Let’s face it – being small makes it look easy to be nimble. Look at your average kindergartener: they may not always be graceful, but their capacity for unexpected action or a rapid spontaneous change in direction at full speed is frequently mind-blowing (for each of mine, it was usually a sudden jump into the risk of oncoming traffic).
So it’s understandable for the established enterprise to look at the youth (and occasional hyperactivity) of startups – and small companies who never grew up – and feel a little fat, a little old, a little bit brittle.
That metaphor doesn’t need to end there, though, because there are also large companies maintaining a portfolio that balances finding new opportunities on the one hand and exploiting new opportunities on the other. These are two very different operations, though, and companies find balance difficult. Just like hyperactivity is internalized in the executive function of adults who had physically hyperactive childhoods, that rebellious startup creativity can survive unscathed within the mature organization. By doing so, you can simultaneously continue category-killing through innovation despite staying the course and reaping decades of fruits on already-mature markets and products.
Likewise, to extend the agility metaphor, life is full of athletes in the top quartile of height and body mass index. They top the BMI charts compared to average scrawny-but-chubby adults despite doing it with rather lean body composition. They are practically outliers, and definitely don’t fit the “standards” set by statistical BMI. More importantly these individuals put “nimbleness” to shame; and just look at those kindergarteners revere them. Look at the heroes of the NFL: agility doesn’t begin to describe their mastery of movement. Look at star hockey players in the NHL: they move with the power of an elephant, the stamina of a gazelle, and the grace of a ballerina. The stereotypical Hollywood karate master black belt may have a very thick, potbelly body-type, but the master needs very little movement, in just the right places at just the right time, to send an opponent flying.
So it’s simplistic at best to “think like the startups” or “be more agile”. You cannot transplant a culture. Size alone is not their advantage, strength alone is not their advantage, tenacity alone – as much we love a good underdog story – is not their advantage. To emulate any ONE attribute of the lean-agile startup on the rise is foolish.
Stop talking about enterprise at-scale agility like you’re trying to be that kindergartener veering into the street unexpectedly.
It’s more than being lean, or gaining experience or agility. At scale you need to build repertoire of enterprise-grade DevOps Athleticism! It’s one thing to have an impressive vertical jump but quite another to jump over a fence, hurdle over a tackling safety, or parkour up a building,
Training for Obstacles
For the support engineer team, kanban looks a lot like an Olympic marathon team. You constrain WIP (focus/movement pattern), create a sustainable pace, and fuel as you go – you train for the long haul by (basically always) running for distance. It may be fragile spaghetti code built over the decades, but you your crack team knows it inside out. But that’s not the majority of your at-scale enterprise. As you get further from a continuous flow of relatively similar requests and move toward innovation and greenfield disruption efforts, kanban and even scrum are going to fail unless you include the assumption of uncertainty and churn in your overarching process.
This is like the difference between a New York marathon versus Tough Mudder or another obstacle-rich competition. If you don’t build your capacity for speed-strength and coordination against unexpected obstacles, you’re likely fall short. The long and short of it is, if you can count on a marathon, kanban your way to glory. If unpredictable obstacles and risk-taking for glory are fundamental, stop whining and start training. Look for extra opportunities to beat down tough challenges instead insisting on a slow and steady pace. Speed and sustainability need to be loosely coupled in a strong DevOps process.
Jumping the Fence
I can tell you from experience that maximizing raw strength in the barbell squat does not correlate to jumping higher. If you need to jump higher to make a layup, you do things like box jumps. If your really daring, leverage your box jump into jumping over a 3-4′ fence (or hurdle) from a standing position. Raw strength on the one hand and sprint speed on the other don’t give you the actual agility, coordination, and explosive power you’d need.
Similarly, coordination of multiple teams is more complex than strengthening, quickening, or improving communication with each team individually. Establishing a cadence of synchronization and opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas – even as you increase the independence of each team
This extended metaphor has a great caveat – go find a 3’ tall picket fence, stand in front of it, and try to jump over. Assuming you haven’t been practicing, I bet your body stops you. The same is true of a healthy DevOps system – when you try to launch into a painful bout of stupidity, the developers stop you. If you’re smart, you don’t force yourself into a giant failure. Instead, you practice a bit and ramp up your agility to get your entire body confident you won’t end up in the hospital.
Throwing a Punch
You don’t throw a punch with your arm. You throw it from the ground up, leveraging the perfect twisting launch of one square inch of fist powered by your entire body. If you’re the square inch that gets to land the winning knock-out blow, don’t get cocky. You’d be nothing without the support and power of the entire body.