I have been coaching organisations through large-scale Agile transformations for years. It’s what I enjoy and it’s where I feel I can have the biggest impact. This is the story of how I came to specialise in this, how I began experimenting with the Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS) framework, and why I became a Certified LeSS Trainer.
My Introduction to Large-Scale Software Development and LeSS
When I first started working with multiple teams, I did not know where to start. Scrum is great at lowering the water and exposing rocks within organisations. Fixing them, on the other hand, is a different story. This is only amplified when you try to scale Scrum. Back when I started, I had very little to go on. I had to work it out. How should we structure teams? How can we coordinate between them? How can we scale the Product Owner? Thankfully, after consuming almost all of the published literature written on the topic, I discovered the book that was to become my bible. Scaling Lean and Agile Development by Craig Larman and Bas Vodde gave me the tools and techniques I needed to get going. Soon, I was implementing what I had learnt and running my own experiments. Seeing what worked and what did not in a given context helped to shape my belief that there can be no cookie-cutter solution. With high levels of complexity, it becomes even more important to rely on minimal prescriptiveness plus empiricism. See my post on prescriptiveness in large-scale product development.
In 2010, Craig and Bas’s next book was published; Practices for Scaling Lean and Agile Development. This gave me insight into nearly all 600 experiments they had conducted over the years at Nokia and beyond. It further shaped my belief in the importance of experimentation over conformance. I shaped my approach to scaling Scrum based on these two books and I began implementing its teaching with my many clients. My discovery of these two wonderful books had allowed me to begin coaching LeSS years before the framework officially existed.
It was from this work, and my implementations of it, that I came to realise that successful large-scale Agile development is at least 70% organisational transformation with only 30% focussed on how teams are working together. The organisational tools and thinking tools contained in LeSS equip organisations to tackle the real issues. Any framework that ignores the organisational side of things to focus just on the teams and product will give you marginal gains at best. A Ferrari in a traffic jam does not go very fast.
Understanding other approaches
I was recently asked by a prominent figure in the Agile world if I felt that my being a Certified LeSS Trainer and a SAFe Program Consultant is congruent. My answer was a firm yes. Let me explain why…
There is a lot of talk in the industry about SAFe, much of which is from people who are not informed. I took the four-day SAFe Program Consultant (SPC) with Dean Leffingwell to gain a better understanding of what SAFe is about. It has its strengths and its weaknesses. I believe that having a deep understanding of it allows me to better advise my clients. It makes me a more effective coach and helps me to give better answers to the difficult questions around the similarities and differences in the two approaches. This advice, from a position of knowledge, can help organisations make the right decisions for them.
Becoming a LeSS Trainer
Having a good understanding of the main scaling approaches currently out there allowed me to make an informed decision about where I wanted my career to go. In 2015 Craig and Bas launched the LeSS framework. When they announced that they were looking for candidate trainers, I was quick to register my interest. Being a Scrum Alliance Certified Enterprise Coach and having already been applying the key concepts with my clients for some years, meant that I was well placed to begin the journey to trainer.
After accepting me as a candidate, Craig and Bas were generous with their time and mentoring. I attended Craig’s Certified LeSS Practitioner course in London in February 2015. It was one of the first in the world. I was excited to have a ‘candidate trainer’ seat on the course. It was exactly a week after the birth of my second daughter. As you can imagine, my wife was less than delighted about being left alone with a toddler and a 7-day old baby while I attended. Thankfully, the promise of an eternity ring softened the blow a little, and the course was one of the best I have been on. After each of the three days, two of us stayed behind to debrief with Craig on the issues of the day and how we could one day effectively deliver them ourselves. Learning from one of the greatest minds in the industry was inspiring for me. I emerged thoroughly enthused to continue down the trainer path.
The next step was getting my case study published. All trainers are expected to have successfully worked on at least one LeSS (or LeSS-like) adoption. I worked closely with Craig to tell the story of a large e-commerce organisation operating throughout Europe and how we made a huge impact on their ability to delight their customers through small and frequent releases; even with multiple-teams collaborating. You can read the case study here. Frustratingly, I did not gain agreement from the client to publish, so we have had to disguise the name. I have shared most of the other details. After we were all happy, it was finally published as an official case study which was greatly satisfying as an endorsement of my application of the LeSS principles and patterns.
With the main hurdles cleared, it was then a case of ploughing through, and digesting, the long reading list for candidate trainers. This gave great insight into the minds of Craig and Bas and what shaped the rules and principles of LeSS. I learnt a lot from these books. My graphical representation of LeSS left a little to be desired, but I did my best. I hope to have another go in the new year to create something better.
The final hurdle was a gruelling interview with Bas. We talked about all sorts of things from the reading list and rules and patterns of LeSS adoption. He pressed me pretty hard, but I enjoyed the conversation and his deep understanding of how to scale product development. Very few people have more experience doing this than Bas. I became a Certified LeSS Trainer in May 2015 and began training shortly afterwards. Including Craig and Bas, I was the fifth trainer worldwide and the first in the UK. As I write this, there are still only eleven in total.
LeSS is a framework in which I firmly believe. I have seen first hand the power of applying the principles, organisational thinking tools and patterns. I enjoy sharing my learning with others and guiding organisations through to agility at scale. A journey that can often feel like walking through a thick fog. I believe that my training and coaching go some way to clearing that fog.
I feel very privileged to be part of this small, but hugely experienced community. The trainers are a tight group of great guys and the collaboration is non-stop. Working so closely with some of the world’s most experienced thought-leaders in large-scale product development has helped me to raise my game.
I believe that 2016 will be the year that LeSS really takes hold. I look forward to being part of the success of a great framework that has transformed so many organisations and will, no doubt, transform many more.