Tag Archives: Agile Release Train

Kanban: Real Scaled Agility for Your Enterprise

Your business is an ecosystem of interdependent services, a complex adaptive system.

A bunch of organizations I know started their journey of increasing their agility with Scrum. That didn’t solve all of their problems. Kanban enables organizations to evolve their service delivery systems towards mature business agility.

As addressed in How Kanban Saved Agile, pure Scrum is extremely rare. Scrumbut (the disparaging label that spawned from so many organizations reporting that they do Scrum, but…) on the other hand, is extremely common.

In order to not be Scrumbut, you need the following:
  • Cross-functional development team of 7 +/- 2 people—ALL skills needed to ship product is present on the team—there are no dependencies external to the team;
  • One source of demand with no capacity constraints—the Product Owner is the customer AND full-time member of the team;
  • Sprints are one month or less, begin with starting new demand from the Product Owner and end with the delivery of potentially shippable Product Increments, followed by a retrospective about how to do better next Sprint;
  • “Potentially Shippable” means that the decision about whether to actually ship is purely a business decision. All the technical work is done;
  • If all of the technical work required in order to ship isn’t done, then the Sprint is a failed Sprint;
  • The Scrum Master is a servant-leader and Scrum educator to the entire organization.

How many organizations do you know of with Scrum teams that meet all of the requirements above? I don’t know one.

So, what’s the solution? Give up on Scrum? Are we still getting benefits from Scrumbut? Alright, let’s stop it with the Scrumbut already. Let’s acknowledge what’s really going with real teams in the real world and call that Scrum. Let’s refer to the above  checklist as “Ideal Scrum”.

Agile scaling methods have become a popular risk hedging tactic for all the loose ends dangling around the real teams in the real world.

Here are some of the reasons for adding layers of scaling around Agile teams:

  • Teams are not fully cross-functional;
  • Teams have external and opaque depencies;
  • Many of these dependencies are shared services with multiple sources of demand and constrained capacity—often overburdened;
  • External dependencies can be other teams—demand from other teams shows up in their backlogs, prioritized by their own Product Owners;
  • Many dependencies don’t play by the same rules at all—some reside in a different part of the organization, with different structures and political forces;
  • The Product Owners are proxies for multiple stakeholders and customers and the Product Backlogs represent an array of multiple sources of demand, with different service level expectations, strategic origins, degrees of clarity, urgency and political forces pushing them into the deliver organization;
  • The Product Backlogs are made up primarily of solutions defined by stakeholders and translated by the pseudo-Product Owners as pseudo-user stories—how they get there is opaque, the “fuzzy front end”—and somewhere in here a fuzzy delivery commitment was already made;
  • The work of a Sprint includes all of the work that the non-cross-functional teams can get done—then whatever the teams get “done” is “delivered” (handed-off) to a subsequent set of teams or process steps (usually fairly well defined at an organizational level but outside of the teams’ influence);
  • Delivery decisions are made based on constraints imposed by legacy technology, systems and their gatekeepers (for historically good reasons);
  • The teams are “done” at the end of each Sprint, yet much work is still to be done before their “done” work is potentially shippable;
  • The Scrum Master’s are held collectively accountable for the collective deliverables of the teams and their ability to cross-team coordinate and integrate—accountability by committee translates into no one is actually responsible.
  • Middle managers are scrambling to pick up the pieces because they are actually accountable for delivered results.

Generally speaking, the aim of Agile scaling methods is to apply larger Agile wrappers around clusters of Agile teams in order to re-establish some kind of hierarchical structure needed to manage the interdependencies described above. Whether its a Release Train or a Nexus, or whatever else, the idea is that there is an “Agile Team of Teams” managing the interdependencies of multiple, smaller teams. As long as the total number of people doesn’t grow beyond the Dunbar number (~150), the Dunbar-sized group is dedicated and cross-functional, there is a team managing the interdependencies within the Dunbar, there are no dependencies outside of the Dunbar and there is some cadence (1-3 months) of integrated delivery—it’s still “Agile”. All of this scaling out as far as a Dunbar (and only that far) allows the enterprise to still “be Agile”—Scaled Agile.

