This post is the second in a series about success patterns for large solutions. Read the first post here.
Backlog refinement is integral to the Scrum process because it prevents surprises and maintains flow in iterative development. Regular backlog review ensures the backlog is ready for iteration planning. An Agile team understands how much they still need to refine the backlog items before the next iteration planning and beyond.
When applying SAFe®to large, complex, cyber-physical systems, you must expand backlog refinement to include more viewpoints. The complexity of a large solution is rarely fully comprehended by one or a few individuals, and the size of the large solution exacerbates the impact of risks that can escape into large solution planning.
So how do we find the balance between overpreparation, which limits ownership and innovation by the solution builders, and under-refinement, which can undermine the solution and the flow of value delivery?
To answer these questions, we adapted the following success patterns for large solution backlog refinement.
Use the Dispatcher Clause
The dispatcher principle guides large solution refinement by preventing the premature dispatch of requirements to Agile Release Trains (ARTs), solution areas, or Agile teams. Premature dispatching can cause risks like:
• Misalignment in the development of different solution components • Missed opportunities for economies of scale across organizational constructs • Sub-optimization of lower priority solution features
In contrast, making the right trade-off decisions at the right level drives holistic and innovative solutions.
Key stakeholder viewpoints that are often overlooked include marketing, compliance, customer support, and finance. Ensuring these voices are heard during refinement work can prevent issues that might remain undetected until late in the solution roadmap.
For complex solutions, we discovered that a planning conference is more effective than pre-and post-PI Planning events alone. This event mimics a PI Planning event and is intended to align upcoming PI work across ARTs and solution areas. To keep the conference focused and productive, it should only include representatives from the participating ARTs. We will cover specific planning conference details in a later blog post.
The goal of the planning conference is to provide a boundary for the large solution refinement work. Preparation for key decisions that can be made in the planning conference should be part of the refinement work. But making key decisions is part of the planning conference. However, key stakeholder inputs that cannot be reasonably gathered during the planning conference should be included in the refinement work.
For example, in Figure one, a review of the key behavior-driven development (BDD) demo and testing scenarios by a customer advisory board is valuable input in refinement. The customer advisory board will not attend the two-day planning conference, so their advance input provides guardrails on the backlog work that’s considered.
Agree on the Definition of Ready
The definition of the readiness (DoR) criteria for a large solution backlog is often multidimensional. Consider, for example, the architectural dimension of the solution. The architecture defines the high-level solution components and how they interact to provide value. The choice of components is relevant to system architects in the contributing ARTs and stakeholders in at least these areas:
• User experience • Compliance • Internal audit and standards • Corporate reuse • Finance
Advancing the backlog item—a Capability or an Epic—through the stages of readiness often requires review and refinement from the various stakeholders.
Figure one is an example Definition of Ready Maturity Model. It shows the solution dimensions that must be refined in preparation for the solution backlog. Levels zero to five show how readiness can advance within each dimension. The horizontal contour lines show that progression to the intermediate stages of readiness is often a combination of different levels in each dimension.
This delineation is helpful when monitoring the progression of a backlog item to intermediate readiness stages on a Kanban board.
The key to balancing over-preparation and under-refinement is to distinguish between work that an ART or solution area can complete independently without a high risk of rework. For example, final costs could be prohibitively high without a Lean business case to scope the solution. Another common high-risk impact of under-refinement is unacceptable usability caused by the siloed implementation of Features by the ARTs.
The Priority BDD and Test Scenarios in Figure one represent how features are used harmoniously. These scenarios provide guardrails to help ARTs prioritize and demonstrate parts of the overall solution without significant rework of a PI.
Identifying the dimensions, levels, and progression of readiness is a powerful organizational skill for building a large solution.
Leverage Refinement Crews
Regular large solution refinement is necessary to ensure readiness. The complexity of a large solution warrants greater effort and participation than Solution Management can cover. And the number of key decisions grows in direct proportion to the size of a solution.
Our experience shows that roughly 10 percent of those who participate in large solution development should participate in a regular refinement cadence. If the total participation is 450 people, then 45 representatives from across ARTs or solution areas should set aside time for weekly refinement iterations.
Backlog refinement for a large solution requires more capacity than a typical backlog refinement session. The refinement crews determine a cadence of planning, executing, and demonstrating the refinement work. One-week iterations, for example, help drive focus on refinement to ensure readiness.
We also discovered that refinement crews of six to eight people should swarm refinement work within iterations. These groups are usually created based on individual skills and their representation within stakeholder groups. Alignment with crews and dimensions or skillsets is determined during the planning of refinement iterations. The goal is always to move the funnel item to the next refinement maturity level in the next iteration.
Our experience says that each refinement crew requires at least three to four core participants. The other crew members can come from stakeholder organizations outside the Solution Train.
Readiness progress must be reviewed on a regular cadence with solution train progress. Progress can be represented in the Solution Kanban between the Funnel and Backlog stages, as shown in Figure two. In our example, these stages replace the Analyzing state provided as a starting point in SAFe.
The organization must also allow each refinement step to vary over time, as it makes sense for the solution. For example, as the development of the solution progresses toward a releasable version, the architecture should stabilize. Therefore the readiness of the backlog item in the architecture dimension should progress very quickly, if not skip some readiness steps. As solutions approach a major release, the contributors’ capacity can shift from readiness to execution of the current release or readiness for the next release.
Because refinement happens in a regular cadence of iterations, weekly, for example, the refinement crews should be empowered to make these decisions in refinement iteration planning.
Employ Dynamic Agility
So is there a definitive template of dimensions with levels and a step-by-step process for determining the DoR? Not quite. And we don’t think that a prescriptive process is best for most organizations.
Instead, we advocate for using the organizational skill of dynamic agility.
As the size and complexity of a solution grow, so do the number and type of variables: compliance type, hardware types, skills required, size of the development organization, size of the enterprise/business, specialization of customer types, and so on. This complexity is augmented by company culture challenges, workforce turnover, and technology advancements in emerging industries.
Individuals’ motivation and innovation suffer when they get lost in the morass of complexity. When things don’t get done, more employees are added to help fix the problem. This workforce growth only magnifies the complexity again.
In contrast, the organizational skill of dynamic agility stimulates autonomy, mastery, and purpose for individuals within teams, teams-of-teams, and large solutions.
Consider the House of Dynamic Agility represented in Figure three.
How can dynamic agility be applied to large solution refinement? DoR identification and maintenance of its dimensions and levels happen through a regular cadence of the right events. How often should these occur, for how long, and who should attend? What elements will represent and communicate the DoR? What roles are best suited to own and facilitate the management and use of DoR over time? How will collaboration across the organization happen most efficiently for maximum benefit? These questions are best determined in the context of the large solution.
Large solutions require a balance of preparation and execution to achieve an optimal flow of value. Conducting backlog refinement in preparation for a large solution planning conference and PI Planning lets decomposed work items be implemented without risk of rework. Avoiding over-specification in refinement allows ARTs to innovate and accomplish within the guardrails of refinement. Enabling large solutions to leverage dynamic agility builds ownership, collaboration, and efficiency in a large-scale endeavor.
Look for the next post in our series, coming soon.
About Cindy VanEpps, Project & Team, Inc.
From crafting space shuttle flight design and mission control software at Johnson Space Center to roles including software developer, technical lead, development manager, consultant, and solution developer, Cindy has an extensive repertoire of skills and experience. As a SAFe® Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT) and Model-based Systems Engineering (MBSE) expert, her thought leadership, teaching, and consulting rely on pragmatism in the application of Agile practices.
About Wolfgang Brandhuber, Project & Team, Inc.
