Scaling agile: How to remain collaborative in a growing business

Over the past couple of years, the principles and structures of agile methodology have grown in popularity. Structured around frequent communication, short bursts of activity followed by reflection, and near constant collaboration, agile is something that has often been associated with startups and small businesses in particular. When you have a team of, say, ten people, conversations can happen naturally across a desk at almost any point. But when that team starts to grow, how to remain collaborative becomes the challenge.

The opportunities for ad-hoc conversation which arise in a small team start to disappear as the office expands. If this is true of a business which is simply adding more staff within a central office, it can seem near impossible to maintain agile practices once a business starts to expand internationally.

As growth kicks off and starts to move a business from small- to medium-sized enterprise and beyond, there will inevitably be a need for more process and structure. How are growing businesses to avoid the rigid organisational structures which often characterise large, international firms, tending to stifle and reduce the speed of innovation? And particularly in an age of widespread digital transformation, how are businesses to create working cultures which promote speed in innovation?

We’ve grappled with this growth ourselves, we’ve centred upon an organisational model called “tribes” as a way to encourage a collaborative culture across our global teams. Particularly suited to the demands of the digital workforce, the model was first championed by Spotify as a way to remain collaborative and scale agile.

We’re now using the model to create communities of likeminded people within our business. The only way to truly remain collaborative is to ensure everyone is part of one of the four tribes, which organise people by their role and their interests – from sales and client relationships to product delivery and internal support functions.

Within each tribe, employees are assigned to squads – teams within the team. These are small groups who have a high level of autonomy to make decisions on a particular area, operating almost independently. These small teams are akin to a startup in and of themselves, and within every squad, each team member can influence the work, be an active part in planning and choose which tasks to work on. There is no formally appointed squad leader, although there is a delivery owner who is responsible for prioritising the team’s work.

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Squads are designed to avoid the complex inter-dependencies which hold teams back from delivering on time and at their best. But without any cross-squad communication, there would be no real sense of the wider business of which they are a part, and no value to be gained from the shared-knowledge pool. At the heart of the tribes model is the desire to reduce dependencies whilst boosting communication, creating economies of scale without sacrificing too much autonomy. The delivery owners of different squads regularly catch-up with each other to ensure the start-up-like teams remain firmly in line with the high-level roadmap which is guiding the company.

This structure may sound jargon-filled and gimmicky, but at its heart it has a simple goal: keeping relationships within a business streamlined and productive even as the workforce grows and spreads out. Scaling up whilst retaining the agility that has defined a start-up or SME is not an easy task, but it is worth putting in the effort. Agile principles will only grow in importance as digital transformation continues to increase the pace of innovation, leaving behind those businesses whose organisational structure won’t accommodate change. It’s important to act sooner rather than later to implement models which will facilitate collaboration no matter how big your business grows.

James Parsons, founder and CEO of Arrows Group Global.

Image: Shutterstock

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