Agile at the Enterprise Level: An Interview with Arlen Bankston


Arlen Bankston, vice president of LitheSpeed, LLC, is a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt and Certified ScrumMaster Trainer. Heather Shanholtzer recently talked to Arlen about what it takes to apply agile at the enterprise level and the challenges he faces when team members aren’t collocated.

Arlen Bankston, vice president of  LitheSpeed, LLC, is a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt and Certified ScrumMaster Trainer. Most recently, he has focused on combining Lean Six Sigma process improvement methods with agile execution and integrating interaction design and usability practices into agile methodologies. I had the opportunity to talk to Arlen about what it takes to apply agile at the enterprise level and the additional challenges he faces when team members aren’t collocated.

Heather Shanholtzer: When I think agile team, I think of a small group of efficient people working together, but more and more I’m hearing tales of agile being scaled up for large teams. How does agile work on a large team? Doesn’t it lose some of the things that make it, well, agile?

Arlen Bankston: Large agile projects aren’t typically done by large teams, but by many small ones. In this way, empowerment can still exist within each team, and the core problem at the higher level becomes managing the interfaces between teams. 

Heather Shanholtzer: What are some of the obstacles specific to introducing agile to large or multi-team projects?

Arlen Bankston: Dependency management between teams, maintaining shared vision and focus, and appropriate technical infrastructure (e.g., continuous integration, automated testing, etc.) are problems that become significantly more complex in large projects.  Minimizing built-in dependencies when setting up teams helps, and having someone focused on the big picture and inter-team coordination, like a “chief ScrumMaster” or “strategic product owner” becomes necessary at this scale.

Heather Shanholtzer: Are there tools or techniques a company can use to implement agile at the enterprise level to keep the project flowing?

Arlen Bankston: Visual management systems can be a big help here, as they allow teams to represent their work and progress at a level that makes sense to other teams, which in turn aids in fluid coordination.  Brief, regular meetings allow representatives across teams (e.g., product owners and ScrumMasters) to discuss and manage dependencies in a lightweight manner not entirely unlike the daily scrum.

Heather Shanholtzer: What if a team is not only large but also team members are distributed around the country or even the world? Are there virtual solutions that can keep these teams agile?

Arlen Bankston: There are many applications that aid in managing backlogs and work items, as well as collaborative communication tools that are commonly employed to keep team members aligned over distances.  A typical package might include an agile lifecycle management tool like VersionOne or LeanKit Kanban for managing the backlog, reporting and integration with other toolsets, a wiki for common project information, instant messaging for ongoing person-to-person coordination, and Skype or Google Hangout to help facilitate meetings like the daily scrum and sprint planning.

Heather Shanholtzer: I’d be concerned that open communication—the lifeblood of agile methodologies—would be really difficult to maintain at the enterprise level. Do you have any tips for keeping the conversation going across a large team?

Arlen Bankston: For real-time communication, always-on connections via audio or voice (e.g., Skype) are common ways to try to facilitate the tacit knowledge flow typically found in collocated teams.   Portals or wikis (e.g., Confluence) are generally used to capture and share explicit knowledge, like major design decisions and other such information that needs to persist.

Arlen Bankston and Bob Payne led the tutorial A Visual Management System for Enterprise Agile Projects at Better Software Conference West, June 10-15, 2012.

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