Blogged on:

SAFe is the growth that Agile Needs

Last summer (August 2019) I took a course in Leading Scaled Agile Framework for Enterprises (SAFe) certified and attained SA certification. It was a whirlwind process over the weekend followed by a return to work on Monday and write the exam in short order afterward, so it was frankly hard to process everything fully.

Fast Forward to this week- when COVID-19 has put me in a position where I have more time on my hands – so jumped on the opportunity to update my SA certification from SAFe v4.6 to  SAFe v5.0 and at the same time really grew an appreciation for SAFe.

I recall in the summer, I noticed how useful SAFe was as it addresses an intrinsic flaw in Agile environments which is insularity that can occur with a development team focusing on leanness and delivering value at the expense of communication with other project teams or supporting organization. SAFe offers a framework to address these and more, along with reframing Agile from an approach best suited to Software to a more industry agnostic organizational adaptiveness. This week, with more time for reflection and thought (and Gemba!) my appreciation of SAFe and what it represents to agile grew.

Perhaps part of the problem is that Agile requires organizational transformation and buy in. While Bottom up change is certainly healthy and can lead to amazing results (bonus with the initiative from the people doing the work), it does assume a certain organizational flatness for the change to occur. SAFe is top down and recognizes that organizational hierarchies exist and sometimes need to be maintained. While Agile thrives best in flatness, SAFe is tailored to Enterprises where flatness is unrelatistic.

SAFe also provides a method for disparate teams which may have no other interaction to coexist and contribute towards a portfolio (or a group of projects or programs together). The focus is on the organizational solution delivery. This is accomplished with a periodic (once annual or a few times a year) meeting in person that includes Product Owners, Scrum Masters (and true to agile fashion) the entire agile team who  discuss the Program Increment (or PI) which feeds up to the Portfolio Backlog and everyone gets alignment by the end of the PI session (which can last a number of days).

The hierarchy of SAFe includes Financial management (guardrails), Portfolio management, shared resources (I.e: Architecture SME, Designers, or other specialists which are too specialized to be allocate full time to one project team etc…) across many teams and compliance oversight for highly regulated industries. All that to say – it leaves room for what makes Agile different- Continuous learning, leanness, an obsession with delivering value, a commitment to constant improvement, accountability and transparency with all the stakeholders including a recognition of the ownership of the solution lies within the team developing the solution. These are the characteristics that make Agile a highly attractive set of tools. SAFe helps Agile by taking the great Agile qualities and makes it more attainable to larger organizations, rather than a small band of 7 Independent and wildly talented professionals each with their own specialty who come together to perform as a team (in case that sounded familiar, yes – I am describing the Magnificent Seven – or The Avengers).

The Avengers
The team performing a Group Code Review

SAFe even provides a roadmap for organizational transformation because it recognizes the reality that at the outset – transformation can seem Sisyphean, and while following the SAFe framework may not guarantee the boulder never rolls back down the hill at the end of the day, it provides a map with a start, milestones and end goal- which I’ve found extremely useful with organizational change. It allows everyone to see at least that things are moving in the right direction.

Now- don’t get me wrong- I’m as adverse to pedagogy as the next agnostic, but I’m enthusiastic about Agile. I’ve witnessed first hand what it represents to an organization in terms of tangible benefits and culture. To proffer my sanguine outlook- SAFe is a much needed complement to make the Agile approach attainable to larger and more complex organizations. Agile definitely struggles with growth and scaling out- so Enterprises trying to take advantage of Agile run the risk of poor execution (I’ve seen Agile adopted poorly- it’s awful!) SAFe is just the next evolution so the only people who can benefit from it aren’t just the high talent software engineers building the next Shopify. It can be a framework accessible to larger organizations and greater scale industries from Insurance companies, to Infrastructure to Finance to Business Transformation to Government.