This is my second in a series of articles summarizing the lessons I’ve learned over the past year training and consulting organizations in various stages of implementing SAFe® – a framework that scales agile and enables lean-agile principles to be applied to the enterprise.
If you missed my first article… you can get to it with the link below:
The title of this article and it’s corresponding headline image represent a traditional Asian Buddhist depiction of the eternal battle between two equal and often opposing forces – the Tiger and Dragon. As symbols of Yin and Yang, the tiger and dragon are inexorably linked together – battling forever, but also unable to exist without one another.
The dragon represents the hard style – often bulldozing it’s opponents – forcefully imposing it’s will upon others. The tiger, however, is nuanced and subtle in her approach – able to stalk its enemies for days and pounce upon it when she’s ready. This analogy is most obviously applicable to kung-fu styles (“Tiger Style” vs. “Dragon Style”… growing up in NY in the 90’s probably led me to be overly influenced by the Wu-Tang Clan… but more on that in subsequent articles).
The analogy can also be extended and applied to personality types, management styles, general approaches to problem solving, and in the case of the article before you, to the dual approaches necessary to successfully implement and grow SAFe® within an organization.
After speaking with hundreds of people across tens of organizations about their varied success with the SAFe® framework, I’ve realized that they typically move along a trajectory that mostly leverages one of the approaches, while mainly ignoring the other.
Most organizations start ramping up their agile and SAFe® competencies at the behest of leadership.
The typical Scaled Agile road map for an organization is to reach a tipping point where they realize they must adopt lean-agile principles and practices at scale to achieve Technical and Business Agility. Then one or more people trained as Scaled Agilists (SA’s) or SAFe® Program Consultants (SPC’s) will become the primary change agents within the organization to get top level, leadership sponsorship and buy-in. Then, as the motivation and political will for implementing SAFe® grows, a Lean Agile Center of Excellence (LACE) is formed – and the primary participants of this Center of Excellence (COE) steer the enterprise towards Agile excellence at Scale. Of course, there are some further details and many steps beyond what I described, but this is a good gist of most of what I’ve heard from the organizations I’ve worked with over the past year.
There is Very heavy emphasis on the role of Lean Agile Leadership – and rightfully so. This is what I equate to the Dragon – the top is steering the ship – they are making sure there is enough political will, budget, and “stomach” in the organization to endure the hardships and trials of change.
Change is always painful – however, the leadership understands that it is the only way the organization will remain viable in the market and adopting Agile at Scale with a framework like SAFe® is the only way to keep the organization nimble enough to keep up at the “speed of market.”
Leadership can swing the hammer when necessary – making the tough decisions and taking upon its shoulders the responsibility and ultimate glory or shame of success or failure. There is a ton of material within SAFe® and outside of it that discusses how to nurture great leadership and leading by example. I feel most organizations, if not already there, will understand and adopt the necessary mindset, practices and behaviors necessary to foster strong Lean-Agile Leadership simply because of such a strong emphasis in the framework.
The other aspect, however, that is not emphasized enough is the buy-in from the teams – the “bottom-up” approach. This is our Tiger.
To be sure, there is training for the teams which will help them understand their roles in the overall framework, but there is not enough push for them to fully embrace lean-agile principles and understand the motivations and mindsets behind the practices they’re expected to use.
For example, I’ve taught dozens of people SAFe® DevOps (SDP) this past year – the folks who usually come to this training are the team members who are responsible for enhancing or creating the Continuous Integration / Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) pipeline – this could be operations, development, or technical leads. They are usually on the more technical side – engineers.
After speaking with these folks, it has become abundantly clear that they really didn’t understand the overall big reasons for implementing SAFe®. When I speak to developers primarily, things tend to get worse as they are openly hostile to Agile development methodology – especially if they’ve been exposed to a poorly implemented “agile” environment.
To clarify things a bit here – I don’t think this is a fault of the framework itself. The framework provides the raw material, the scaffolding and general milestones and timelines to scale agile in the enterprise. The practitioners who are responsible for implementing the SAFe® framework in the organization need to be cognizant of the various needs of the teams and individuals who are actually carrying out the “work” in an agile context. SAFe® training emphasizes the ‘HOW’ of the teams, it’s up to the Agile Coaches, LACE members and the Lean-Agile Leadership to ensure the teams also have the ‘WHY.’
As SAFe® 5.0 gears more towards Business Agility than previous versions – the Agile team is now not just composed of development teams along with Scrum Masters and Product Owners.
The teams can now be Business, HR, Marketing, Ops, Support or a myriad of other teams.
Some poignant questions (as questions are a very powerful tool in the Agile Coach arsenal) to ask the teams:
- “Do you think agile actually works or is BS?”
- “What do you hope to get out of an agile transformation?”
- “What will make this new way of working valuable to you and what you do?”
During every training I do, I ask the class attendees to not just sit and be idle listeners. If something doesn’t sound right, call it out. If a statistic sounds ‘too good to be true’ then let’s dig into it. If they plain disagree with a principle, practice or any part of the framework, let’s put it on the table so we can leave the room with the strongest opinion. I make sure everyone leaves the room with a solid understanding of the ‘WHY.’
There are numerous ways to achieve buy-in at this level – something I will cover in a later article. In fact, every retrospective, I&A session and PDCA cycle is an opportunity to get further buy-in with a ‘bottom-up’ approach.
In conclusion, after having observed dozens of SAFe® implementations with varying degrees of success, I’ve found a good strong emphasis on Lean-Agile Leadership and a “Top-Down” advocacy for agile at scale. There needs to be the same heavy focus and real life practice for a “Bottom-Up” buy-in to lean-agile principles, mindset shift and behaviors.
The reality of adopting a framework like SAFe® is that it needs the political will from the top level (CXO’s, SVP’s, Directors, etc.) but also TRUE buy-in from the practitioners of the actual work that needs to get done (Engineers, Architects, Ops, Developers, Testers, HR, Marketing, Business Development, etc.).
As enterprises seek to adopt not just technical agility, but also business agility with SAFe® 5.0 and beyond, this imbalanced emphasis on top-down will only exacerbate the already difficult work of transformation. If we are to successfully steer our organizations and clients towards true business agility to meet market demand, we have to balance the Tiger and the Dragon.