What’s Really Different About Agile—On Large Projects?

Agile methodologies work great on small projects—what about large projects?

ABOUT THIS CHAPTER   The naturalist Stephen Jay Gould tells a story in which two girls are talking on the playground (Gould, 1977). One girl says, “What if a spider was as big as an elephant? Wouldn’t that be scary?” The other girl responds, “No. If a spider was as big as an elephant, it would look like an elephant, silly.”

Gould goes on to explain that the second girl is right because the sizes of the organisms significantly dictate what the organisms look like. A spider can float through the air without injuring itself because friction from the air is a stronger force than gravity. But an elephant is too heavy to fly. Gravity is a much stronger force than friction at its size. A spider can discard and secrete a new exoskeleton as it grows because it’s small, but an elephant is too large to withstand the period between shedding an exoskeleton and regrowing it, so it must have an endoskeleton. Gould concludes that if a spider was as a big as an elephant, it would look more like an elephant, because at that size it really has to.

For us, the analogous question for software projects addressed in this chapter is, “What if an Agile project was really large? Wouldn’t that be scary?” Well, maybe it wouldn’t be scary, but a line of reasoning similar to the elephant and spider analysis applies.

The question of how to be effective on large Agile projects is not really the right question. Organizations have struggled with large projects of all kinds since the beginning of software (Brooks, 1975). They have also struggled with small projects. Agile practices and Scrum in particular have allowed small projects to be successful more often, and that has shifted the focus to the large projects that still struggle.

Agile emphases on large projects

Different organizations can have radically different definitions of “large.” We’ve worked with organizations in which any project that requires more than one Scrum team is considered large and others in which a project smaller than 100 people is considered medium or small. “Large” is a sliding scale. The considerations in this chapter come into play any time you have two or more teams involved. Some of the emphases in Agile development support large projects, and some must be modified. The table below summarizes how Agile emphases play into large projects.

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