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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Real Agility Program – Recommendations (Assessment and Playbook)

Recommendations IconWe have already written about how Leadership and Delivery Teams operate in a Real Agility Program.  It’s time to look at our Recommendations component: getting started on the right path for Real Agility.

Recommendations = Assessment + Playbook

In the assessment portion of the Recommendations component, we gather information about the current situation at an organization.  This includes everything from detailed practices, processes and tools, to strategies and organizational culture.  This assessment work is designed to help everyone understand the organization’s current gaps, and what strengths it has that will best support it to cross those gaps to Real Agility.  The Assessment includes an online portion, an on-site portion and an off-site portion.  The assessment work naturally leads to the development of the playbook.

The online assessment requires that each person throughout an organization complete an online survey about corporate culture.  It includes three major sections: existing challenges, sense of urgency, and level of teamwork.  This cultural survey is the foundation of understanding how to be successful with Real Agility.  Managers and leaders are also asked to complete an additional questionnaire about the current environment at the organization.  This includes high-level information about the structure of the organization, client and vendor relationships, and staff.  Additional surveys may also be administered to understand other aspects of the organization.  For example, in an organization that is struggling to use Scrum, we will often use the Scrum Team Assessment.

The onsite portion of the assessment combines in-person interviews and workshops with staff and managers.  Interviews explore aspects of the corporate work environment in more depth and include questions about familiarity with Agile methods, and obstacles that people might see to adopting Agile.  The workshops gather data around current challenges and strengths, success criteria for projects, situational analysis for teams, and existing metrics (or lack thereof).  Typically we need a meeting room committed to our consultants for doing interviews.

The offsite portion of the assessment is used for us to evaluate and analyze the survey, interview and workshop results.  We also use some time to review any relevant documentation such as process templates, org charts, governance requirements, etc.  We may also use some of this time for follow-up phone calls or emails to clarify aspects of the assessment results.  Finally, this offsite work is also where we do the bulk of the development of the recommendations in the playbook.

Several aspects of our assessment are based on the OpenAgile Catalyst Assessment Tools which are open-source and can be found online.  We also have a number of proprietary tools.

The playbook maps out a path to a successful Real Agility transformation.  It is a road map that helps leaders, managers and team members make good business decisions as they strive for Real Agility.  The playbook aids the organization to effectively and appropriately launch Real Agility teams: management teams, project teams, and operational teams.  The Real Agility Program playbook includes analysis of the assessment results, recommendations for work that the organization can do on its own and suggests outside assistance that enhances Real Agility results.  Two critical questions that are answered in the Playbook include:

  • What Agile method or methods should we be using and why?
  • What organizational change approach should we take and why?

We deliver the recommendations in the form of the playbook and an executive summary slide deck in an iterative and incremental fashion so that stakeholders can give us early feedback and so that we can adapt our assessment agenda as we go along.  The recommendations include ideas about organizational structure, staffing, governance changes, departmental relationships, tooling, and many other aspects of how an enterprise can best become and Agile enterprise.

Following the Recommendations in the Real Agility Program playbook results in huge time-to-market improvements, 200% (or better) productivity boost for delivery teams, and extremely satisfied customers and staff.

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Updated: Reviews of SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework)

I just finished attending my SAFe Program Consultant (SPC) training and I wrote a review of the Scaled Agile Framework 3.0 and the SAFe Program Consultant training.  I won’t quote myself here :-)

Lyssa Adkins

Also, Lyssa Adkins has recently published her own review on InfoQ.  I enjoyed reading it because Lyssa is so gentle, fair, and insightful.  She puts a lot into connecting the Scaled Agile Framework with the Agile Manifesto and shows that there is a fantastic level of alignment between them.  Her article is called “Agile Coaches’ Coach Shares Her View on SAFe“.  Here’s a bit of a teaser from her article:

Based on the way the SAFe Big Picture looked to me, I walked into that class very concerned that SAFe would take away the teams’ creativity by “pre-chewing” the stories into requirements a la my project management days. I thought I might see the rebirth of “The system shall…” statements. I was also worried that SAFe would take away teams’ autonomy and reverse our still fragile belief in emergence; the diagram just looks so top down! These concerns put me on alert for anything that appeared to undermine the Agile Manifesto or the Scrum values.

 

A surprising thing happened in that class…..

Peter Saddington

Although I don’t know him well, the few small interactions I’ve had with Peter have engendered in me a great deal of respect for him.  His fundamental philosophy of Agile and organizations is courageous and principled.  I found out yesterday that Peter wrote a review on the Scaled Agile Framework back in February 2014.  Please check out “The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) – A Review“.  It is interesting and insightful.  Great quote:

What SAFe is Far Better At Than Most

- Marketing

Ron Jeffries

SAFe (Scaling Agile Framework) is gaining in popularity.  Ron Jeffries recently attended a SAFe training session and has written a great review.  I particularly like what Ron says about the idea of being properly Agile:

SAFe will be successful in the market. People will benefit. They just won’t benefit nearly as much as they might if they set out to do things in a fashion that truly supports Agile Values and Principles.

 

SAFe is good. It’s just not good enough. It provides some benefit, but endangers an organization’s progress toward really high functioning. As someone who has been in the Agile movement since before it started, I do not like it. It’s fast food. You can do better.

 

Mike Cohn

Mr. Cohn has written a really fun April fool’s parody of SAFe that, given the comments, surely counts as a review as well.  It’s called “Introducing the LAFABLE Process for Scaling Agile“.  Although it starts on a very humorous note, the comments are quite extensive and contain lots of great discussion.  Here’s an important comment from Mike Cohn about the whole concept of scaling that gives you a taste of the discussion:

I don’t think “agile at scale” is a bad word. I’ve consistently maintained that projects should be as agile as they can be but no more. A project that requires let’s say 500 people will never be as agile as one that requires 3 people. But I can’t imagine the 500 people and 3 people being competitors. And, if they are, the bigger mistake made by the 500 person project is involving the other 497 people, not the process they choose.

Neil Killick

Neil Killick seems to have even stronger opinions about SAFe, and is quite direct about them.  I like what he says in one of the comments on his blog post:

So you can go the SAFe path or the Scrum and Agile path. All you need to do i[s] figure out how big a cliff you want to deal with down the road.

I don’t personally have any experience with SAFe so I won’t make any big claims about it either way.  However, I do appreciate that the popularity of SAFe, like the popularity of Agile/Scrum* will probably lead to studies showing modest qualitative improvements of 20% to 40% increases in productivity.  Is this just the Hawthorn Effect at work?

When I help an organization with Agile principles and methods, I hope and expect dramatic measurable improvements.  Sometimes this results in people losing their jobs.  Sometimes this means people have nervous breakdowns.  It can be very painful in the short term.  SAFe, by it’s very name, seems to be anti-pain.  That doesn’t bode well.

Here are a few other interesting links to information about the Scaled Agile Framework:

Has SAFe Cracked the Large Agile Adoption Nut? – InfoQ

Unsafe at Any Speed – Ken Schwaber

Kanban – the anti-SAFe for almost a decade already – David Andersen

* There is no such thing as “Agile/Scrum” but that’s what lots of people call Scrum when they don’t do Scrum properly.

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