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Wednesday, 17 April 2013 08:51

Use Sociocracy to Scale Agile Organizationally

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We are at an important juncture in the evolution of product delivery. Agile methodologies have lost sight of some of the core values, and not enough people are using social technology to fully realize Agile’s potential.

Agile, once hailed as the answer to development woes, has become a source of contention and debate. Organizations with larger, more complex projects struggle to adopt Agile. Some organizations won’t even try due to formal processes designed to ensure the projects meet regulations, follow contracts and avoid costly mistakes. This is especially true in industries where the final product includes hardware that can’t easily be built iteratively. 

Despite these concerns, isolated teams within organizations continue to implement Agile where possible. This inevitably is worse because it creates a disconnect between the teams operating within Agile and the rest of the organization.

A lot of these issues are because Agile methodologies are designed around small-team, single-location, software-specific constraints such as sticky notes, standups, and iterative working software. Because of these constraints, Agile methodologies continue to fall short, failing to extend sufficiently beyond engineering to include the wide range of stakeholders impacted by product delivery within the organization. 

There are solutions to these issues, one of which is a concept called sociocracy. The primary problem stated above is that communication is isolated to the specific teams using Agile. Lines of communications necessary for change to occur, and for decisions to be made, are not efficient enough within traditional corporate hierarchies. Sociocracy provides organizations the ability to streamline channels of communication by creating overlapping “circles” and “double-linking.” Circles are groups solely responsibility for a goal, such as a sprint. Double-linking ensures that representatives in each overlapping circle are present. This is not simply having a manager present in one circle to listen in. Double-linking ensures that communications and decisions are relayed quickly, without losing information or causing confusion. This becomes increasingly powerful as you look beyond the traditional product team to include other groups, such as sales, marketing or external stakeholders that before felt excluded from the decision process. 

A good exercise is to write down each perceived circle within your organization. This could be any group with a specific set of goals, such as an engineering team responsible for a sprint, or the company board of directors. 

Next, connect how they communicate and determine who represents the double-linking. Chances are you will find either a single person who is acting as a single-link in many circles, or no direct overlap at all. This is where the communication breakdown begins and is the primary reason why Agile fails. This problem is exponential as the size of the organization or complexity of the product increases. 

In summary, sociocracy is a system designed to incorporate the principles of agile (collaboration and interaction) on a much broader scale. This will ultimately help organizations become more nimble by focusing on the lines of communication rather than on methodologies that don’t scale.

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Derwyn Harris

Derwyn Harris is Co-founder and Solutions Architect Manager at Jama Software. As an engineer, consultant and trainer, with broad experience deploying complex software-integration projects of all sizes, Harris has a uniquely agile personality, managing effectively in numerous environments. He is passionate about standards and about his customers, constantly seeking to understand development trends and how they impact his customers’ success. As a competitive cyclist and extreme outdoors athlete, his philosophy for sustaining passion is finding the balance between intensity and moderation, which translates to his day job advising software developers not to over-complicate their process. He writes and presents frequently to business analysts, project managers and executives seeking to effect change in their organizations. You can follow him at

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