Summiting the Mountain, Scaling Agile SAFEly

January 24, 2020

Transform your business, they said…It’s easy, just use the Agile SAFe methodology, they said…It will be fun, they said.

To be clear, I have never scaled a mountain. I do have a few thrill-seeking friends who love to mountain climb, and I have done at least four large-scale transformations in my career. Such experiences make me feel at least partially comfortable to compare scaling Agile SAFely to scaling a mountain, and discuss the pitfalls and perils of deploying Agile at enterprise scale. 

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) methodology is the basic climbing framework for large-scale enterprises. However, if an organization doesn’t take time to adequately prepare SAFely , transitioning can be taxing and indeed fatal. 

Not to belabor the point any further, here are seven helpful bits of wisdom to consider when scaling the enterprise mountain SAFely. 

Thing 1: It’s not all about the ascent.

Getting down the mountain can be equally difficult as hiking up the hill. Practice makes perfect. Too many companies spend time establishing the framework and governance that they fail to unlock the cultural changes required to ensure team behaviors persist. 

SAFe is a blueprint. The SAFe framework should be used as just that: a blueprint. While it is a complete value delivery view and provides a reference for your organizational and operating model, the framework should not be considered a prescribed end state. If taken too literally, you risk losing the production process that create your competitive advantage and, potentially worse, losing the engagement of your employees who built the framework.

Common failure points

  • Announcing SAFe as an end state. SAFe is a reference point, and Agile is a journey (not a destination). Business agility SHOULD BE the destination.
  • Overlooking the gap between the historically longer enterprise investment planning cycles (typically 18-24 months) and the 2-3 iteration Dev Team planning cycle. SAFe doesn’t address this gap well.
  • Setting up roles, functions, and processes simply because they are in the framework will add cost, role confusion, and unnecessary complexity. Adequately balancing what SAFe prescribes and the tasks your teams need to get the job done.
  • Creating operating procedures based on the framework before implementation. Remember this is a self-discovery journey. Teams should mature practices and not be assigned them.
SAFe Agile Engineering Principles for Success

Thing 2: Never underestimate the forces of nature.

Contrary to popular belief, the most important tool you have in your toolbox is people. They are the most powerful and likely most underestimated resource in any transformation. Before you climb the mountain, you make sure you are prepared to handle changes in weather condition. The same preparation applies to people: expect the unexpected and stay prepared. Invest in your people as much as you invest in new tooling and automation.

Common failure points

  • Failing to describe the role of managers and executives in the production process. Make sure managers and executives stay engaged and feel accountable throughout the process.
  • Assigning new roles. You will now be known as X. Communication can be demeaning so make sure you care for the art of change
  • Role mapping without changing the mindset. Project managers are now scrum masters. Make sure you focus and train and set clear expectations for people in their new role.
  • Beginning to fill roles and not value. Remember this is about what teams need to be successful. Be sure to ask the teams what roles they need to be self-sufficient and successful.

Thing 3: Pack munchies.

Are you prepared to invest in skills retraining, recruitment, process automation, system retooling, marketing, and governance for the long haul? Since no transformation in history is done without investment, make sure you pack enough fuel for your hike up and the hike down. Transformations also require whole organizations. Agile is not just IT. Are you packed with hydration and proteins for the whole body, or are you only carrying energy bars and ignoring your body’s signals? Did you pack too much? Are you overinvested in SAFe and underinvested in outcomes? Agility is about balance. The next generation of transformations will be less SAFe and more blending of design thinking, outcomes, and just enough agile ceremonies.

Common failure points:

  • Investing in Agile as a tech initiative and not a product or revenue line initiative. Ensure you bring the whole organization into the change. Agility is about pulling flow through the entire value system.
  • Failing to take an economic view of your transformation journey. Expose the financial targets to everyone on the team so all members are empowered to own tradeoff decisions.
  • Investing as a transformation 1.0 or 2.0 versus an ongoing maturity journey.
  • Failing to educate or frame the benefits so executives support the cultural and mind shift. Invite leaders to actively engage in ceremonies.
  • Failing to release control. Focus on the team and empower self-discovery.

