In this 3rd and final installment of my article series dealing with the lessons I learned consulting and training with the SAFe® framework in 2019, I’ll cover the most profound discovery I made. This one factor ran through every single Scaled Agile transformation attempt I encountered during the dozens of classes we ran last year. I can safely say that this single factor is the culprit for every organization we trained and spoke to which experienced a poor transformation outcome.
Now, before going on to this single factor, I’d like to acknowledge that there will always be numerous factors that determine the outcome of a SAFe® transformation. By its very definition, transformations are difficult. All change is accompanied by the pain of moving from (a usually comfortable) status quo state to another (usually uncomfortable) state in the hope that the new state will result in a net positive effect for the entity undergoing the change.
Transformation Is Difficult
Undergoing individual transformation is difficult enough (failed diets, anyone??) – and attempting organizational transformation multiplies that difficulty by factors of magnitude.
Once we acknowledge the difficulty of transformation, it behooves us to seek out the methods and means to make that process easier – thereby giving us a greater chance of quick success. The reality of a digital transformation or change in the Way We Work is that there is only a finite time to realize net positive results – political capital (and not to mention real capital) is limited. Each “attempt and fail” erodes that capital and the will within the organization to see this transformation through.
The biggest factor that ensures success in a SAFe® transformation is the involvement of great Enterprise Agile Coaches. The absence of a coach was glaringly apparent in all the organizations that I dealt with who were struggling in their agile transition. Sure, the change agents in the organization had gone through a few days of SAFe® training – they were certified Scaled Agilists… but that is not enough to steer a business towards agility.
What does an Enterprise Agile Coach Provide?
An agile coach adds a set of external, seasoned eyes, ears and hands to the enterprise on their journey towards agility. Similar to a coaching role in sports, an agile coach should have a clear vision of the end goal – the super bowl ring of business agility is quantifiable – better, faster delivery of higher value to the customer that meets and ideally exceeds market demand.
The enterprise coach aligns the agile team(s), execs, product management and other stakeholders to that vision. He or she can leverage other coaches – Scrum Masters (our offensive and defensive coordinators) – to steer our players towards the end zone. The enterprise coach is constantly adjusting techniques and tactics – all the while keeping adherence to the overall strategy. The enterprise agile coach is maintaining and tracking objective metrics to ensure that the organization is relentlessly moving forward towards its goal.
Keep in mind that SAFe® is a framework to achieve agility at scale. Being a framework, it is prescriptive in a couple of areas of concern but it also leaves a number of open areas. This enables the implementer to remain agile and emerge their particular SAFe® practices over time – as a result of learning cycles and feedback loops. The enterprise agile coach is the one who would be looking to ensure that the emerging practices of the business are still in line with agility principles and actually achieving real world value.
I will address the necessary skills an enterprise agile coach needs to possess to do his/her job in subsequent articles. Coaching entails unique skills, mindset, behaviors and practices. Fundamentally, it requires its practitioner to deeply understand human relationships and percolate that understand up through every interaction in the enterprise.
Suffice it to say that if an enterprise wants to succeed with a SAFe® transformation, it NEEDS to engage one or more enterprise agile coaches. To continue with our analogy, if we had a football team with the greatest quarterback, receivers, defense and even fantastic owners, however with no head coach or coordinators… it would fail miserably against a much less talented team with good (even mediocre) coaches. In fact, it would be a complete disaster!
We need to realize that just as coaches are an integral part of a Football game, the enterprise agile coach is necessary in a SAFe® transformation. The enterprise agile coach aligns the business owners, execs, team members, scrum masters, product owners/management and other stakeholders towards the goal of business agility. Proceed without one at your own peril!