This is all supposed to be somehow more realistic than Ideal Scrum (with perhaps am overlay of Scrum of Scrums and a Scrum of Scrum of Scrums). It’s not. How many organizations do you know of that can afford to have ~150 people 100% dedicated to a single product? Perhaps today there is enough cash lying around, but soon enough the  economic impact will be untenable, if not unsustainable.

How does Kanban address this problem? Your business is a complex adaptive system. You introduce a Kanban system into it such that it is likely that the complex adaptive system is stimulated to improve. The Systems Thinking Approach to Introducing Kanban—STATIK—is how you can make such a transition more successful (@az1):
  1. Understand the purpose of the system—explicitly identify the services you provide, to whom you provide them and why;
  2. Understand the things about the delivery of the service that people are not happy about today—both those whose needs are addressed by the service and those doing the work of delivering the service;
  3. Define the sources of demand—what your customers care about and why;
  4. Describe the capability of your system to satisfy these demands;
  5. Map the workflow of items of customer-recognizable value (@fer_cuenca), beginning with a known customer need and ending with the need being met through stages of primary knowledge discovery (Scrum teams somewhere in the middle, towards the end)—focus on activities, not looping value streams;
  6. Discover classes of service—there are patterns to how different kinds of work flow through your system (they are not arbitrarily decided by pseudo-Product Owners), what are they? Group them, they are classes of service and knowing them enables powerful risk management;
  7. With all of the above as an input, design the Kanban system for the service;
  8. Learn how to do steps 2-7 and start applying it directly to your own context in a Kanban System Design class;
  9. Socialize and rollout (learn how by participating in a Kanban Coaching Professional Masterclass);
  10. Implement feedback-loop Cadences for continuous evolution—learn the 7 Kanban Cadences and begin applying to your own context in a Kanban Management Professional class;
  11. Repeat with all of the interdependent services in your organization—every “dependency” is a service—Kanban all of them with STATIK and begin implementing the Cadences.

Don’t get hung up on teams, roles, your latest reorg, how people will
respond to another “change”, who’s in, who’s out, etc. These are all part of the service as it is now—your current capability. Initially, no changes are required at this level. The kanban system will operate at a higher level of scale. Through feedback-loop cadences, it will evolve to be fit for the purpose of your customers without a traumatic and expensive reorg.  Who is responsible for this? Identify this person. If you are the one thinking about this problem, there is a good chance that it’s you. Whoever it is, this is the manager of the service; take responsibility, do the work and make life better for everyone.

For more information about LeanKanban University Certified Kanban courses provided by Berteig, please go to www.worldmindware.com/kanban. Some spots are still available for our classes in Toronto, June 12-16.

For Agilists who have read this far and still don’t get it, start here:

14 Things Every Agilist Should Know About Kanban

The story below may be familiar to some:

Our IT group started with Scrum. Scores of people got trained. Most of our Project Managers became “Certified” Scrum Masters. Most of our Business Analysts became “Certified” Product Owners. We purged some people who we knew would never make the transition. We reorganized everyone else into cross-functional teams – mostly developers and testers. But now they are Scrum Developers. We tried to send them for “Certified” Scrum Developer training but hardly anyone of them signed up. So they are Just Scrum Developers. But we still call them developers and testers. Because that’s still how they mostly function—silos within “cross functional teams”, many tales of two cities rather than just one.

After the Scrum teams had been up and running for a while and we were able to establish some metrics to show the business how Agile we were (since they didn’t believe us based on business results), we had a really great dashboard showing us how many Scrum teams we had, how many Kanban teams, how many DevOps, how many people had been trained. We even knew the average story point velocity of each team.

The business didn’t get it. They were worried that Agile wasn’t going to solve their problem of making commitments to customers and looking bad because we still weren’t able to deliver “on time”.

As IT leadership, we were really in the hot seat. We started to talk about why the transformation wasn’t going as it should. We knew better than to bring the Agile coaches into the boardroom. They were part of the problem and needed to be kept at arms length from those of us who were making important decisions. Besides, their Zen talk about “why?” was really getting old fast. Some thought it was because we didn’t have the right technology. Others were convinced it was because we didn’t have the right people. After all, we didn’t go out and higher experienced (above-average) Scrum Masters and Product Owners, instead we just retrained our own people. Clearly that wasn’t working.

