Applying SAFe Principles and Concepts to a Scaled Agile Framework (SAFeTM) Transformation
Scaled Agile Framework (SAFeTM) change agents often face similar challenges when trying to implement SAFeTM within an organization. A change agent is a person from inside or outside an organization, which is driving a transformation for an organization. Change agents also have useful and creative tools and techniques in their toolkit to try to drive this change within the organization. However, many times transformations fall short.
Why does this happen?
As SAFe change agents, we need to reorganize and repurpose our toolkits to ensure that our tools and techniques for implementing SAFe clearly adhere to the SAFe principles and core values.
Scaled Agile transformations are really hard.
They are massively complex, have significant unknowns, and leaders typically expect results now! On top of that, with SAFe transformation comes the need for a dramatic culture shift within the organization. As a result of this complexity, there are several approaches to implementing SAFe within an organization. But ultimately, the value takes too long to achieve, the uncertainty around culture changes become unmanageable and the transformation loses momentum.
Does this sound familiar? The particular issues that arise when implementing SAFe are some of the same challenges that drive organizations to want to adopt SAFe in the first place: the value of a product takes too long to get to the end consumer, requirements and consumer needs change at an unmanageable pace and the teams lose motivation.
So, if they have similar challenges, can’t they be solved by the same solution? Assuming yes, why not solve transformation challenges by leading the transformation with SAFe principles and values?
There are five concepts from the SAFe principles and values that are critical to ensuring a successful SAFe transformation. By using these concepts, an organization can set its vision for the change, consistently inspecting and adapting yet getting quick value added wins, and can set a foundation for continuous improvement.
Build a Cross Functional Transformation Team
Building a coalition for change is critical to any transformation. When working to put together a transformation team to lead this change, consider what makes up a quality scrum team. Cross-functional teams are the best type of scrum teams as members can make decisions and work through dependencies within the team. So, a scrum team should have developers, testers, user experience experts, hardware, software, etc., so the team can build business value systems within the team.
With a team leading a transformation, the approach needs to be similar: i.e. assemble teams made up of members from all impacted areas of the change – business owners, program / project managers, software developers, infrastructure, human resource and a representative from every area that may be impacted. The key is to have a team with a wide enough perspective to help drive the change and deliver consistent messaging and processes across all areas. This will help to manage the variability in the messaging of the change.
Also, training is critical to ensure the team marches to the same beat. Every member of this transformation team must become a SAFe educated change agent in the organization to help drive the culture change across all layers/areas of the organization. While speed of change is important, we must spend a substantial amount of time on training to build a solid foundation for the transformation. If solid training of the core values and principles of SAFe is not implemented early, when the transformation team starts to drive change, they will fall flat in the organization. This is when you observe organizations doing the motions of agile rather than living the behaviors of strong agile values. Remember to spend time on training, leading agile thinkers and change leaders, to build that solid foundation upon which to move the transformation forward.
Visualize a Transformation Roadmap and Vision
Humans do not do things just for the sake of doing. We all have intrinsic motivation that drives us to change. In a transformation we demand a lot of our organization and team members. The transformation team must build up such intrinsic motivation for team members to change. Within SAFe, we achieve this goal by aligning the scrum team’s backlogs to strategic themes, vision and roadmaps. Theme, visions and roadmap should also set the context around why the organization needs to change, what are the opportunities and proposed solutions that are going to make the organization better. This gives the teams a context for the work and shows them how the work they are doing provides value back to the organization.
In a similar way, we must provide the context as to why we are taking part in specific agile ceremonies or changes in culture. People may see these changes as a waste of time or an attack on them personally, which often results in a negative reaction. People need to understand where they fit and even if they are a part of the change to be motivated to fight with and not against the change. But if the context around the ceremony or process is presented, we can build up that intrinsic motivation and encourage a deeper engagement. Without this context, team members will just go through the motions without getting the true value. The key is unlocking that intrinsic motivation: it will enable the value to emerge behind those changes and build positive reactions toward the changes.
Daily Scrum Example:
- Without intrinsic motivation behind change: If a team member is simply asked to go to the daily scrum, they will show up, give quick answers and move on with their day.
- With intrinsic motivation behind change: The team member comes empower to social decisions made within team and address any blockers that need resolution.
The following are four steps that can help visualize the vision and roadmap to unlock the intrinsic motivation of team members:
- Establish a Vision – After initial training of the transformation team, set some time to establish a vision and context for change. Establish the leading drivers for the change, e.g. faster time to market, high quality, etc.
- Build a backlog of opportunities– The backlog should contain a specific set of tangible challenges within the current state of delivery in the organization. This helps make the changes real and relatable. The benefits behind the changes become tangible.
- Refine the backlog– The refinement process within the SAFe framework helps to reduce complexity and ambiguity around the work at hand. Refining the backlog of opportunities will reap the same benefits for the transformation, as it will help align opportunities around the value to the organization.
- Establish a roadmap – The backlog may seem intangible due to its size or complexity. Understand that a transformation does not happen overnight or over a period of weeks. Establish a six to twelve month rolling roadmap to help manage the amount of change as well as work in progress.
Take a Systems View When Planning
When taking a systems view in the Scaled Agile Framework we arrange backlogs to enable system development of business value over technical component development. A system can be an end-to-end solution, a set of people and a process to build an enterprise or a value stream to an end consumer. A system is only as good as it weakest link so a weak component within the system will tend to drive down the value of the stronger components and therefor hinder the value to the end consumer. The value behind a system is the cross functional slivers of value to the customer. Think of the 7-layer cake analogy, one bad layer and the whole cake is ruined, but if the layers are blended together it is culinary bliss. Without taking a systems approach to planning of the work, the value will always be bottlenecked by the weakest component to the end user.