Dr. Wolfgang Brandhuber has been a Scrum Developer, Product Owner, Scrum Master, Chief Scrum Master, and Agile Head Coach in various Agile environments. His passion is large solutions. Since the advent of the large solution level in the Scaled Agile Framework in 2016, he has set up and helped solution trains improve their complex systems. During his 18 years as a professional consultant, he worked over 16 of those in the Agile world and more than nine years with SAFe. Among other certifications, he is a certified SAFe® Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT), a Kanban University Trainer (AKT), and an Agility Health Trainer (AHT).
About Malte Kumlehn, Project & Team, Inc.
Malte helps deliver complex ecosystems, people, Cloud, AI, and data-powered digital transformations toward business agility. He pioneers intelligent operating models for portfolios with large solutions as a SAFe® Fellow, advisory board member, and executive advisor in this field. He guides executives in developing the most challenging competencies that allow them to deliver breakthrough results through Lean-Agile at scale. His experience has been published by Accenture, Gartner, and the Swiss Association for Quality over the last ten years.
It was May of 2012, the year that the Mayan calendar said the “great cycle” shall come to an end. And with every cycle comes a new cycle. This new cycle was the beginning of an evolution of knowledge, sharing, and learning around how society builds the world’s largest systems.
For those of you who’ve followed the history of the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFeⓇ), you’ll remember that the book Agile Software Requirements had just been published in 2011. And you’ll also recognize this book as the foundation and initial version of the Scaled Agile Framework. Just open the front cover and you’ll find Dean Leffingwell’s initial “Big Picture” rendition of the Framework. The book itself was fueled by Dean’s 2007 — 2008 blog series, where he published the initial articles and concepts within Scaling Software Agility and Agile Software Requirements, both books that helped move the market.
The book unfolds the “why” behind the Framework. Dean discerns that to scale agility, an aspect of Lean is requisite. He further goes on to state that Lean is required to scale agility because of its focus on value streams, principles, and tools that enhance value delivery to customers and its elimination of waste in the development process. You’ll also recognize the influence of Don Reinertsen’s Principles of Product Development Flow as some of the early concepts within the Framework. What you may not know is that the publication of Don’s book caused Dean to go back to the drawing board and rewrite his book.
And for those who know Dean personally, you know that respect for people and culture is a passion of his that continues to be prevalent in Lean as well as in SAFe.
Now, while writing and sharing the book was clearly an affection of Dean’s, taking the knowledge and research in the book and translating it into a learning experience was also a passion. Today marks the anniversary of the first Scaled Agile Framework Certification class!
#1 SAFe Program Consultant Certification, May 25, 2012
Roughly 30 curious agilists attended the first SAFe® Program Consultant (SPC) certification. The course was a bootstrapped effort, invite-only. I remember Dean personally reaching out to those who had leveraged the early concept of SAFe.
At the time, I was a product owner. I was honored when my Lean leader said “yes” to funding and allowed me the time and opportunity to learn and evolve my knowledge of my role and how to better scale and build systems that our customers needed.
Taught based on V0.94 of the Framework (isn’t that a work of art?), the course introduced the concepts of Lean and Agile, roles and responsibilities, and the practicalities of scale. The class format was similar to today’s, with the first two days about the mindset and principles and the second two days focused on implementation techniques such as identifying value streams and “finding the kidney,” which is a metaphor for identifying who within the organization contributes to value creation and designing Agile Release Trains (ARTs).
It was hosted at the f/k/a Rally Software headquarters in Boulder, Colorado. Instructors included Dean Leffingwell, Alex Yakyma, Drew Jemilo, and Colin O’Neil. Enterprise representatives included Nokia, McAfee, Mitchell International, EMC, Tendril (the case study in Agile Software Requirements), and Nordstrom. And of course, there were the consultants represented by IconATG, Rally Software, Blue Mercury, and Net Objectives.
In the true spirit of SAFe, the class was full of hands-on experiential exercises, teaming within the class, and knowledge that helped create the evolution and advancement of our traditional Agile mindsets to Lean-Agile mindsets.
There was even a proctored exam on the last day. If memory serves me, there were at least 30 essay questions and about 75 percent of the class graduated as the first SPCs!
I fondly remember chatting with Drew Jemilo, envisioning what SAFe could be in a decade. I can honestly say that the market has validated the need and exceeded all of our visions and expectations. It’s helped tens of thousands of organizations organize and deliver the highest-value products and solutions to their customers and created a powerful career market for lifelong learners, partners, and consultants.
Fast Forward 10 Years
The Framework has never stopped evolving and adapting to the field. Perhaps that’s what makes it unique: continuous value delivery to its customers. As humans, we thrive to evolve and learn, and this enables the sharing of knowledge from people like you.
Some of the latest enhancements include the addition of Principle #10: Organize around value (which was always present, just not as detailed and prevalent) and the seven core competencies of the Lean enterprise, which are crucial to achieving and sustaining your competitive edge.
Today, more than 1,000,000 practitioners and 20,000 enterprises worldwide in nearly every industry trust SAFe. Gartner names SAFe the #1 most considered and adopted framework for scaling Agile. If we were to apply Geoffrey Moore’s technology adoption curve from his book Crossing the Chasm to SAFe, it would most likely be in the early majority, and even in the tornado phase.
If there’s one thing for certain, customers are seeing results, and the Scaled Agile Framework has evolved its initial mission of “Better software and systems make the world a better place.” Today, Version 5 represents the most ambitious expansion of that mission in our history: to enable the business agility that is required for enterprises to compete and thrive in the digital age.
Sincere gratitude to my friend, Alex Yakyma, who helped maintain SAFe history with the visuals and helped refresh my memory of the event.
Jennifer is a semi-retired, empathetic Lean and Agile leader, practitioner, coach, speaker, and consultant. As a SAFe Fellow, she contributed to and helped develop SAFe content and courseware. Her passion and focus have been delivering value in the workplace by creating communities and culture through effective communication, product management, product ownership, executive portfolio coaching, and compassionate leadership. She has provided dedicated service in these areas to technology companies for over 35 years.
Note: This is the third post in the Practice Makes Permanent series. Read the first post here and the second post here. You can watch my webinar on PI Planning here.
Is your SAFe® implementation slowing? Has the energy and enthusiasm faded and it feels like just one more process change? Maybe you’re just not seeing the value you expected? That’s OK because PI Planning presents significant opportunities for your relentless improvement of the SAFe journey.
If you’ve read the previous posts in this series, you know that the right kind of SAFe practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. And you know that using creative tension will help you find the right outlook to discover new opportunities and foster relentless improvement. The reality is that many Agile Release Trains (ARTs) have a distorted view of PI Planning—they see it as a readout of the already created plan or a time to direct teams toward a plan rather than the discovery session it’s intended to be. This makes it a great place to get your implementation back on track. PI Planning is an opportunity to discover the plan for the next PI. Discovery is exciting, it’s engaging, and it’s about learning.
Through my years of teaching and implementing SAFe, I’ve identified key practices to help organizations successfully discover a plan for the upcoming PI. My goal in providing these tips and techniques is to give you practical ideas on how to revolutionize your PI Planning and improve the quality of your plans.
Consider these key practices to make PI Planning a discovery session:
Breadth vs. depth planning
Good objectives start early
Iteration plans from PI Planning are “what if?” scenarios
Raise the levels evenly
Preconceived is pre-committed—limit pre-PI Planning
Breadth vs. Depth Planning
During PI Planning, the Agile teams are instrumental in converting the ART vision and roadmap into team-committed objectives while discovering the risks, dependencies, and delivery goals for the PI.