Thing 4: Take short breaks.

Taking breaks may sound like a bad idea, but schedule a few minutes to reflect and review. Piling more work without leaving room for continuous improvements is an agility killer.

Common failure points:

  • Recommending an additional iteration after release (a hardening iteration). This recommendation by the SAFe planning cycle was criticized as anti-Agile, but it is a critical component of agility at scale.
  • Deploying Agile locally. Avoid operating Wagile (Waterfall and Agile). Remember to engage up and downstream partners and mature as a connected value chain. Not doing so will almost certainly impede flow.
  • Changing tech delivery without changing investment strategy and release expectations.
  • Asking teams to go Agile, and underinvesting in their discovery and delivery practices (i.e., ceremonies) such as continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD). Make time for the teams to grow and learn together.

Thing 5: Maintain Perspective.

One thing to avoid is over-focusing on the enormity of climb ahead. Focus on the slopes and next hike and be constantly checking and celebrating progress. Agile is as much about how product owners and teams groom intent as it is about the work they perform to ship the product through DevOps. To keep teams happy, teach your product organization how to groom and chunk work into manageable sprints.

Common failure points:

  • Not taking a systems view of your transformation. Ask yourself, “How does my organization deliver value?”
  • Not clearly defining and delineating the role of a Product Owner (PO). Too many organizations insert PO roles into existing systems, and the result is territorial chaos.
  • Having many chiefs and no Accountable Executives (AE). Every Agile Release Train needs a leader, both a technical and a line. A key fail point is not clearly outlining the AE model and leaving the teams to rely on guidance from misaligned Product Owners (PO), Technical Product Owners, and Project Managers.
  • A PO who is not co-located, engaged, and/or present with the team.
  • Inadvertently enabling ART dependence on other enterprise systems resulting in bureaucratically long feedback loops. Be medically focused on enabling team self sufficiency.

Thing 6: Take in the view, and then get to the next camp.

Give your body enough time to soak up the view. Celebrate the wins. Consume the information. Watch the patterns adjust and get ready for the next sprint.

Organizations are notorious for jumping into the next thing. The power of continuous anything is teams learning from the past and building forward. Enjoying the view and learning from the patterns are the keys to success of CI/CD at any scale.

Common failure points:

  • Not taking time to demo and celebrate. It is human to share. Create the right balance of sharing so you create a culture of continuous improvement.
  • Over-functioning on executive awareness and statusing. Resist the urge to have teams go to an executive’s office. Have the executive go to gemba. Go see, ask why and show respect.
  • Diluting the executive’s role in removing impediments. Hold executives accountable to the team and define incentives that allow them to focus on removing impediments.

Thing 7: Trust but check and double-check your equipment.

Does my team have the right ropes, footwear, thermals, and carabiners to make the climb without outside assistance? This is perhaps the most important element of scaling Agile. Are your teams “self-sufficient” and able to survive and thrive on their own?

Common failure points:

  • Leveraging the wrong metrics. The ones that DON’T matter to flow. There is great debate on Agile metrics and many schools of thought. Consider DevOps DORA among other data points to specifically measure Deployment Frequency (DF), Mean Lead Time for changes (MLT), Mean Time To Recover (MTTR) and Change Failure Rate (CFR). 
  • Not empowering your teams to make decisions.
  • Comparing teams against other teams rather than focusing on improving team maturity.

Stop scaling and start climbing

At its core, the Scaled Agile Framework is a useful set of organization and workflow patterns intended to guide an enterprise as they scale their agile practices. Like climbing a mountain, having a plan is critical; but inspecting, adapting, and responding is key.

Taken too literally, SAFe can choke the flow of value. If you’re not careful when adopting, you might ignore the warning signs of principles that enable your climb.

Regardless of where you are in your transformation, remember that the climb is a journey.

As a transformation leader, you must ensure the team gets down the mountain and every team member positively contributes to the experience of the climb.

As industry experts in transformation, SingleStone will be with you every step of your scaled Agile journey. We will support your journey both up and down the mountain and help you and your teams prepare to reach the next summit.

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Prescott Nichols

Prescott Nichols is Head of Product at SingleStone.

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