Scaling Agile at Zalando

by Samir Hanna, Holger Schmeisky - 17 May 2018

Sharing successful large scale agile experiences


Zalando has been known for radical approaches to agility since 2015. In order to keep growing and staying successful we took the next step in 2017 forming around 30 business units. Each business unit is formed around one particular business problem, topic or product with end2end responsibility. All disciplines needed are inside this business unit from commercial roles to tech teams.

Challenges in large scale product groups

Looking at this setup, we experience challenges. You’re probably familiar with this if you work in a similar setup or if your company has around the size of one of our business units (<100 people).

  • Who takes product decisions at this size with several teams and product people?
  • How to keep the focus on the actual product with so many technical components and intermediate steps?
  • How to enable 50 engineers to understand their everyday task contribution to the overall quarterly goals?
  • How to do sprint planning with 20 people?
  • How to handle cross-cutting concerns like 24/7 and platform work in a feature team setup?

By far the biggest question was however: How can this work inside Zalando?


Our Solution Approach

How to support these +30 business units to reach their business goals through agile working? Rome was not built in a day. We knew we had to work by process and collaboration.

We used the power of our network and collected successful solutions from all units. The first and most important observation was that no solution can be mechanically copied, but always has to be adapted to the specific needs of the unit (“There are no best practices, only practices that work in a specific context”). To enable this adaption and learning, in addition to the bare facts we collected:

  1. the story and motivation around the solutions
  2. the details of how they are adopted
  3. the (contact details of the) people who created them

For the first factor, we invited people from these teams for teachback sessions open for everyone to share their experiences in a try/avoid format.

Secondly, from these we created a 20 page guide on how to structure large teams with background details. Finally, we connected people we talked to who have similar challenges to the pioneers, because all advice needs to be adapted to the specific BU needs.

Concrete Examples

For example, the Fashion Store Apps group (5 teams) struggled with their narrow product definition: Each platform and the API were treated as separate products, with seperate teams, backlogs, product owners, etc. These needed to be managed, synchronized, and aligned, and code needed to be integrated. As you can imagine, somewhere along the way the focus on the customer gets hard to find. To address this, the team redefined the product as “Fashion Store Apps,” reorganized the teams to reflect this, and merged all backlogs into one.

Another example is how Personalization (6 teams) increased the understanding of the goals and unlocked possibilities. As is typical in a large organization, goals and concrete products were difficult to define for this department and usually the understanding did not transfuse to the engineering and data science teams. To tackle this, everyone (including engineers) took responsibility for creating or refining the press releases that underlie the epics for the upcoming quarter. Ideas to achieve goals are as likely to come from Product* as they are to come from delivery teams. The concrete outcome is an aligned and commonly understood overview of the next quarter’s sprints. This led to much higher involvement and identification during the quarter, and to more motivated teams.

A LeSS introduction backwards

These are only two examples from many more instances of how we scale agile at Zalando. The whole approach is somehow a LeSS introduction backwards. We make note of what trials work, and we find a high similarity to the LeSS framework without ever using the word or the whole framework. The practices emerged themselves as they made sense to the people inside the organization. As one engineering lead put it after reading a LeSS book, “It’s nice to see that we were not the only ones with these ideas.”

Our key learning directed to all fellow Agile Coaches and Agile Change Agents is to not implement frameworks, but to source from working solutions and share the successes.

Eventually we will end up in a form of LeSS organization without anybody inside Zalando connecting emotionally to the framework itself.

If you would like to learn more, feel free to reach out to agility-coaching@zalando.de or have a look at our open position.

Many thanks for the input and support of our colleagues Samir Keck, Tobias Leonhard and Frank Ewert.

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