A very common anti-pattern in PI Planning is when teams focus on one iteration at a time, attempting to create a solid plan for iteration one, followed by a deep dive in iteration two, and so on. This is dangerous because we’re not seeing the big picture of the whole PI. And often we get to the draft plan review, and the teams don’t have a high-level, end-to-end plan, which is critical for the management (adjustment) review and problem-solving activity.
Additionally, because teams have gone iteration by iteration, concentrating on creating and loading stories, they haven’t collaborated sufficiently on with other teams on dependencies. This can potentially lead to radical plan changes during team breakouts on day two.
Implement breadth vs. depth
This is where breadth vs depth comes in. Encourage your teams to think across the whole PI and create a very high-level plan within the first 60–90 minutes of the first breakout session. This will include initial starter objectives, the discovery of some initial dependencies on other teams, high-level goals for each iteration, and some initial stories (perhaps slotted into an iteration). These activities give teams a broad, overall approach.
Now, they can use the remaining time in the breakout to improve the depth by:
Discovering more stories
Identifying more dependencies
Identifying and (perhaps) mitigating more risks
This breadth vs. depth strategy ensures that there’s always a draft plan to review and helps teams align on the approach and effort distribution.
Here’s a quick recap of the key principles of breadth vs. depth:
Start with a high-level, end-to-end plan that’s full of holes.
As time permits, go back and fill in those gaps.
Focus on “based on what we currently know, this is our plan. However, we know we have more to learn to fill in some gaps.”
Raise the water level evenly. Create some story placeholders, which will generate some objectives, which will raise some dependencies, which will identify more stories, which will update objectives, and so on.
Apply SAFe® Principle #3: Assume variability; preserve options. Start with minimal constraints and a high-level approach and add details as they emerge.
Good Objectives Start Early
Team objectives are one of the key outputs of the planning effort. Objectives are a team’s opportunity to say:
“Hey, ART leadership, we saw the vision, we saw the roadmap from the top x features. Here’s our contribution to the success of the ART for this PI.”
This is a powerful opportunity to engage SAFe Principle #8 and SAFe Principle #9 and is a critical component to ensuring alignment.
Many teams struggle with understanding objectives because they’re not used to being asked, “What can you contribute to our success?” Instead, they’re used to being told “this is what needs to be done.” I like to explain objectives with an analogy.
Imagine you’ve just read a really powerful, thought-changing book (such as Donald Reinertsen’s Principles of Product Development Flow). Most likely you’ve read the book chapter by chapter. You want to share the power of that book with your friend, and you’ll probably share highlights and key areas and concepts from your perspective. Now, another friend reads the same book and shares their key takeaways from their perspective. While there may be similarities in key concepts (for example, Economic Sequencing) each perspective may pick up on different areas and ideas that were key to them but that maybe didn’t stand out to you.
The chapters in the book are the features. All the teams read the features and come away with their key areas and contributions. These are the team objectives. Some teams may have shared contributions across the ART (Program Objectives), but many will have specific contributions unique to their own team (Team Objectives).
Start early, iterate often
So, how do you achieve these powerful objectives within PI Planning? That’s where the phrase “good objectives start early” comes in. Objectives should start as early thoughts and concepts and grow in clarity and alignment as the breakout continues.
These are the key principles to successfully writing objectives:
Start writing objectives early in the first breakout.
Don’t wait until you have ‘perfect’ objectives; perfect is the enemy of good.
As you learn more about the plan during the breakout conversations, potential objectives will emerge. Write these down, no matter how incomplete they are.
As you learn more about the objective through further planning-fueled learning, update the objectives.
Don’t try to start with SMART objectives, work toward them.
Iteration Plans from PI Planning Are What-If Scenarios
A common issue that limits the self-organization aspect of SAFe Agile teams is the mistaken belief that teams are creating iteration plans that must be locked in and committed to. This is a highly critical point: teams do not commit to iteration plans in PI Planning. They’re committing to the objectives they discover, and to the Program Board, which identifies when they believe they can deliver on the features and what dependencies are needed to deliver. When teams have the false belief that they’re going to be held accountable for plans for four iterations in sequence, they become nervous, realizing they can’t really know exactly what will be needed for each iteration. They believe they’re being held to a mini-waterfall approach. Actually, the opposite is true.
We ask teams to create iteration plans so that they can discover the objectives they want to commit to, discover the significant dependencies needed to deliver the features they pull in and discover the risks that may threaten the plan. The plan they create is one of many possible ways they can deliver, and many of the details of the actual plan will surface as they execute that plan. In my experience, the specific iteration plans the teams create are about 60-percent accurate. As long as we have the significant dependencies and risks identified, that level of accuracy is good enough to get started.
Key principles around the what-if scenario approach:
Teams do not commit to iteration plans. They commit to objectives and the Program Board’s dependencies and Feature deliveries.
Teams create iteration plans to unearth dependencies, discover objectives, and learn how to deliver to the business.
The iteration plans will almost certainly change as we iterate through the Program Increment. Understanding that we are only identifying one of many possible scenarios to deliver on these objectives helps the teams focus on what’s important.
Raise the Levels Evenly
Closely associated with the breadth vs. depth concept is ensuring you have a good balance of focus on each component of the Draft Plan Review. Following SAFe Principle #4, we want to shorten our Plan-Do-Check-Adjust (PDCA) cycles to increase the pace of learning. If you think of each key area of focus in the team breakout, we have:
Creating, sizing, prioritizing user stories and enabler stories
Identifying and improving team objectives
Identifying and attempting to mitigate risks
Discovering, discussing, and gaining commitment to cross-team dependencies
Updating the Program Board as we discover new feature delivery and dependency aspects in the emerging plan
Consider each of these areas as buckets to fill. We don’t want to fill one bucket to the top and then go to the next. Instead, we want to evenly bring up the level on all buckets together. That means we want the teams to generate some stories, which can lead to updated objectives, which can lead to new risks identified or mitigated, leading to new commitments with other teams, and leading to updates to the Program Board. This order is not rigid, there’s nothing wrong with discovering a dependency, adding some stories to cover this dependency, and then updating Program Board. The idea is to make sure that we are keeping the levels (amount of recorded information) approximately even across all the buckets.
These are the key principles to raising the levels evenly:
Don’t try to create a full iteration-by-iteration plan too early.
Use the energy and knowledge from adding to one bucket to add to the next bucket.
At regular intervals, step back and review the levels in each bucket. Are these relatively evenly filled? If not, do we need to revert to focus on a particular bucket?
At key points, review the entire plan we have created so far. Do we see major gaps? Dangerous assumptions? Note: a great time to do this is about five minutes before the next Scrum of Scrums team breakout. It provides a really clear view of the current progress that will help us identify any systemic issues in our planning process.
Preconceived Is Precommitted—Limit Pre-PI Planning
Before we start PI Planning, we need the right level of readiness. But too much can lose the discovery aspect of PI Planning. Finding that balance is a learning journey, but there are key elements to balance.
Too much pre-PI Planning:
Takes away from the current PI effort. The focus should be on this PI’s objectives, not pre-planning for the next.
Locks into a plan that is not well-informed. PI Planning is about learning, not perfecting. The best objectives come from shared learning during PI Planning.
Damages the team-of-teams culture in the ART.
Too little pre-PI Planning:
Leaves the teams anxious
Can waste time in PI Planning trying to answer foundational questions
The right balance of PI Planning:
Allows teams to ask intelligent questions during the morning briefings. The test I apply is to verify: are the questions probing and refining (good) or are they high level and more about initial alignment (not so good).
Ensures we have the right people in the room. For this PI’s features, we may need other shared services and assistance. Knowing this in advance helps us extend invites to the right people.
