Are we going to be save with the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)?

Ever size we speak about agile teams the question how to scale these methods and processes is one of the common topics within the corporations and communities. I do not want to reiterate over the various views, standpoints and other argumentations as you can clearly google them. Looking at the topic from a management point of view I like to find some reasons why enterprice corporations do find it so pleasent and why these frameworks are important for them.

Our goal is easy, we like the success to stay on the summit. Especially in a corporation it is extremely important to be efficient. Make sure your change is going fast and is executed soon. You need this next success story. So what is it a scaling framework such as SAFe provides you? What is it that is so attractive to use it? And what effects or even triggers do apply? These are the central questions I like to discuss.

Every summit starts with the first step

Of course we all know that starting a new initiative such as business agility doesn‘t start with the summit. We need to start with something else. But what is the best strategy to start with? In general I came across the following three common strategies corporations:

  1. Start with a small unit from the bottom up
  2. Start with training and teaching the methods to people as a common program
  3. Building knowledge at the leadership level what the new business agility mean for teams and introcuce from top down
  4. Have an experienced C-Level person to guide the change towards agile from top and foster learning from the bottom up at the same time

The SAFe framework is one of these structures enforcing the top down method. Dean and his team learned the hard way that the bottom up method often fails. The reason is simple it is very hard to change common behavior on the top if you do not have some kind of pressure. This pressure often only happens if you convinced the top executive in your corporation. Many sales people do know this too. Start at the top of the organization and it is much more efficient to sell your products within the organization.

Start-Ups do have a natural advantage at this point. Due to size and flat organizational structures they just do not need to bother with the complex issue of selling some new idea within their organization. Very often they can use the new methods and tools without any constraints. They can start to climb up easily and naturally find the save path. As soon as the start-up grows so much that it needs to grow its scrutures too it depends on the top executive experience and knowledge which path they continiue to go. With a lot of agile cultural understanding it is likely that self-organization is driving the required change. In these situations teal organizations, as Frederic Laloux describes them in Reinventing Organizations, emerge.

How is SAFe supporting the cultural change?

I tried all of the options above in the past years. Personally I‘m convinced that you need to come from top-down and bottom-up at the same time. May focus is on the leadership level as there are many more learned behaviros to be un-learned than on the work-floor. We need to accept on a management level that we will loose control. The new organizational behavior will be driven by values that are build and linked within the people rather than designed by a consultant or strategy party.

At this point the SAFe framework provides many trainings, information and trusted sources. As it follows the common principles of learning (addressing all senses for the various forms of learners) it helps to seed the idea of a new way of work in any attendee of a training. Together with the sucessful „sale“ of the framework on top-executive level it is pretty easy to get everybody within a large organization trained and educated with the method.

After the initial step of learning the framework tells the corporation – you are now ready to do your first step and climb up. Very often I experience differt expecations towards how much progress you can achieve with this initial step and training. And as in climbing this depends on your tallent, weight, agility in terms of being able to move and the strengh of your will.

What rabbit holes SAFe might lead you in?

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My experience is that the comprehensive information, documentation and the spirt of SAFe consultancy companies leads to many confusing situations within teams, sections or whole organizations. So far I have heared roumers of SAFe implementations that had been sustainable and long terms effective. More often I hear C-level managers complaining about high costs of PI plannings or other may be in-efficencies.
SAFe is a great structure helping a large scale organization to overcome specific issues. As Klaus Leopold perfectly well explains in his talk „Why Agile Teams have nothing to do with business Agility“ agile culture and mindset might not change your flow and the behavior of your common and unspoken rules of action.
SAFe gives the impression if you follow this process everything get‘s agile. This will not happen. You need to unlearn your old behavior and also change the mind and expectations of your clients, customers and partners. SAFe is just a framework explaining specific solutions for specific problems. In combination it is great however SAFe is not changing anything at the organizational systemic level of your corporation. As a C-Level manager or top-executive this is still your job. Therefore you need to change your behavior first to allow the environment changing and your company to transition to an agile corporation.

Getting mastery in a scaled agile organization

I was running several organizations and setups in the past years. They reached from 6-8 autonomous up to 15 somehow dependent teams. My personal next challenge is to orchestrate and grow a structure of about 1500 engineers into various tribes and teams. In total we calculate that we will have at least 5-8 agile release trains running in parallel and being dependent from one another. To orchestrate these teams we definitely need to understand how we can scale our organizational structure.