The same thought process must be taken when looking at a transformation with the Scaled Agile Framework. SAFe is a system and, like any system, if it has weak links, it will fail to provide its maximum intended value. When looking at the backlog of items for a transformation, it is critical to align opportunities around value to the organization. This ensures that as the framework is being integrated in the organization, it is built to maximize value in the system rather than create a weak link in the system. Below is an example of a value added SAFe System and a weak link SAFe System.
Value Added SAFe System: Implementing Kanban refinement processes at the Portfolio, Program and Team level which all align to the strategic themes of the enterprise.
Weak Link SAFe System: Performing a full PI Planning event without conducting an Inspect and Adapt workshop to learn from opportunities that arose.
This approach becomes critical to establish early wins in your transformation. When the transformation takes a systems approach, it provides value directly back to the organization, and any external stakeholder or agile naysayer in the organization will begin to see the light and positives of this approach. When we fail to take this approach, the door is left open for agile naysayers to latch on to the fact that the value is not achieved due to the weak links in the system. Implementing SAFe with systems thinking in mind will aid in getting support and changing those naysayers into change agents.
Take an Economic View of Prioritization
Taking an economic view when implementing in Scaled Agile framework, demands that we ensure maximum business value is delivered in the shortest about of time. Therefore time to market is essential and prioritizing backlog items based on those criteria is critical.
With SAFe transformations, the factor of time is the amount of cultural change that has to take place to implement the change. Transformations often experience severe delays or halt completely because of an organization’s inability to change the culture in a timely manner. Similar to SAFe, when looking at the transformation backlog, time should be factored in as the amount of cultural change a specific item should take over another. Implementing a change with minimal cultural change may become a quick agile win over trying to implement something that requires a significant amount of cultural change to overcome. This becomes critical to the SAFe Transformation providing business value.
An economic view translates into a review of the backlog for items, which would provide the most value and most significant progress in the shortest amount of time. Within the SAFe model, using the formula for Weighted Shorted Job First (WSJF) does this. This formula helps to identify the return on investment upon doing one piece of work over another with the primary focus around Cost of Delay (COD). It compares the COD relative to job size for a subset of the backlog. This formula should be used for the transformation backlog with some modifications. For transformations, the WSJF should be calculated as Value to Organization, Time Criticality, and Risk Reduction/Opportunity Enablement relative to the Degree of Cultural Change.
Since the largest blocker to any transformation is cultural change, it is critical to evaluate this factor when prioritizing. Let’s take two examples to show this,
- As a part of a transformation there may be significant value in establishing the Product Owner role with someone from the Business. This would ensure work is aligned to business value. But in this company the business is an entirely different organization than IT, thus forcing them to establish a Product Owner role would be a giant culture change. Using the transformation WSJF this would score low due to the high impact of the degree of cultural change.
- On the other hand, establishing daily scrums and the scrum of scrum practices within an organization, which already has scrum master in place, would be a high transformation WSJF. This change has value to the organization, high-risk reduction and a low degree of cultural change.
Transform on a Cadence
The complexity behind software development is due to the unknown and variability in development. Technologies change, dependencies evolve, and requirements change quicker than ever. With a SAFe Transformation, similar unknowns and variability will occur around the amount a change an organization is willing to take on at once. People have a tolerance limit to change and in general many people are change adverse. In any given situation within an organization the amount of change an organization can vary based upon that organization and a given situation. Several factors out of the control of the transformation team will limit the amount of change an organization is willing to handle. As a result, a transformation should be conducted on a program increment and iteration cadence. This would include having PI Planning, Iteration Planning, Stand Ups and Inspect and Adapt workshops as a minimal viable product. The purpose of this is control and managing work in process, inspect and adapt on complete transformation work, and line up future work, based on value. A description of how each of the ceremonies should be run to gain this purpose is shown below.
Transformation PI Planning – All members of the transformation team and key sponsors attend. A half day meeting where the vision and roadmap is updated. The outcomes should be a determination of any major milestones, an updated vision and roadmap, commitment of backlog items and resolution of any critical barriers. The team should establish measurements of success of the program increment and commit to their work around those measurements.
Transformation Sprint Planning – Conducted every two weeks with the entire transformation team. Each meeting should last no more than one hour. Outcomes of the meeting include resolving any upcoming issues, monitoring change tolerance, and committing work for the next 2 weeks.
Transformation Stand-Up – Occurs 2 to 3 times a week and follows typical standup ceremonies across the transformation team.
Inspect and Adapt – Conducted every two weeks focusing on the progress made, lessons learned, updating of future backlog items.
Transforming on a cadence allows for constant commitment to change as well as constant feedback. It also creates a sense of urgency around the change, which the transformation team, and rest of the organization, can feel and build on throughout the transformation.
Empowering Changing Agents
At the begin of this journey, I discussed the need for SAFe change agents to reorganize and repurpose their toolkits to transformations with more SAFe values and principles. I have outlined some of my modifications to my toolkit to be better aligned to SAFe principles and values. My hope is that you, as SAFe change agents and leading agile thinkers and organizational leaders, are now empowered to reflect on how you are transforming your organization and ask are we following SAFe principles and values during your transformation.
- Do you have a properly trained transformation team to lead this change?
- Is your Transformation roadmap and vision clear and understood?
- Are you taking a systems view to planning your transformation?
- Does prioritization of your transformation backlog occur with an economic view?
- Are you driving your transformation in a scrum like fashion?
If no to any of these, take time to reflect and take action to allow your transformation to be better aligned to SAFe principles and values.
If yes to all these, then I challenge you to keep true to the SAFe principles and values and look for continuous improvement.