Sets the stage for PDCA-based learning cycles during PI Planning. When teams come into PI Planning thinking they already have the right plan, it leads to a fixed mindset for the next PI, which blocks the true discovery needed. We want the team of teams (ART) to iterate through these PDCA cycles together as they discover the plan.
I use a very simple approach—called the five-sticky rule—to help teams understand a good starting point for the level of pre-planning needed. Each team is encouraged to bring five sticky notes into PI Planning that represent potential stories. This requires the team to do enough discovery around the features, vision, and other elements needed in the next PI but keeps them from creating a deep-dive plan that loses the discovery aspect. Please note that the five-sticky rule is more of a guideline than a rule and can be adjusted as needed.
These are the key principles to finding a balance of pre-planning:
Prepare to create the plan, don’t pre-create the plan
Look for intelligent, informed questions during the briefings
Beware of a fixed mindset view of the plan coming into PI Planning
PI Planning is one of the Ten Critical Success Factors to achieve transformational progress with SAFe. By applying the above ideas, you can make it the dynamic, engaging, energetic event it’s intended to be. So, go make your PI Planning a discovery session!
Check back soon for the next post in the series.
About Dwayne Stroman
Dwayne is an Enterprise Transformation Coach and Trainer and SAFe® Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT) with more than 20 years of experience. He is ultra-passionate about helping large organizations learn how to build the right products and deliver optimal value through learning and customer validation. Dwayne uses his SPCT role to help several Fortune 100 companies, as well as many growing companies in finance, retail, healthcare, and logistics, realize the benefits of a Lean-Agile mindset. Connect with Dwayne on LinkedIn.
How to use the gap between where you are and where you want to be
This post is part of the ongoing Practice Makes Permanent blog series. Read the first post here.
OK, so your Lean-Agile transformation is stalling. It’s not delivering the increased value and reduced delivery times you expected. Your teams are struggling and perhaps updating their resumes. You thought that implementing the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®) would bring you these outcomes, but you’ve discovered you’re not using all Ten Critical Success Factors of SAFe. Perhaps you’ve discovered that you’re not actually implementing SAFe correctly as you intended, which means you’re probably not gaining the full value of what the Framework has to offer. The key to taking full advantage of this realization is to be encouraged rather than discouraged. We can’t improve until we see the improvements that are needed. The purpose of this article is to help you see that these discoveries should be cause for celebration, not concern.
One of my favorite books (and authors) is Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline. In his book, Peter describes the concept of creative tension as ”the tension between vision and reality.” It’s the concept of discovering the gap between where you are and where you want to be and using that gap as energy to make improvements. Think of it as a transformational snowball effect.
SAFe guidance depicts the perfect scenario where an organization exemplifies all seven core competencies, delivering high quality and accurate value to customers, and having the kind of culture and work environment that makes it a great place to work. Then we look at the current reality and realize we have a long way to go to reach this nirvana state of business agility.
Sometimes that gap seems insurmountable, unachievable, and perhaps just unrealistic. As we identify that first improvement opportunity and implement that first improvement effort, we start to see some excitement and engagement. We’re still a long way from that nirvana view, but we’re starting to make progress. And that creates more energy for the next effort. So, we take on the next improvement effort, and there seems to be just a bit more engagement and hope that we can move forward. And that’s where we start to see the snowball effect of relentless improvement.
For each improvement we make, we gain more energy, engagement, and willingness to change. And we start to go faster. And faster. And faster. And now, that relentless improvement pillar seems to make more sense, and in fact, becomes part of our DNA. As Peter Senge stated, “The most effective people are those who can ‘hold’ their vision while remaining committed to seeing current reality clearly.”
Positive change is contagious. It brings excitement and hope to the organization. That energy must start somewhere. So, as Taichi Ohno said, “If you are going to do Kaizen continuously … you’ve got to assume that things are a mess. Too many people just assume that things are all right the way they are … If you assume that things are all right the way they are, you can’t do Kaizen. So, change something!”
My point is to change something with a huge grin on your face because you can see the snowball effect of creative tension pulling you upward.
So, when you see that gap between your current reality and where you want to be, you should view it as an opportunity, not a negative situation. In other words, you should view every improvement opportunity with excitement and anticipation of where you can go next on the journey toward business agility.
As change agents, we’ve learned that empathy along the transformation journey is vital. We know how hard it is, so we fully understand why you skipped some of the steps. But now is the time to restart or renew that journey. In subsequent posts, we will talk about specific activities and components we can use the creative tension approach to jump-start a Lean-Agile transformation. The goal of this series is to help you find the next opportunity to accelerate that snowball effect in your transformation.
Check back soon for the next post in the series.
About Dwayne Stroman
Dwayne is an Enterprise Transformation Coach and Trainer and SAFe® Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT) with more than 20 years of experience. He is ultra-passionate about helping large organizations learn how to build the right products and deliver optimal value through learning and customer validation. Dwayne uses his SPCT role to help several Fortune 100 companies, as well as many growing companies in finance, retail, healthcare, and logistics, realize the benefits of a Lean-Agile mindset. Connect with Dwayne on LinkedIn.
A big part of my personal life revolves around motorcycles, specifically road racing and coaching. When I’m working with new racers or track riders who want to improve their skills, the first thing I do is ask them to complete this sentence: “Practice makes _____.” Almost everyone says “perfect!” But usually, the opposite is true. When racers go out on the track and continue to repeat bad habits, such as not moving their eyes down-track or using poor body position, they simply cement the wrong technique, which is more difficult to correct later. I always teach riders to focus on learning the basics and build on these good techniques until they become permanent. We all start with the belief that practice makes perfect. However, if you practice the wrong things, the only thing you perfect is the wrong approach. (Note: I want to thank Nick Ienatsch from the Yamaha Champions Riding School (YCRS) for helping me see the importance of learning the right skills before starting to practice. Working with Nick and the crew at YCRS and ChampSchool taught me so much about the importance of getting the basics right.)
Switching sports metaphors, a favorite phrase from football coaches (Marv Levy may have been the first to use this) is to “learn how to do it right and then practice it until you never get it wrong.” That’s how we bake in the right techniques, and where practice makes permanent is our ally.
When implementing SAFe®, it’s common to bring in old habits from your organization’s history. It’s hard to break free of these past practices but it’s even more difficult to change them once they’ve been brought into the transformation effort. There are many common anti-patterns that organizations practice and make permanent, including:
Multiple Program Backlogs (whether real or virtual) make it difficult for the teams or ART to focus on the most important thing to work on; this damages Lean flow due to context switching.
Leadership believing that their job is to direct work, which is in direct opposition to SAFe Principle 8 (unlock intrinsic motivation) and SAFe Principle 9 (decentralize decision-making).
Not using the IP iteration for its vital purpose to be a buffer for capacity and to support ongoing innovation, improvement, and synchronized planning.
Using PI planning as a readout of assigned plans, rather than allowing the teams to use team breakouts to discover the best plan to meet business needs.
Objectives given to the teams rather than teams creating their own objectives. When teams review the vision and roadmap and then create their own objectives, they gain engagement and alignment with business and Product Management to demonstrate they understand the value needed.
A common issue we see is organizations treating SAFe as a buffet where you can pick and choose what you implement and what you don’t. While SAFe is highly configurable and is not at all prescriptive, there are key elements that you must implement for real success. These 10 critical success factors are the basic components that you learn and practice until you never get them wrong.
