Agile Centers of Excellence

In recent years, many companies have begun creating Agile Centers of Excellence (COEs) within their organization, as a way to help transform their teams from whatever they were previously doing into following better Agile Practices. 

At first glance, these COEs look similar to a traditional Project Management Office (PMO), but they most certainly are not. While a PMO is most often focused on governance, control and measurements, an Agile COE is much less about control, and much more about creating support and alignment within the teams, so that they can successfully govern themselves.

What is the Agile COE?

The COE is a group that helps foster and spread the growth of the Agile movement within a company. At its heart, it is a group that identifies, collects and communicates the best practices uncovered by teams within the company, so that teams have solutions available to help with their own experiments. In this way, the COE becomes a force-multiplier for the transformation, sharing the results of multiple experiences of many teams with everyone. While not about enforcing standards and creating work where none is needed, it is a collection of tools for teams to use to aid in their journey towards being high-performing.  

From the perspective of the developers, it should be the place that will help foster experimentation, share best practices and retrospectives, and help gather support for new ideas. Agile works best in the do-inspect-adapt cycle, and the COE should have plenty of ideas that they can try, help with the inspection, and determine strategies to adapt. The COE can also be used as an impartial judge; something developers often desire. Developers not only are accustomed to reviews, such as design and code reviews, but many will seek them out and wouldn’t consider attempting to release a product or project without them. The same is true for their Agile practices. By having a team of skilled Agile practitioners available, the team can utilize them for reviewing how they are operating.

For management, the COE helps ensure that there is enough skill in the organization to drive those best practices, help to describe why they should be followed, and keep the end in mind. While any given team is always free to try anything they think will improve their performance, it is possible that taken to the extreme it leads the team astray. The COE helps make sure that teams don’t drive off the rails, and aren’t doing something that will lead to a bad result. Management teams who fear the transformation will often strangle it, and try to take control back. The COE can help ease that fear, and prevent executives from meddling with the autonomy of the teams.

Why create a COE?

One of the important requirements for success in an Agile transformation is having someone who knows the process, and who is willing to coach the teams how to operate within it. In some cases, this is a full-time or part-time Scrum Master, in others it is simply someone with experience or possibly even a consultant hired from the outside. To be effective, the coach needs to understand the team, the product, and the greater organization, at least to some extent. However, it is impractical to think that a medium-to-large-sized company would hire dozens and dozens of coaches, and sprinkle them out among the teams. One way to solve this is to centralize the function of the coach into a more manageable size, allowing for the coaches to get to know the products and the organization, leaving them more time to understand the teams and how they interact.

If the function isn’t centralized, there is another risk, that the coaches who have been federated out to the individual teams will lose touch with one another. Part of the worry of management is that teams will start acting differently than each other, and this becomes a real worry if there isn’t a central place where best practices are getting shared and at least some governance exists. This doesn’t mean that every team is forced into the same template for reporting or story writing, or other bits of administration. It does mean that teams are using the same methods for tracking achievement, and making good use of tools that are available to everyone. 

An Agile transformation will require lots of support. Some of that support will come in the form of these coaches, and some will take the form of training, software, supplies or some other kind of shared resource. One of the responsibilities of the COE is to locate, evaluate, and communicate the existence of these resources, while guiding teams into best practices. While each team is free to choose their own method of, say, backlog management, it would be a waste for every team in the company to do a full-scale evaluation of every third-party product on the market, especially if they will all draw the same – or similar – conclusions. The COE is meant to provide maximum flexibility, while eliminating misalignment and waste.

But, wait, isn’t this what we were eliminating in the first place?

Centralizing an Agile Center of Excellence sounds like an oxymoron. At first glance, it looks like creating a layer of management above all the development teams, just like a PMO used to be, that will limit the agility of the teams by taking away their autonomy. And it’s true; if the COE is implemented like a PMO, there is a risk that happens. But a good COE is a layer below the teams, not above. Agile has long had the concept of the “servant leader,” someone who is only successful if they support others in being successful. That is what the COE is meant to be, serving the teams and helping them improve, not by telling them what to do, but rather by listening, understanding and helping team adapt. At its heart, this is the spirit of Agile.

The Agile Manifesto says, “[…we] value Individuals and interactions over processes and tools;” an Agile COE does not conflict with that. The COE is made up of individuals who are dedicated to the success of the team, success of the transformation, success of the product, and ultimately, delivering great products that improve everyone’s lives. To get from where an organization is now, to where it wants to be, will take coaching, support, leadership and patience. This is what the COE brings to the organization, and why it can be so vital to the process.

Helping to scale

One of the major barriers to an Agile transformation is to do it at scale. Having a team of seven switch from traditional methods to scrum has a fairly well-trodden path to success, and even doing it with a handful of teams isn’t likely fraught with peril. But doing it at organizational-scale has proven to be a challenge. Many of the frameworks that attempt to scale Agile up to hundreds or even thousands of people tend to add back bits of the old process, and create a bit of stress and tension on the transformation itself. An Agile COE should help prevent this.

A barrier that is real when attempting to scale is preventing bottlenecks and roadblocks between teams or even entire divisions. With prioritization and implementation being performed at the local (team) level, it can be difficult to ensure that important company-spanning initiatives are getting done. In the past, this kind of blocking issue had a path to remedy; a dictate would come from on high, and that would be that. That won’t work in an Agile setting, and in fact, it may even backfire if the teams aren’t fully committed. As part of their charter, the COE should be looking to make sure that all teams are headed in the right direction, and that projects and programs that require lots of coordination are indeed getting coordinated. This isn’t actual project management, it’s more around setting a vision, goals and objectives, and allowing teams to figure out how to achieve them. An Agile team will have an allergic reaction to, “Do this because I said so,” and will have a much better reaction to aligning their work with company visions and goals. This is where the COE comes in.

Many organizations are creating Agile Centers of Excellence within their teams, or are thinking about it. This is a group of experienced and knowledgeable coaches, who have the responsibility of making the development teams reach their potential, without getting in the way. This means supporting all the teams, through best practice sharing, training and tools, and by keeping the teams communicating with each other. While creating a central team to do this may sound like a conflict with the Agile principles, on closer examination, it isn’t. Valuing people is a part of the process, as is facilitating human interactions; this is what the COE is meant to do. And with the assistance of this group, a company has a much better chance of scaling their transformation effort than they would be without it.


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