We started with improving the Scrum Masters. We went out and hired a few with impressive resumes. We developed some Scrum Master KPIs (HR jumped all over this one). Then one day we had a collective flash of brilliance—since the ScrumMasters are the servant leaders of teams, we will make them responsible for collecting and reporting team metrics and this will tell us how well the teams are doing and how they need to improve. This surely would be the key to improving the performance of IT and get us on a better footing with the business.

But we didn’t get the response we were hoping for. The ScrumMasters soon complained that the metrics of the teams were impacted by dependencies that they had no influence over. When we pushed harder and shamed them publicly for failing to produce meaningful metrics, they tried harder, but they weren’t able to do it. Some began disengage. “This is not the job I signed up for” became their new mantra. This was puzzling. We were empowering them and they were recoiling. Maybe we didn’t get the right Scrum Masters after all. Maybe we needed to go out and find people who could think and act effectively beyond the confines of their own teams. Or…


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Pitfall of Scrum: Cancelled Sprint – Failure to Restart

Although a cancelled Sprint is rare, it can be tempting to try and wait until everything is “perfect” or “ready” before re-starting. Teams should immediately re-start after cancelling a Sprint. One team I heard of was doing two week Sprints, cancelled due to a major tool problem, and then waited three months for the vendor to fix the problem before going back to Sprinting. Instead, they should have used their creative problem-solving skills to find a way to continue delivering value and restarted their Sprints immediately.

The Scrum Guide puts Sprint cancellation under the authority of the Product Owner:

A Sprint can be cancelled before the Sprint time-box is over. Only the Product Owner has the authority to cancel the Sprint, although he or she may do so under influence from the stakeholders, the Development Team, or the Scrum Master.

It is important to note that older descriptions of Scrum will sometimes mention that the ScrumMaster or the Development Team can also cancel a Sprint. This is no longer part of the core definition of Scrum.

Cancelled Sprint Emotions

A cancelled Sprint can sometimes be emotionally challenging for a Scrum Team. There are three reasons for this difficulty:

  1. Cancelling a Sprint, particularly later on in the timebox means there’s a lot of work already in progress (and possibly done). The psychology of sunk costs comes into play: we’ve invested some much in the Sprint so far, let’s just keep going to see if we can “fix” it. Going against that impulse can be very difficult.
  2. A cancelled Sprint is an acknowledgement that the fundamental direction of the current Sprint is no longer the right thing to be doing. This can seem to be an insult to the team: why didn’t “you” get it right earlier? If there are certain people on the team who advocated strongly for the current set of work, they could take Sprint cancellation particularly hard.
  3. Cancelling a Sprint may require undoing technical work and may be complex. If team members have made changes that they are particularly proud of, they may resist undoing that work more than would be called for simply due to the time involved in undoing it.

Once people experience these emotional effects from a cancelled Sprint, they will want to be cautious to avoid them re-occuring. That sense of caution will lead people to make arguments to the effect of “let’s make sure when we start our next Sprint that we have everything right” or simply, “I don’t want to go through that again… we better get it right this time around.” In order for the ScrumMaster to avoid falling for these arguments, it is important for the ScrumMaster not to be a hands-on contributor to the work. In other words, to be emotionally detached from the work. Those arguments can be persuasive unless the ScrumMaster can remind the team about empiricism.  The ScrumMaster must always support the Product Owner if the product owner believes that a cancelled Sprint will lead to the best business outcomes.

Scrum is an empirical process that allows for “failure”. Of course, it probably helps to not call it that. Instead, a Scrum Team and the organization around it need to think of every Sprint as an experiment. There’s a good analogy here with the various stages of drug trials. When a company wants to research a new drug, the drug will go through various stages of experiments. The early stages of research are based on chemical reactions in the proverbial test tubes – laboratory experiments. Subsequent stages of research are often based on animal experiments. After that come human trials. At any stage if the drug in question is showing adverse effects outweighing the therapeutic effects, then the current stage is cancelled. Of course, the research done to that point is not a waste, but nor does it immediately result in a useful drug with net therapeutic effects. In Scrum, each Sprint is like a stage in the drug trials. If the work of the Sprint will not result in a net benefit, it only makes sense to cancel the work as soon as that information becomes obvious.