This doesn’t mean that you must be perfect to start. Learning to implement SAFe correctly is just like learning to ride both fast and safe. You learn the proper techniques and continue to inspect and adapt until you get it right, then practice these techniques until they become instinctive. That’s when the speed comes. The same concept applies to your SAFe implementation—learn the 10 critical success factors and practice them until they become instinctive. You will make mistakes along the way because getting these factors right takes time and effort. But if you continue to focus on these basics, they become part of the culture and the norm for your organization. That’s when you experience the true value of a SAFe implementation.
Practice Makes Permanent Blog Series
In this blog series, I aim to share my experiences from the field in helping organizations master and apply good, basic, Lean-Agile and SAFe practices to promote successful SAFe implementation.
Upcoming topics I plan to cover include PI planning, the Program Backlog, and SAFe roles. My hope is that as part of this effort, you will be able to achieve business agility through the Lean-Agile mindset.
Dwayne is an Enterprise Transformation Coach and Trainer and SAFe Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT) with more than 20 years of experience. He is ultra-passionate about helping large organizations learn how to build the right products and deliver optimal value through learning and customer validation. Dwayne uses his SPCT role to help several Fortune 100 companies, as well as many growing companies in finance, retail, healthcare, and logistics, realize the benefits of a Lean-Agile mindset. Connect with Dwayne on LinkedIn.
Globalization is an important growth strategy for Scaled Agile. Localization of SAFe content enables our customers worldwide to participate and learn in their own native language. And it helps drive the adoption of SAFe across international markets.
We need several key ingredients to create a great global product. One of them is people. Since I started working at Scaled Agile, one of the most rewarding experiences was building a global SAFe In-country Review (ICR) team comprised of SAF SAFe experts —known as SPCs and SPCTs—from around the globe. All of them are highly experienced Agile coaches and transformation leaders who are changing the way people work in their respective countries. I’ve had the utmost pleasure of working closely with this team and I can tell you that they are fantastic people!
At Scaled Agile, translation quality, including that of our glossary, is critical. We don’t simply translate a term. We make sure every term has been discussed and thoroughly vetted by our passionate ICR team. Does the term or concept exist in the target language? If the concept can be translated in multiple ways, which one is most appropriate given the context? Do we use the traditional translation of the term or the anglicized version? Does the transliteration make sense instead? These are just a few examples of the questions that our ICR team addresses on a regular basis.
After all, the glossary is an integral part of the learning experience. And we need to ensure that SAFe content is well-translated and of high quality. Thanks to our ICR team’s effort, the SAFe glossary is now available in 13 languages.
The holiday season is a perfect time for reflection. I’d like to take a moment to recognize the contribution of the ICR team and properly thank everyone who contributed. The list below includes past and current ICR team members (listed in alphabetical order by the first name). These individuals went above and beyond to contribute to the SAFe community by sharing their knowledge and devoting their time. They’re helping to make SAFe more accessible to learners worldwide.
I’d like to say a heartfelt thank you to our special ICR team because we couldn’t have done it without you! I look forward to working with everyone in the new year as we will continue to update the SAFe glossary and focus on courseware translations.
Wherever you are, whatever you are celebrating, I wish everyone a healthy, happy holiday season!
Interested in becoming an ICR? Please click here to learn more.
About Yuka Kurihara
Yuka is Director of Globalization Services at Scaled Agile, Inc. She has 20+ years of experience building corporate globalization strategies and leading localization technology and operations in enterprises of all sizes. Connect with Yuka on LinkedIn.
The title of my post may read like acronym soup but all of these concepts play a critical role in SAFe, and understanding how they’re connected is important for successful SAFe implementation. After exploring some connections, I will suggest some actions you can take while designing, evaluating, or accelerating your implementation.
KPIs and OKRs
The SAFe Value Stream KPIs article describes Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) as “the quantifiable measures used to evaluate how a value stream is performing against its forecasted business outcomes.”
Health of day-to-day performance
Work to create sustainable change in performance
Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are meant to be about driving and evaluating change rather than maintaining the status quo. Therefore, they are a special kind of KPI. Objectives point towards the desired state. Key results measure progress towards that desired state.
But how do these different concepts map to SAFe’s Operational Value Streams (OVSs) and Development Value Streams (DVSs)? And why should you care?
Changing and Improving the Operation
Like Strategic Themes, most OKRs point to the desired change in business performance. These OKRs would be the ones that company leadership cares about. And they would be advanced through the efforts of a DVS (or multiple ones).
For example, if the business wants to move to a subscription/SaaS model, that’s a change in the operating model—a change in how the OVS looks and operates. That change is supported by the development of new systems and capabilities, which is work that will be accomplished by a DVS (or multiple ones).
This view enables us to recognize the wider application of the DVS concept that we talk about in SAFe 5. Business agility means using Agile and SAFe constructs to develop any sort of changing the business needs, regardless of whether that change includes IT or technology.
Whenever we are trying to change our operation, there’s a question about how much variability we’re expecting around this change. Is there more known than the unknown? Or vice versa? Are we making this change in an environment of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity? If yes, then using a DVS construct that employs empiricism to seek the right answers to how to achieve the OKR is essential, regardless of how much IT or technology is involved. We might have an OKR that requires business change involving mainly legal, marketing, procurement, HR, and so on, that would still benefit from an Agile and SAFe DVS approach.
These OKRs would then find themselves elaborated and advanced through the backlogs and backlog items in the various ARTs and teams involved in this OKR.
In some cases, an OKR would drive the creation of a focused DVS. This is the culmination of the Organize around Value Lean-Agile SAFe Principle. This is why Strategic Themes and OKRs should be an important consideration when trying to identify value streams and ARTs (in the Value Stream and ART identification workshop). And a significant new theme/OKR should trigger some rethinking of whether the current DVS network is optimally organized to support the new value creation goals set by the organization.
Maintaining the Health of the Operation
As mentioned earlier, maintaining the health of the operation is also tracked through KPIs. Here we expect stability and predictability in performance. It’s crucial work but it’s not what OKRs or Strategic Themes are about.
This work can be simple, complex, or even chaotic depending on the domain. The desire of any organization is to bring its operation under as much control as possible and minimize variability as it makes sense in the business domain. What this means is that in many cases, we don’t need Agile and empiricism in order to actually run the operation. Lean and flow techniques can still be useful to create sustainable, healthy flow (see more in the Organizational Agility competency).
Whenever people working in the OVS switch to improving the OVS (or in other words working on versus in the operation), they are, in essence, moving over implicitly to a DVS.
Some organizations make this duality explicit by creating a DVS that involves a combination of people who spend some of their time in the OVS and some of their time working on it together with people who are focused on working on the OVS. For example, an orthopedic clinic network in New England created a DVS comprising clinicians, doctors, PAs, and billing managers (that work the majority of their time in the OVS) together with IT professionals. Major improvements to the OVS happen in this DVS.
Improving the Development Value Stream
The DVS needs to relentlessly improve and learn as well. Examples of OKRs in this space could be: improving time-to-market, as measured by improved flow time or by improving the predictability of business value delivered, as measured by improved flow predictability. It could also be: organize around value, measured by the number of dependencies and the reduction in the number of Solution Trains required.
This is also where the SAFe transformation or Agile journey lives. There are ways to improve DVSs or the overall network of DVSs, creating a much-improved business capability to enhance its operation and advance business OKRs.
Implementing OKRs in this space relates more to enablers in the SAFe backlogs than to features or capabilities. Again, these OKRs change the way the DVS works.
Running the Development Value Stream
Similar metrics can be used as KPIs that help maintain the health of the DVS on an ongoing basis. For example, if technical debt is currently under control, a KPI monitoring it might suffice and hopefully will help avoid a major technical debt crisis. If we weren’t diligent enough to avoid the crisis, an objective could be put in place to significantly reduce the amount of technical debt. Achieving a certain threshold for a tech debt KPI could serve as a key result (KR) for this objective. Once it’s achieved, we might leave the tech debt KPI in place to maintain health.
