SAFe: Rigid & Prescriptive? Or Adaptable & Evolving?
The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is a hot topic in the Agile community these days. The Coaches and Consultants at BigVisible, like many elsewhere, have been debating the pros and cons of the SAFe framework for a year or two now. We’ve attempted to dispassionately compare and contrast results from our experiences rolling out SAFe at clients who requested it, to the results at Agile transformations done “The BV Way” in large enterprises over more than a decade. While specific differences between the approaches will be addressed in a later edition, let’s begin by examining common objections to SAFe, and considering their validity.
Constructive criticisms of SAFe usually address the apparent prescriptiveness and comprehensiveness of this intricate integrated framework.
These criticisms are based on the proven principles that:
1. Organizations are complex systems that evolve their optimal practices and structures as a result of observation, experimentation, and learning over time. One-size-fits-all solution frameworks can’t be as effective as self-tailored solutions evolved organically, nor do they teach the organization to learn and adapt, a critical capability.
2. Change “sticks” when buy-in and ownership of new practices and structures result from shared observation and learning; when new ways of working are developed by those doing the work.
3. People tend to underestimate the complexity, difficulty, and importance of change-management when you can just “buy” an “off the shelf” process framework. The appealing illusion that meaningful change can be prescribed in a nicely packaged graphic may actually diminish the likelihood of successful change, because organizations fail to embrace the commitment and investment necessary to implement change in large organizations.
4. The importance of leadership styles and the need to evolve legacy organizational cultures can be overlooked when one can just “implement a framework”. The foundations of Lean and Agile depend, above all, on the investment in, and empowerment of, people.The critics presenting these arguments correctly emphasize the tremendous value of having experienced coaches and consultants guide organizations through the journey of discovering and adopting new ways of working to implement successful and lasting change. Unique improvement objectives and business and cultural environments produce unique solutions.
These criticisms of SAFe emphasize some very important points, but they assume a dichotomy that doesn’t exist. They imply SAFe’s sponsors disagree,or would knowingly advise a client to underinvest in change management and self-discovery as a basis for continuous improvement.They present a straw-man argument that implies 1) the framework is intended to be implemented verbatim in its entirety, irrespective of context, and 2) that there is no need for a professionally managed change-management initiative to successfully implement SAFe in a complex enterprise. In my interactions with the SAFe community, and my experience becoming a SAFe Program Consultant, I have observed that the SAFe community values and supports:
• Encouraging organizations to inspect and adapt the way they work and support continuous improvement, to include customizing SAFe
• Engaging coaches and investing in the sponsorship and structures to support successful change management
• Embracing leadership and culture as crucial to any significant organizational improvement
Perhaps these points should be illustrated and emphasized more forcefully in the SAFe literature, but nobody I’ve met in the SAFe community is denying their importance.We have established that there are risks to providing too-pat answers to complex organizational challenges. Are there benefits from the SAFe framework’s comprehensive and prescriptive appearance? My experience is that there are.
BigVisible has observed that large enterprise clients often doubt their own organization’s ability to change. They reject case-studies because their challenges are “unique”, but often demand an illustration of their Agile end-state. Responsible coaches answer that a client’s future state will be emergent and non-deterministic, but the SAFe framework provides value because it helps clients see one concrete instantiation that probably supports many of their critical functions. SAFe’s clear and seemingly complete organizational archetype of Agile for large complex organizations reduces fear and trepidation. By illustrating a rich set of patterns proven effective in large enterprises,SAFe provides people confidence that they don’t have to invent every element themselves.
SAFe also provides an implementation template for getting a “release train” of teams rolling with a solid release-planning model. Giving clients confidence that SAFe is built on tested and proven structures that large complex enterprises have implemented successfully gives them confidence to move forward more aggressively. Many of us in the coaching community have long espoused release planning as crucial to program-level effectiveness. My initial reaction was that SAFe advocated release planning at an earlier stage of team maturity than I was comfortable with.In practice, though, I have observed the SAFe approach work as a forcing function to dramatically accelerate line-of-business planning,improve communication, and aid cross- team alignment. Like any pattern language, SAFe allows us to streamline communication and “get to the meat” of our process and structure debates by starting with a universally understood standard. Using known templates as a default or a position to offset from, helps us shortcut poor time investments, so we can focus our efforts on areas that reward innovation. I hope some of the points above have helped illustrate some of the risks of misusing a framework, as well as providing some practical insights to where and how SAFe has real benefits to large organizations attempting to scale Agile. Like any good craftsman, we have a wonderful variety of tools in our consulting toolbox.
I’m convinced that in the right setting, used by the right hands, SAFe is a tool that can provide great value to enterprises. In the next installment, we’ll emphasize the basics to have in place for successful scaling; the foundation of team practices and structures essential to support the scale and complexity addressed by the program and portfolio levels of the SAFe Framework.
“Hit the Ground Running: Design and Manage Your SAFe Implementation”