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Adopting agile from inside - learnings from the BBC

Aug 8, 2008

Published in: Agile software development articles

Marcus Evans talked today at Agile 2008 about his experiences with migrating to agile practices at the BBC, during a session titled the FrAgile organisation. He discussed organisational changes, challenges and ideas that really worked for them during that period.

According to Evans, when he joined the BBC six years ago, the organisation suffered from lots of communication problems with people sitting in the same room not even knowing each other by name. There was no clear project management method at the time and people were vertically split according to projects.

Scrum was introduced in the teams very softly, without any big political announcements or fanfare. It was not hailed as the future, and Scrum was even not mentioned as such. The approach met with very little resistance. If there had been a big announcement, Evans assumed that there would be a much bigger reaction. The subtle way of introducing Scrum allowed teams to discover the functions of Scrum from inside. Rather than applying practices by the book, teams at BBC embraced principles and that influenced their internal culture.

In the next phase, the whole organisation moved to a matrix structure and people started meeting other people doing the same job in other teams. That helped a lot with sharing ideas and then people realised that other teams were doing agile practices as well. Agile advocates formed a regular “scrumtalk” meeting to share best practices, but there was still very little collaboration between teams.

Then they started working on BBC iPlayer, hailed as the project of the same importance as moving from B&W to colour TV. The project was huge and required teams to start working together, but using agile methods for that project was not questioned at all. Evans commented “that meant it was our culture”. People just looked for ways to scale scrum and extend it to a single project involving multiple teams.

Another restructuring hit the company during the project, going back to the pre-matrix organisation with independent teams, independent resourcing and training. The scrumtalk meeting became a “hothouse for anxiety” and “an environment of paranoia”, losing its energy. However, when the participants decided to do a retrospective and analyse whether they are still doing agile, involving an external consultant to help them get a more realistic perspective, they realised that they were actually still doing OK.

Marcus Evans pointed out the following few things as his key learnings from the project:

  • The way that they implemented agile was very much in their favour. Subtle, no PR, no big positive speeches reduced the resistance and allowed the culture to grow from inside
  • Reorganising, fanfares and political announcements caused fears, but there was rarely a significant effect on people actually practicing agile practices. Although they had serious concerns about the way they work from inside, looking at the same thing from outside actually was quite comforting
  • The matrix structure really helped
  • The antidote to concerns was to be inspective, reflective and hold retrospectives and get a more realistic view.

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