It’s like continuing to monitor your weight after you’ve gone on a serious diet. During the diet, you have an objective of achieving a healthy weight with a KR tracking BMI and aiming to get below 25. After achieving your objective, you continue to track your BMI as a KPI.
Taking Action to Advance Your Implementation Using OKRs
In this blog post, we explored the relationship between operational and development value streams and the Strategic Themes and OKRs. We’ve seen OVS KPIs and OKRs as well as DVS OKRs and KPIs.
A key step in accelerating business agility is to continually assess whether you’re optimally organized around value. OKRs can provide a very useful lens to use for this assessment.
Start by reviewing your OKRs and KPIs and categorize them according to OVS/DVS/Change/Run.
You can use the matrix below.
If you find some OKRs on the left side of the matrix, it’s time to rethink.
Run-focused OKRs should actually be described as KPIs. Discuss the difference and whether you’re actually looking for meaningful change to these KPIs (in which case it really can be an OKR—but make sure it is well described as one) or are happy to just maintain a healthy status quo.
You can then consider your DVS network/ART/team topology. Is it sufficiently aligned with your OKRs/KPIs? Are there interesting opportunities to reorganize around value?
This process can also be used in a Value Stream Identification workshop for the initial design of the implementation or whenever you want to inspect and adapt it.
Find me on LinkedIn to learn more about making these connections in your SAFe context via an OKR workshop.
About Yuval Yeret
Yuval is a SAFe Fellow and the head of AgileSparks (a Scaled Agile Partner) in the United States where he leads enterprise-level Agile implementations. He’s also the steward of The AgileSparks Way and the firm’s SAFe, Flow/Kanban, and Agile Marketing. Find Yuval on LinkedIn.
How the Business Agility Value Stream will prepare you to win in the post-digital economy with AI, big data, and the cloud.
At the 2021 Global SAFe Summit, Dean Leffingwell presented the idea that we are at the threshold of a new technological revolution. A post-digital economy that’s being driven by the adoption of ABC: artificial intelligence (AI), big data, and the cloud. Dean further explained how the Business Agility Value Stream (BAVS) creates a system that will allow businesses to rapidly react to the insights provided by ABC.
If you’re anything like me, listening to Dean’s talk generated many different ideas. In fact, several weeks passed before I went back and re-listened to the keynote to identify the core intent of the talk.
Those insights are what I’m sharing with you today: an understanding of the BAVS and how the concepts of ABC fit into the future of organizations using SAFe.
The Business Agility Value Stream
The value stream construct has been discussed in every version of SAFe dating back to SAFe 2.5 (2013). However, the conversation wasn’t top-of-mind until SAFe5 and the introduction of SAFe Lean-Agile Principle #10, Organize Around Value.
Now, and rightfully so, every organization that seeks to embrace SAFe is challenged to identify and optimize how value reaches the customer via their operational value streams (OVSs). We then challenge organizations to go a step further and optimize the relationship between the OVS, its supporting development value streams (DVSs), and the Agile Release Trains (ARTs) that realize them by considering complexities of the business architecture, technical architecture, and how the people who support the systems are dispersed.
We do our best to support SAFe enterprises and SPCs in this difficult conversation with the Value Stream and ART Identification workshop, and the newly released Value Stream Mapping workshop (both are available on the SAFe Community Platform). Even with the assets and expert consulting available, changing and optimizing the system to focus on outcomes instead of outputs is no small undertaking. And for what purpose?
Though optimizing these value streams is a goal, we must also consider why optimized value streams are so important and what to do with them.
Enter the BAVS.
Powered by optimized OVSs and DVSs, the BAVS puts those charged with strategy in a position to:
Sense market opportunities
Formulate a hypothesis to exploit the identified opportunity via the Lean Business Case
Gain alignment and approval to pursue an MVP through Lean Portfolio Management (LPM)
Organize around value by introducing the MVP to existing ARTs (or if needed, standing up a new ART)
Leverage the tools of Agile product management and design thinking
Develop a customer-focused solution
Deliver the MVP in 2–6 months via the continuous delivery pipeline
Monitor the solution in LPM to determine if the hypothesis holds true or needs to be reconsidered
Continue to deliver value and learn until the business opportunity has been fully leveraged
What is ABC?
With the system optimized and the BAVS in place, you are likely now left wondering how the enterprise is expected to sense emerging business opportunities. Though expertise and experience continue to play a role in how opportunities are addressed, we can no longer afford to guess where the next opportunity lies. Partly because an uninformed guess is full of risk to revenue, team stability, and market reputation, but mostly because uninformed guesses could rapidly destroy a business. In the post-digital economy, the amount of time required for an organization to recognize an opportunity, ruminate about how to address it, and then put the plan into action is far greater than the window of opportunity will remain open.
This is where ABC comes in—its three elements power the modern decision engine.
There are bound to be some really cool applications for AI, but I suspect that the majority will be less dramatic than its portrayal in Hollywood. For many of our organizations, AI will be put to use to address customer service, mitigate fraud and other risks, optimize development processes, and identify emerging trends in data. In terms of the BAVS, when leveraged, AI will serve as the trigger that identifies market opportunities and threats that the BAVS will respond to through business insights, operational efficiencies, and intelligent customer solutions.
For AI to work effectively, the algorithms require access to large amounts of data—the more the better. Fortunately, many companies have decades worth of historical data and are collecting more each day. The problem that many organizations are addressing is how to pool that data into an easily accessible common format, but that is a conversation for another day.
Data is the answer. And for it to power organizations, it cannot be bound by organizational politics or structures. The key to enterprise success in the next digital age is in the organization’s data. We only need to ask the right questions of the data.
With so much data and so much analysis required to make sense of it all, we are fortunate to live in the age of infinitely scalable infrastructure via the cloud. Imagine 15 years ago the amount of work required to bring 100 new CPUs online to address a complex problem. An undertaking of this magnitude would have required new servers, racks, bandwidth, electricity, and a facility to store the new hardware. It would have taken months to a year or longer to bring online.
Today, we can scale our infrastructure to nearly infinite capacity with the touch of a button, and descale it nearly as fast. We have the capacity (cloud), we have the resources (data), and we have the capability (AI) to win in the post-digital economy. The only thing that stands in the way of exploiting those elements is changing our system of work to keep pace.
What Will You Do with ABC?
The purpose of the Scaled Agile Framework is to help organizations thrive in this technological revolution and those that are sure to come. The mission of SAFe is to work differently and build the future. The path to achieving our mission and purpose is constantly evolving with the world of business and technology. Though we don’t claim to have all of the answers, we’re confident that we can provide the tools and intent to help organizations solve for their own unique context.
The BAVS is the latest evolution of a perspective that started nearly eight years ago with improving the delivery of technology to the enterprise. We’re excited to see what organizations do with ABC and how their BAVS delivers value and change to the world. Especially as all we do becomes more interconnected and the true possibilities of the near-limitless potential of people become more apparent.
About Adam Mattis
Adam Mattis is a SAFe Fellow and a SAFe® Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT) at Scaled Agile with many years of experience overseeing SAFe implementations across a wide range of industries. He’s also an experienced transformation architect, engaging speaker, energetic trainer, and a regular contributor to the broader Lean-Agile and educational communities. Learn more about Adam at adammattis.com.