Waiting for Perfection

The pitfall, then, is that after a cancelled Sprint a team will feel pressure to wait until conditions are perfect before continuing on the next Sprint. Scrum does allow for the team to do a bit of a review of the reasons that the Sprint was cancelled, perhaps even to do a retrospective, and then start another Sprint planning meeting. The Sprint Planning meeting might be a bit longer than usual. The ScrumMaster does need to be sensitive to the needs of the team.

Cancelled Sprints and Synchronized Teams

One other factor may be a consideration: if the team is working with other teams on a larger-scale effort, there may be pressure to have all the teams with synchronized Sprints. For example, the Scaled Agile Framework emphasizes cadence and synchronization among multiple Scrum teams. In this case, a cancelled Sprint may mean that a team sits idle for a short time while they wait for the next synchronization point, as illustrated:

Cancelled Sprint in SAFe

This article is a follow-up article to the 24 Common Scrum Pitfalls written back in 2011.


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Scaled Agile Framework: I Learned about ROAM

The SAFe SPC training last week taught me quite a few interesting and useful new things. In reviewing my class materials, I noticed this little acronym: ROAM.  The way it is used in the SAFe training is that it is a mechanism for categorizing risks that teams identify as they are doing release planning.  ROAM stands for Resolved, Owned, Accepted, Mitigated.  The members of an Agile team or Agile Release Train identify risks and collaborate to decide how to handle them.  These risks are then place on a visible grid that has each of the four categories marked.  In this way, the whole Agile Release Train and their various stakeholders can have an open discussion and shared understanding about the risks to the Program Increment that they are planning.  Cool!


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SAFe Program Consultant Training – Review

I want to give some perspective on SAFe and the training that I have been attending these last few days.  The training itself is not actually over, but we are very near the end.  Just one day left, but it is dominated by the SPC exam and open Q&A on advanced topics.  In other words, we have covered the essence of SAFe.

Ad Hoc, Pragmatic and Transformative

When I think about organizations or departments trying to become Agile enterprises, I generally categorize those efforts into three approaches.

The “Ad Hoc” approach is typified by a grassroots movement or an executive decreeing “be Agile” with no one really knowing what that means.  A lot of organizations have some teams in this condition – they try Scrum, try some other Agile-ish things, and have modest successes.  When the enterprise is large enough, these ad hoc approaches reach a natural limit of effectiveness before they become severely blocked by organizational considerations.  Then, the leadership of the organization must turn to systematic approaches to becoming an Agile enterprise: the Pragmatic approaches or the Transformative approaches.

The “Pragmatic” approach acknowledges the difficulty of change, particularly for those in middle management.  There is still a deep acknowledgement of the Agile values and principles, but the pragmatic part is to say that the organization will take quite a long time to adopt those values and principles end-to-end, top-to-bottom.  These pragmatic approaches typically have low risk and good results.  SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) falls into this category along with DAD (Disciplined Agile Delivery) and possibly others that I’m not aware of.

The “Transformative” approach acknowledges the deep nature of Agile as a cultural transformation that can be done quickly when there is urgency to do so.  There is still an acknowledgement that Agile can be difficult for many people as it requires a change in mindset and deep habitual behaviours.  These approaches are transformative because they require all protagonists in the enterprise to be open to this deep and fast change to a new culture.  LeSS (Large Scale Scrum) and RAP (Real Agility Program) are both systematic transformative frameworks.

SAFe, as a pragmatic approach, has a number of excellent features that will help an organization accomplish its business and technology goals.

