Team becomes the forerunner to Scrum - where teams answer to challenges every day. The Mini Team can bring traction to agilize an organization - if the challenge was sufficiently significant to be convincing.
The experiences gained in the Mini Team will guide the Agile Tranisition of the organization. Therefore, the best way to proceed after the Challenge has been met is by "seeding" the members of the Mini Team into different Scrum teams and adopt the same constraints mentioned in this article there. Take advantage of a "ripple effect" and iteratively set up time-constrained "Mini Teams" in your organization to transform an entire organization to agility.

Key benefits of this approach are: 

  1. The most significant challenges in the organization get resolved quickly.
    The organization makes progress!
  2. Within 4 iterations, you could roll out the new way of working to over 1000 people.
    This is a rapid adoption strategy!
  3. During the entire transformation period, the ROI will be maximized.
    The adoption itself may already be a positive business case!

Key drawbacks of this approach are: 

  1. A willingness to deal with problems is required.
    This does not work when people are content to feed the "Elephant in the Room".
  2. Experienced coaches and Scrum Masters are required.
    An initial "CSM" course will not provide adequate skill.
  3. The organization itself will be stirred up.
    People must abandon their comfort zone to remain useful.

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