The first goal is to train and educate our leadership people. This includes senior managers, top-executives as well as team leaders. The goal is to prepare them on what is coming up from the teams. As teams grow they will require new structures and especially anchors inside the surrounding corporate structure. Topics we consider to be changed are for example:

  • The decision culture and how we can improve trust on lower levels that decisions are accepted
  • The way we collaborate and the feelings attached to loosing power by sharing more sensible information
  • Moving towards an open spirit based corporate environment in which intrinsic motivation is higher valued than any form of extrinsic pushes

All of these areas affect each person on an individual level. It starts with simple topics such as estimates for work packages, the understanding which value a process delivers and which security anchors a corporate standard provides for each employee. These affects help employees to gain trust in themselves doing the things right and therefore taking over more individual risk, responsibility and accountability.

At this point the climbing metaphor helps again. Even so you have an incredible perfect equipment and framework such as SAFe it will not change the behavior of the individuals. Only each single engineer can change his perspective and with that his or her way of getting the work done. We need to train this for a long time and continue to improve this regularly. Agile methods can help here a lot if they get the freedom to act in their areas and trust and patience.

What SAFe provides and we can use

As the introduction of SAFe framework is so structured, based on an individualistic culture and high profile it gives a great link to the business management standards about all C-Levels learned in the past. In western universities and management courses the control and check culture is an essential part. This culture is implemented in the heart of SAFe too. With that it will be easy for top executives to link the new way to their personal believes. They will agree on testing and using this framework as they can understand it and the values fit.

What they won’t do is to change the way how they approach the controlling structures of finance and their value streams. If there isn’t a change in which departments such as sales, marketing or finance will loose control, status and power within an organization all efforts within departments such as projects, development or technology will get stuck at the believe level at one point. The primary questions you need to answer are:

  • Will I be willing to drop the wish of a customer in order to protect my agile organization?
  • Will I accept that a executive from marketing or sales is not getting his/her idea done as an technology improvement get’s more objective value for the company?
  • Do I accept power of decision making being with the people on the working floor rather executives that are not doing the development job?
  • Do I find a new value add reason for a top executive that is accepted by the people on the working floor?

All these questions on the organizational level are ignored by the technocratic framework of SAFe. You will need to have other partners, consultants and new learnings. You will need to unlearn things you learned in university and believed they are important for so long. If you start this journey you will realize introducing SAFe isn’t a project that ends. And latest then you will ask yourself if it is valuable to invest in the training licenses or highly paid trainers and coaches that can help only with the first step.

The answer to this last question lead me to the point that I believe SAFe is a good documentation of a lot of practices however implementing it makes only sense with internal people only. And this leads to the point that the introduction takes much longer than any consultant tells me just to avoid the agile pendulum bouncing back fast. In the end I do not need to have all my people trained and educated. I do need to foster agile principles and values. In case we need to scale structures and groups we can easily do it individually. Using a common language and set of principles such as the SAFe documentation makes it easier. And as usual within agile – inspect and adapt has a higher priority than following a plan.

Achieving mastery in an agile organization

Rock climber clinging to a cliff.

It is pretty astonishing to me that many startups or individual groups are easily more agile at scale as any organization I know. It looks like it is far more easy to grow structures from small to big rather than restructure big structures. Especially in agile corporations the values and corresponding spirit becomes an essential part in HR processes and the organizational development.

I believe to achieve mastery in an agile organization you need to be brave and risk to loose a lot of control. Recently Jurgen Appelo founded a new corporation called Agility Scales with some friends. Their approach in creating a truly minimal viable product based startup works perfectly so far. Based on the agile and corporate experience many of the involved people have their ideas and visions to grow the organization follow a similar approach. They work as a team and still each individual can perform many complex tasks. Having new challenges in competence areas they don’t have they use their agile principles and ask in the community for help. Growing their structures with an open spirit based mindset and without fear to ask.

By using modern communication tools and experimenting with new approaches to collaborate they are flexible and responsive to change. In this case the changes needed within the organizational structures and requirements. One of the best examples for this are requirements by legal regulations. As of these change the organization adapt to be compliant with them.

Looking at enterprise organizations we experience a lot of holding and structural elements that can’t be overcome by a simple yet helpful framework such as SAFe. So in this case I would argue we are not going to be save with a simple implementation of this framework. However we can clearly achieve mastery if we are brave enough to really adapt to the uncertainties the VUCA world has having in mind for us. As discussed in my other blog „Digitalisierung und Agilität vs. „Konzernbehindertem“ Startup“ there are ways how we can overcome the constraints. We can find individual and new solutions for a more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world by working together rather than following a fixed document and plan.

In the end all comes back to the basic agile principles of inspect and adapt. These principles are part of the SAFe framework as in any other solution for scaling agile teams or organizations. Let’s see and start learning what we need to un-learn.

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