Scaled Agile Framework – Practical, Pragmatic, and Still Pure Agile

One big concern I had about SAFe, based on other people’s comments, was that it somehow was compromising the values of the Agile Manifesto.  I want to say clearly and unequivocally that SAFe is most certainly true to Agile.  This fact was demonstrated multiple times and in multiple ways throughout the training:

  • Explicit statements that SAFe is based on the Agile Manifesto.  At one point, Dean Leffingwell emphatically repeated several times that “we live or die by the Agile Manifesto!”
  • Clear examples of SAFe implementations making choices based on the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto.  It was common to talk about situations where SAFe ScrumXP teams, Agile Release Trains and the people involved made decisions based on “individuals and interactions”.
  • Practices and guidelines that implement the values and principles of Agile are pervasive throughout SAFe.  The Inspect and Adapt meeting, Program Increments, daily business collaboration with SAFe ScrumXP teams, customer collaboration through various forms of backlogs, reviews and demos, focus on simplicity and technical excellence with Architectural Runway, Test-Driven Development and other Agile engineering practices.
  • The instructors (not just Mr. Leffingwell) often mentioned their own philosophy of being flexible with the SAFe “framework” by making appropriate context-specific changes to the details.
  • Even participants in the class who have already started using SAFe in their organizations shared stories that clearly indicated a strong emphasis on the values and principles of Agility.

At the same time, SAFe manages to create a relatively simple interface with a traditional management organization.  This is critical and what makes it really effective as a pragmatic approach to enterprise agility.  For example, at the Agile Release Train level, there are nine roles identified (e.g. System Architect, Product Management, Business Owners).  The explicit acknowledgement and identification of these roles and how they interact with the SAFe ScrumXP teams through meetings, artifacts and other processes and tools helps an organization to map Agility at the staff level to traditional concepts at the middle-management level.  This interfacing is also pervasive throughout the SAFe framework and occurs at all levels of effort from individual team members up to high level business leaders.

Some people have grumbled about the complicated diagram as “proof” that SAFe can’t be Agile.  But a different way of looking at the diagram is that it is comfort for management.  I really appreciate this.  Back in 2004 and 2005 when I was consulting at Capital One on their first enterprise attempt at Agile, one of the coaches I was working with shared a story with me about the importance of comfort.  The project manager for an important project was very nervous that there was no Gantt chart in Agile.  At a personal level, she needed the comfort of having a Gantt chart to track the work of the team.  The coach for this project told the project manager “please, make your Gantt chart – just make sure that you let the team organize themselves without being disturbed to help you with the Gantt chart.”  Most Agilists are anti-Gantt.  This was a real eye-opener for me.  That project manager went on to gain confidence in the Agile team and was able to eventually discard the Gantt chart.

SAFe isn’t just a framework, it’s actually a scaffolding.  When you build an arch, you need a scaffold to keep everything in place until the keystone is in place.  In creating an Agile enterprise, you use SAFe as a scaffold to get you to Agility.

Lean, Agile and Leadership

This training has also spent a lot of time discussing Lean thinking, Lean product flow and Lean leadership.  SAFe asserts four principles of Agile Leadership:

  1. Take a systems view
  2. Embrace the Agile Manifesto
  3. Implement product development flow
  4. Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers

I like this list.  I might change the wording slightly, but in going through the details of what these mean, it is clear that if leaders could adopt these principles, every organization would be a much better place to work.

There is a fair amount of time spent on helping leaders make the shift in thinking from traditional “scientific management” to “Agile leadership”.  There are a lot of good reading references given in these discussions including “Five Dysfunctions of a Team”.  There is also a lot of time spent on value stream thinking including some great discussion exercises.

Organizational Structure in SAFe

SAFe does not define all the structures throughout the whole organization.  By design, it is not end-to-end, top-to-bottom.  It does define a structure for three levels of activity: the team level, the program level and the portfolio level.

At the team level, SAFe relies on a slightly modified version of Scrum and Extreme Programming (XP) that it calls SAFe ScrumXP.  As a Certified Scrum Trainer, I’m confident that the Scrum described is “good enough” to be legitimate Scrum even if there are small variations.  One example is in the idea of commitment.  Scrum espouses the value of Commitment.  In “old” versions of Scrum, the Scrum Team was required to commit to the work of the Sprint (the business scope).  SAFe keeps this concept.  However, if you look in the most recent version of the Scrum Guide, this concept is no longer present.  One thing that I think is absolutely fantastic is that several of the XP technical practices are required practices in SAFe: Test Driven Development, Continuous Integration, Pair Programming, User Stories, Acceptance Test Automation and Refactoring.  I wish that Scrum would get around to officially requiring these practices.  This set of canned answers is sometimes an irritant for Scrum folks, but the fact is that, again, middle managers are often made more comfortable by being provided with concrete answers.  And, in my not-so-humble opinion, SAFe is providing the right answers.  Since all this is at the Team level, middle managers are even more comfortable because they can tell all these staff-level people how to work.