If you’ve read the first post in my blog series, you may have been inspired to think about how the emotional intelligence competencies manifest in every step of the business agility value stream. From identifying and sensing the opportunity to learning and adapting to ultimately delivering on the business opportunity. So, if we can measure emotional intelligence competencies, my hypothesis is that they, directly and indirectly, impact flow and outcomes as well.
Let’s go step by step in the business agility value stream and see how applying emotional intelligence directly impacts flow and outcomes.
Sensing the opportunity involves market research, data analysis, customer feedback, and directly observing customers in the marketplace. Applying your own self-regulation, empathy, and social skills can help you have more productive empathy interviews, obtain less-biased, face-to-face research, and control how you react to customer feedback.
This key step in the organizational agility competency involves not only leaders applying ‘go see’, but offering the same ‘go see’ opportunities to other key roles in the development value stream so that they can better understand and reason about the problem to solve. This expands the social networks so that they can apply and evolve their emotional intelligence competencies to effectively communicate, pitch, reason, and articulate effective hypothesis statements that inspire and engage innovation.
Funding the minimum viable product (MVP) requires the motivation and social skills to help drive change, innovate, and communicate intent at scale. We all know this isn’t easy. It requires you to craft the “why” and use your social skills of influence and conflict management to negotiate and secure the funds. Some of the recommendations from the Lean Portfolio Management competency where we can leverage these social skills include:
Engage in participatory budgeting
Establish flow and stakeholder engagement through the portfolio Kanban system
Roadmap the portfolio
Integrate enterprise architecture and SMEs
Establish Lean budgets and guardrails
Organizing around value requires even more of the social skills around communication, building new bonds, and fostering the information coherence necessary to build some of the world’s most complex systems. As well as the ability to connect to the customerso that our people embrace and understand what value they’re trying to deliver.
Team and technical agility and organizational agility not only aid in building these bonds but can leverage and grow all of the emotional intelligence competencies of self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. This can be amplified with the coveted help from our scrum masters and RTEs.
Connect to the customer leverages our Agile product delivery and enterprise solution competencies and their design thinking skills to listen, reflect, empathize, and connect with the people for whom we’re designing solutions.
This requires going deep into the empathy competency of emotional intelligence by leveraging our service-orientation mindset so that we can foresee, recognize, and meet customer needs. Diversity is also important for the ongoing development of opportunities and awareness in all societies and social circles. If we can evolve the empathy competency in all aspects of product and solution delivery, we have the opportunity to excel beyond our competitors in delivering value.
Delivering that MVP calls upon our product and solution delivery folks to lead, and our social networks to collaborate, iterate, communicate, and deliver using their motivation and social skills. It also pulls highly on our social networks to have courage, collaborate and cooperate, take risks, and instrument rapid change so that we can learn and adapt to our ever-changing market landscapes.
Pivot or persevere pulls on the need for empathy when things don’t turn out as desired and the time comes to pivot or persevere. Our Lean portfolio management fiduciaries reason about the data, facts, and outcomes of the MVP and could quite possibly pivot to a direction of a higher cost of delay at any moment. This means we need to abandon our emotional attachment to what we created and turn to the next-highest value delivery. Self-regulation and empathy both play strongly in this step of the business agility value stream. Having the emotional awareness of why our folks are for or against any change in this step can help mitigate any delays in fostering rapid change and learning.
Deliver value continuously imposes that our product and solution delivery people and ARTs always work together to share knowledge, build out that continuous delivery pipeline, and innovate. The continuous delivery pipeline and our DevOps mindset enable that fast-feedback loop to foster our continuous learning culture. Our iterative and incremental heartbeat also facilitates that continuous value delivery and learning cycle. All require using our social skills to grow and enable knowledge transfer and information coherence so that the social network can continue to thrive and innovate.
Our learn and adapt cycle is integral to the process, Measuring our emotional intelligence competencies will help us learn and grow our own selves alongside the SAFe core competencies. After all, if we don’t learn about ourselves, how can we show up with our truest authenticity to grow and foster that continuous learning culture?
Lean-Agile leadership enables the business agility value stream, as does the evolution of everyone’s emotional intelligence. Leaders model and leverage all of the emotional intelligence competencies so that our development value streams can evolve both their business agility competencies and their emotional competencies. If we don’t consider human emotion, we can inhibit flow, people shut down and lose their motivation, and thus jeopardize providing value to our customers.
Now, if the business agility value stream is a perspective across operational and development value streams, then the benefits, interactions, and human impacts that the emotional intelligence of the development value stream network provides to the operational value stream will propagate and evolve. The interactions and modeling of emotional intelligence will have a bi-directional impact that will engage and accelerate the operational value stream in delivering value.
I hope I’ve provided a perspective that it’s not just mastering the SAFe business agility process competencies that enable business agility. The evolution of human emotional intelligence impacts the flow and outcomes of the business agility value stream every step of the way. As I mentioned in part 1 of this blog series, Goleman’s personal competencies of self-awareness, self-regulation, and motivation fuel our human agency and our ability to manage our own emotions. The social competencies of empathy and social skills fuel how we handle relationships. Together, the evolution of emotional intelligence within our organization increases our ability to deliver value to our customers, as well as value to our individual people. What enterprise doesn’t want that?
At this point, you may be asking, “Well, how can I bring these into my SAFe transformation and journey toward business agility?”
Here are a few techniques to get you started on your emotional intelligence journey:
Start with you. Allow time for self-reflection, self-work, and to recharge yourself. Leverage your retrospectives, your own personal plan-do-check-adjust cycles, and the teaming activities to evolve your emotional intelligence competencies. Integrate some emotional intelligence workshops with your leaders and teams to help evolve and experience the competencies, starting with self-awareness and self-regulation. This will help build trust so you can continue to unfold into the deeper and perhaps more sensitive competencies of empathy and social skills.
Grow your own internal and external coaching network. In the same way that sports teams need coaches, our operational and development value streams and the individuals within them need coaches too. They help with all aspects of emotional intelligence, wherever folks may need or want assistance. They can provide the tools and techniques to become more self-aware, provide exercises for self-regulation and motivation, and practice empathy. Not to mention offer assistance to help people evolve their social skills. And even more powerful, coaches model the behaviors so that our social networks can lean into what they see and learn.
Create a community of practice around the competencies and practices. In the latest Leading by Example module that Scaled Agile released, one of the beautiful outcomes was a cohort that trusted each other and was willing to share their deepest challenges with authenticity. This type of network provides the power of a safe space that people can always come back to, to practice, share ideas and concerns, and grow without judgement or fear.
Help evolve assessments around Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence Competency Framework. And measure the evolution within your people and the enterprise. You’ll start to see some correlations between the SAFe measurements of flow, competencies, and outcomes.
Share with our community. We’d love to hear how evolving your enterprise intelligence will help your employees achieve their aspirations and help customers receive better products and solutions.
And, reach out to me. I’d love to hear how it’s going so I can learn and grow with you! I may not have been born with emotional intelligence but I’m passionate about learning and evolving with you. Find me on LinkedIn.
About Jennifer Fawcett
Jennifer is a retired, empathetic Lean and Agile leader, practitioner, coach, speaker, and consultant. A SAFe® Fellow, she has contributed to and helped develop SAFe content and courseware. Her passion and focus have been in delivering value in the workplace and by creating communities and culture through effective product management, product ownership, executive portfolio coaching, and leadership. She has provided dedicated service in these areas to technology companies for over 35 years. Connect with Jennifer on LinkedIn.
Why do some people find SAFe® to be helpful in empowering teams, while others find implementing the Framework painful? To be honest, both scenarios are equally valid.
