Agile wants to be simple.  And usually, it is.

In small, entrepreneurial teams, its easy to find a unity of purpose, similar levels of dedication, alignment, proximity, lack of politics AND overhead – all qualities that make small teams simply perform faster, if not better.

But what is different in large organizations, and why?  What is it about large numbers of people that make things inherently more complex?

If you’ve ever worked in a large organization, you may have noticed that efficiency, productivity, output, results, passion, and general firepower are all highly diluted. Which is odd, because you would think that “more” means better.

The reason for the dilution has to do with what large organizations value.

Put simply, large organizations tend to specialize in valuing low value things.

To be specific, you will notice that large organizations place a very high value on certainty, and safety.

There are some fairly obvious reasons. As an organization grows, it becomes accountable to an increasing number of diverse stakeholders: a large and varied customer base, investors, and regulatory and compliance bodies.

Also, the bigger an organization gets, the much more difficult it becomes to hire for quality. As an organization grows, and therefore makes bigger and better promises to its customers, it has to more rapidly answer to its growth needs – adding more and more people to meet increasing demand. It becomes very difficult to control for quality at these volumes.  Because of the benefits and stability they can offer, they can attract the highest quality talent; but as an accidental by-product, also invite those who are more concerned with the compensation, benefits, or titles than with the success of the organization. This is entirely natural, but it becomes very difficult – legally AND logistically – to filter out people who are looking to work there for the wrong reasons.

It may even be the case that a good number of people will be attracted to that organization because of its impossibly large size – its easy to blend in, and accountability is spread over a larger number of people.  This may be the exception, but let’s face it-we’ve all worked with that guy.

Because of all these factors, organizations come to value safety. Hiring, training, and planning and executing work are all standardized towards the lowest common denominator-to ensure that absolutely no one can goof it up. This is a great way to ensure consistency, but it’s a terrible way to extract high performance from a group of individuals working toward a common cause. Safety is chiefly concerned with making sure that nobody gets sued, nobody loses money, and nobody exposes the organization or its members to undue levels of risk.

Yet, as we know, agile hinges on metered doses of risk. In fact all success tales tend to have one thing in common-people who were unafraid of failure.

If failure is the precursor to innovation and success, working in a risk-averse environment won’t foster much innovation.

The second element, somewhat related to safety, is certainty. This is tied to risk of failure, but it is the specific set of practices meant to ensure that we do nothing, until we’re absolutely sure of everything. We will not start a project until it has been carefully researched, planned, case studied, risk analysed, fully documented, and universally signed off.  As we know, this spawns the engineering of methodical, stepwise processes (such as waterfall development) that allow us to live in the fear-based realm of eternal procrastination under the glamorous banner of analysis, and due diligence.

This again, is stifling to an agile culture, in which we realize the shortest path to success is to simply do something, and then measure and course correct as we go. The notion that it is far better to do something-even if it is completely wrong-so that we can learn from our experiment and improve immediately, is terrifying to people who are trained and compensated based on certainty and safety.

So how do you solve the problem of bigness?

Large organizations will always struggle with complexities in scaling communication, location, standardization, fairness and product delivery.

If you wish to lead an organization through change, then, you will need to make changes one team at a time.

The best way to lead change through an anonymous organization is not through eternal planning, expensive studies, high-priced consultancy, or processes and roadmaps that pretend to understand the problem in its totality. Rather, light a fire and let others come to it. What I mean by that is do something amazing, let others hear of your success, let them get naturally curious about what’s “going on over there”, and then they will willingly come and engage in your methods.

It will always be an ongoing fight to resist the temptation to add complexity and standardization to something that is so elegantly simple by its nature. But that is the fight. Agile is simple, but not always easy.

Team by team, one by one, simply do amazing things in groups of 5 to 10 people, and let your track record speak for itself. This is how every revolution starts. This is how every great idea snowballs; grows infectiously and organically, until it is too good to ignore.

As an elite team leader, this is exactly how you will work. Using small, tactical teams, filled with passion and purpose, and these excellence principles to do the impossible.

‘Til next time…be badass.

One thought on “On The Problem Of Bigness

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