At the program level, SAFe scales the basic concept of a Sprint up to a larger “Program Increment” (PI) concept.  The core concept that holds the program level together is the Agile Release Train which is based on a limit to the number of people who can work effectively in a social network (Dunbar’s number ? 150).  Again, SAFe is quite definitive about process at this level: Sprints are 2 weeks long and PIs are 5 Sprints long (10 weeks).  Timeboxing is explained effectively with the concepts of cadence and synchronization as a way to ensure predictability at the program level.  Unlike the simplicity of the Team level, the Program level in SAFe introduces a number of important connectors to transitional organizations.  This is done through defining several roles that have extremely close analogues to traditional roles (and even use a lot of the same names), and through other artifacts such as vision, roadmap, non-functional requirements, and features.  There are even a number of recommended metrics for evaluating the performance of the program (not the people).

At the Portfolio level, SAFe simplifies again somewhat in that there are no new aspects of cadence or synchronization introduced, and the number of defined roles and artifacts at this level is relatively small.  One important difference at this level compared to the Program and Team levels is the introduction of a Kanban approach used to feed “Program Epics” to the Agile Release Trains at the Program level.  At this level, Kanban is used to drive the flow of value, but there is not as much emphasis on continuous improvement here (although there is when SAFe discusses leadership).  At all three levels, there is a constant emphasis on the lean concept of focusing on value rather than cost.  This comes in many of the details, but may be a bit difficult for middle managers.  Fortunately, the Portfolio level  includes some excellent advice on working with budgets and allocating those budgets to business vs. technical needs and based on the effort required at the Program level with the Agile Release Trains.  SAFe recommends revisiting budgets every six months (I believe this is meant to be every 2 Product Increments) and is the only aspect of cadence and synchronization at the Portfolio level.

The Training

I’ll admit that overall I didn’t particularly enjoy the training.  I love SAFe.  As a trainer myself, I’m too critical perhaps.  Certainly, the training I deliver has evolved over ten years of work with lots and lots of feedback and mentorship.  However, in the Agile community, the overall standard for training has improved greatly over the last 5 years and I would love to see our three trainers who helped with this course improve their delivery.

There are a also some general comments about the training that I would like to make that are about personal preference.

First, I would prefer more small exercises that are experiential.  For example, there was a great deal of time spent on centralized vs. decentralized decision-making and leadership which could have been compressed greatly with a simple exercise like the “Command and Control Walking Simulation” which takes about 5 minutes to drive home the point unequivocally.  The first two days were largely lecture with a couple big exercises (both the lecture and the big exercises were generally good).

Second, the slides.  The slides.  The slides.  The slides… and more slides!!!  Too much by far.  And using the slides for lecture made it very difficult to stay on track for time with lots of slides missed or touched on only very briefly.  This is anxiety-inducing and boredom-inducing for me.  Some people like lots of slides, but most people don’t.

Third, not enough breaks for a 9 to 6 training session.  Usually just one break in the morning and one in the afternoon as well as a short lunch.  Two breaks and a longer lunch would have made it much more tolerable from a personal comfort level.  At one point on the third day I just had to take an extra break and I ended up missing about 30 minutes before I felt ready to come back.

Final Words

I’m happy I invested in this for both myself and for Travis.  We have learned a lot about SAFe, a little about Agile and Lean, and we are both excited about offering SAFe-related services to some of our clients.  At this point I am convinced that it is appropriate and good under some common (but not universal) conditions.

I will probably write several more articles about SAFe as I process the information and start to relate it to more specific aspects of Agile, Lean, organizations, management, leadership, productivity, and, of course, our own Agile Enterprise framework, the Real Agility Program. I’m excited and happy to see that the two frameworks are not competitive or exclusive in any significant way… more about that of course!


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