As I was beginning to refocus my career on transforming the operating models and management structures of large enterprises, I found that the behavioral patterns of Agile and the operational cadence of Scrum shined a spotlight on an organization’s greatest challenges. As a byproduct of working faster and focusing on flow, impediments became obvious. With the issues surfaced, management had a choice: fix the problems or don’t.
As we scale, the same pattern repeats, though the tax of change is compounded because change is hard. Meaningful change takes time, and the journey isn’t linear. Things get better, things get worse, then they get better again.
Consultants will often reference the Dunning-Kruger curve when selling organizational change.
The Dunning-Kruger curve illustrates change as a smooth journey. One that begins with the status quo, dips as the change is introduced, and then restores efficiency as organizations achieve competence and confidence in the new model. Unfortunately, that’s not how change works, and depicting organizational change this way is misleading.
When I’d spend time doing discovery work with a prospective client, I’d instead cite a more accurate picture of change: the Satir curve. The Satir image depicts the chaos of change and better prepares people for the journey ahead. Change is chaotic, and achieving successful change requires a firm focus on the reason why the change is important—not simply the change itself. Why, then, can a SAFe transformation (or any other change) feel painful? Here are the patterns of SAFe transformation that I observed pre-COVID.
The Silver Bullet
An organization buys ‘the thing’ (SAFe) thinking it’s a silver bullet that will solve all of their problems. For example, the inability to deliver, poor quality, dissatisfied customers, unhappy teammates, and crummy products. SAFe can help address these issues, but not by simply using the Framework. The challenge we often face is that leaders just want ‘the thing.’ Management is too busy to learn what it is that they bought. That’s OK though. They did an Agile transformation once and read the article on Wikipedia.
How can you lead what you don’t know? How can you ask something of your team that you don’t understand yourself? Let’s explore.
Start with Why
Leaders don’t take the time to understand what SAFe is, what problems it intends to help organizations solve, or the intent with which SAFe is best used. Referencing the SAFe Implementation Roadmap, its intent is to avoid some of this pain. We begin by aligning senior leaders with the problems to solve. After all, we’re seeking to solve business problems. As Kotter points out, all change must start with a compelling vision for change.
With the problem identified, we then discuss if SAFe is the best tool to address those concerns. We continue the conversation by training leaders in the new way of working, and more importantly, the new way to think to succeed in the post-digital economy.
Middle management, sometimes distastefully referred to as the ‘frozen middle,’ is the hardest role to fill in an organizational hierarchy. Similar to how puberty serves as the awkward stage between adolescence and adulthood, middle management is the first time that many have positional responsibility, but not yet the authority to truly change the system.
Middle managers are caught in a position where many are forced to choose between doing what’s best for the team and doing what’s best to get the next position soon. Often, when asked to embrace a Lean and Agile way of working, these managers will recognize that being successful in the new system is in contrast to what senior leaders (who bought the silver bullet but could not make time to learn it) are asking of them.
This often manifests in a conversation of outputs over outcomes. In that, success had traditionally been determined by color-coded status reports instead of working product increments and business outcomes. Some middle managers will challenge the old system and others will challenge the new system, but in either context, many feel the pain. This is the product of a changing system and not the middle manager’s fault. But it is the reason why many transformations will reset at some point. The pain felt by middle management can be avoided by engaging the support of the leadership community from the start, but this is often not the case.
Misaligned Agile Release Trains
Many transformations begin somewhere after the first turn on the SAFe Implementation Roadmap. Agile coaches will often engage after someone has, with the best of intentions, decided to launch an Agile Release Train (ART), but hasn’t understood how to do so successfully.
As a result, the first Program Increment, and SAFe, will feel painful. Have you ever seen an ART that is full of handoffs and is unable to deliver anything of value? This pattern emerges when an ART is launched within an existing organizational silo, instead of being organized around the flow of value. When ARTs are launched in this way, the same problems that have existed in the organization for years become more evident and more painful.
For this reason, many Agile and SAFe implementations face a reboot at some point. Feeling the pain, an Agile coach will help leaders understand why they’re not getting the expected results. Here’s where organizations will reconsider the first straight of the Implementation Roadmap, find time for training, and re-launch their ARTs. This usually happens after going through a Value Stream and ART Identification workshop to best understand how to organize so that ARTs are able to deliver value.
Moving Fast Makes Problems More Obvious
Moving fast (or trying to) shines a big spotlight on our problems and forces us to confront them. Problems like organizational silos, toxic cultural norms, bad business architecture, nightmarish tech architecture, cumbersome release management, missing change practices, and the complete inability to see the customer that typically surface when we seek to achieve flow.
The larger and older an organization is, the more problems there are, and the longer it takes to get to a place where our intent can be resized. Truly engaged leadership helps, but it still takes time to undo history. For example, I’ve been working with one large enterprise since 2013. It’s taken eight years since initial contact for the organization to evolve to a place that allowed them to respond to COVID confidently and in a way that actively supports global recovery. Eight years ago, the organization would have struggled to achieve the same outcome.
When I first started working with this organization, it engaged in multi-year, strategic planning, and only released new value to its customers once every three years. The conceptual architecture diagram resembled a plate of spaghetti—people spent more time building consensus than building products. And the state of the organization’s operations included laying people off with a Post-it note on their monitor and an escort off-campus.
Today, the organization is much healthier in every way imaginable. It’s vastly better than it was, but not nearly as good as it will be. The leadership team focuses on operational integrity, and how maintainable, scalable, and stable the architecture is—and recognizes that the team is one of the most important assets.
Embracing Lean and Agile ways of working at scale begins with the first ART launch. It continues with additional ART launches, a reconsideration of how we approach strategy, technology, and customers. And it accelerates as we focus on better applying the Lean-Agile mindset, values, and principles on a daily basis. This is the journey to #BecomingAgile so that we can best position the team and our assets to serve customers.
Change Is Hard
Change takes time, and all meaningful change is painful because the process challenges behavior norms. The larger the organization is, the richer the history, and the longer it may take to achieve the desired outcome. There will be good days, days when things don’t make sense, and days when the team is frustrated. But all of that is OK. You know what else is ok? Feeling frustrated during the change. It’s important to focus on why the change is taking place.
A pre-pandemic pattern (that I suspect may shift) is that change in large organizations often comes with evolution instead of revolution. With the exception of a very few clients, change begins with a team and expands as that team gains success and the patterns begin to reach other adjacent areas of the operation. The change will reach a point where supporting organizational structures must also change to achieve business agility.
As mentioned, moving fast with a focus on flow and customer-centricity exposes bottlenecks in the system. At some point, it will become obvious that structures such as procurement, HR, incentive models, and finance are bottlenecks to greater agility. And, when an organization begins to tackle these challenges, really cool things start to happen. People behave based on how they are incentivized, and compensation and performance are typically at odds with the mindset, values, and principles that are the foundation of SAFe.
Let’s Work Together
SAFe itself is not inherently painful. The Framework is a library of integrated patterns that have proven successful when paired with the intent of a Lean-Agile mindset, set of core values, and guiding principles. Organizations can best mitigate the pain associated with change by understanding what’s changing, the reason why the change is being introduced, and a deliberate focus on sound change-management practices. If you’re working in a SAFe ecosystem that feels challenging, share your experience in the General Discussion Group forum on the SAFe Community Platform. Our community is full of practitioners who represent all stages of the Satir change curve, and who can offer their advice, suggestions, and empathy. Together, we’ll make the world a better place to work.
About Adam Mattis
Adam Mattis is a SAFe Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT) at Scaled Agile with many years of experience overseeing SAFe implementations across a wide range of industries. He’s also an experienced transformation architect, engaging speaker, energetic trainer, and a regular contributor to the broader Lean-Agile and educational communities. Learn more about Adam at adammattis.com.