Scaling Agile by Creating a Learning Organization

Spotify spent years growing and becoming agile—and it built its own version of what scaling looks like in the process. In doing so, it created a learning organization by conducting small experiments and adjusting its course based on the results. The company demonstrated failures offer value by propelling its employees towards continuously improved approaches.

The benefits of agile are widely understood, so why do leaders report resistance to scaling agile, and why are the top three impediments to scaling agile all related to culture?

  1. The organizational culture conflicts with agile values.
  2. The organization is resistant to change.
  3. There’s inadequate support and sponsorship from management.

The challenge for many organizations is their approach to scaling hinges on implementing or adopting a scaling framework rather than creating a test-and-learn culture of change from the ground up, similar to Spotify.

The agile scaling frameworks in existence today are a collection of tools, and they need to be shaped to solve a specific set of problems within the context of an organization’s culture. When adopting an existing framework, the assumption is the framework itself will provide the answers, enabling the organization to move more quickly as a result. The typical result, however, is teams are not forced to think for themselves. Executives don’t embrace a fail-fast mentality, and middle management doesn’t create safe opportunities for teams to experiment. The level of effort required to change your organization is the same regardless of whether you (1) adopt a model someone else created to solve generic problems or (2) create your own model focused on solving your unique challenges. 

Determining your starting point

North Highland looks at each of our clients as unique systems and cultures that have evolved over many years to become what they are today. The systems and cultures of an organization won’t conform to off-the-shelf solutions; its unique challenges demand unique solutions.  

Your current situation, goals, practices, and barriers influence what ends up being the “right” solution for your culture. We don’t bring in a predefined, heavyweight framework that has all the answers. Instead, we help you develop a framework that will suit your organization and maximize value on your journey to agility. Because people are your organization’s greatest asset, we leverage the voice of the employee through an agile change management approach to help the entire organization—from top to bottom—successfully embrace the transition to agile ways of working (and thinking). 

To embed agile across the organization, we recommend that you ask four initial, key questions to inform your unique starting point:

  • What will my organization look like if more of it is operating with agility? 
  • What will motivate employees to work differently? 
  • What approach to learning new ways of working has and would be successful here? 
  • What is the first step we can take to start the journey? 

If you decide you need to scale, our advice is to first start by breaking the problems you need to solve into smaller, more achievable issues. Create experiments to prove or to disprove your hypothesis. If you have several teams, you can try a different experiment with each team, taking advantage of the greater brainpower of each team to produce a variety of potential solutions. Experimenting with different options across multiple teams will allow you to see how each plays out before determining your actions on a larger scale.

Spotify continues to encourage employees to learn and adapt their ways of working; as a result, the Spotify delivery model as the broader world knows it doesn’t exist today within the company. In the end, you may also discover that there is not one single, static solution for your organization. Instead, you’ll have the opportunity to become—as Spotify did—a learning organization whose constant reevaluation and experimentation moves the entire company towards greater agility.