Agile has now been around for 20 years. Even though it took off in the Software industry, Agile practices have gained popularity in most industries as more professionals are seeing the benefit of it. With the pandemic wreaking havoc across the world in 2020, the importance of bringing agility to businesses has increased.
While the benefits of being more Agile are obvious, the path to gaining that Agility is not as straightforward. It is easier to achieve Agility in small teams with limited members. However, if an organization is large, complex, and spread out over different geographies implementing Agile practices becomes a lot harder.
Scaled Agile Framework or SAFe® is designed to make the adoption of Agile easier for large teams and organizations. It provides enterprises with a set of practices that have been proven to ease the teams to attain and maintain Agility. SAFe was introduced in 2011. The fifth upgrade was launched in 2020. As a framework these upgrades ensure that SAFe practices keep evolving to meet the new challenges and learning from SAFe practitioners around the world.
While SAFe is the most popular Scaling framework it is not the only one. The 15th Annual State of Agile survey claims that SAFe is used by 37% of enterprises. There has been a steady increase in SAFe adoption during the last five years. By comparison, the second most popular method Scrum@Scale or Scrum of Scrums has an estimated share of only 9%.
This begs the question why SAFe is the most popular method when it comes to Scaling Agile? There are two ways to look at it. We can examine the philosophy of SAFe and proceed to examine the step-by-step method of its implementation.
The effectiveness of SAFe is based on its four core values:
Alignment happens when all levels of the organization are in line with the business objectives. An enterprise that lacks alignment cannot stay agile for long.
The emphasis on quality permeates every level in a SAFe enterprise. SAFe encourages all participants to be quality conscious.
If the work that is being done lacks visibility it leads to a type of working environment where people work based on assumptions rather than facts. An open organization can spot challenges faster and adapt quicker to customers’ demands.
The success of any organization depends on how quickly and effectively it can deliver value to customers. Continuous delivery of value is a crucial point of focus in SAFe.
Organizations come in all shapes and sizes. Some can easily make structural changes, but others may have rigid structures and workforce that are resistant to change. There are external factors like the industry they operate in or the regulatory bodies that govern how they operate, among another plethora of challenges.
What that means is there cannot be a concrete framework that fits all organizations regardless of size, complexity, geography, or industry. Instead, SAFe provides a set of principles that can be followed in any organization.
This point refers to keeping the perspective of costs and value associated with the product, the cost of delays. It involves considering the budgets and the economic aspects of every decision.
In complex organizations there is a need to understand how interrelated teams, individuals, and processes work together. This constitutes the system. Systems thinking emphasizes on understanding the system and the organization behind it.
This principle talks about keeping multiple options open. Anticipating that a single option will work flawlessly risks wasting effort on a project when the option is found to be less than optimal at a later stage.
Using short development cycles and reviewing where things stand after or during each cycle gives perspective to both decision makers and teams to learn and understand shortcomings in the process. It also minimizes the risk of wasting time and effort on a task that is not going the right way.
Pre-decided milestones and criteria help every stakeholder to have similar expectations and see if the actual development is happening as expected. If the work done up to the point produces verifiable results everyone can move ahead with confidence.
Getting work done in big batches or with items that require a long time to complete will limit the Agility. Hence, SAFe tries to keep batch sizes small and breaks down items into smaller sub items that can be completed in shorter timeframes and evaluated.
Cadence refers to a timeframe with which all teams across the organization can align with. Plans cannot be made in Agile enterprises when different teams work on varying timeframes.
SAFe aims to remove a competitive environment for teams and individuals and instead focuses on fostering a culture in which individuals can be engaged through giving them more independence and removing constraints.
The speed of decision making is one of the key components that make an organization agile. This can only happen when decisions can be taken at an individual level in most cases. Only decisions that have a global or strategic importance are left to the central leadership. This encourages innovation.
An agile team needs to stay focused on creating value for customers. The speed with which a company can respond to customer needs and deliver value is the biggest advantage of an agile approach.
Putting the principles into practice needs a strategy at the organizational level. In SAFe, it is called an implementation roadmap. This process is at the heart of successful implementation because of which SAFe works while other frameworks fall short.
Organizations do not naturally evolve to become Agile. There is bound to be a resistance to change in large organizations where people do not want to give up on the way that they are comfortable with. SAFe transformations happen at a point when the need for change becomes clear and the leadership is convinced of the benefits of a more Agile organization.
Every SAFe transformation starts with training. For this step Enterprises may tie up with training providers who are authorized partners of Scaled Agile, inc. These agents can then be used to train others once they become certified trainers or SAFe Program Consultants (SPCs).
There also needs to be training sessions for the leadership and management teams. Getting all departments and managements to agree on adopting changes is key to any successful transition. Since they are the decision makers, getting them on board can remove a lot of obstacles.
This is the third component in training. This is about creating a small team that is dedicated to implementing SAFe in the organization.
A Value stream is the process flow that an enterprise uses to provide a continuous flow of value to their customers. An ART or an Agile Release Train is a set of Agile teams along with other stakeholders that develop and deliver solutions providing a continuous flow of value to a value stream. At this stage, the enterprise is examining both the method and the components involved in delivering value to its customers. Value Streams depending on their size can have one or multiple ARTs contributing to it.
After identifying the Value Streams and ARTs, Enterprise can now plan how to implement SAFe. This stage also involves creating plans for further ARTs and Value Streams as well.
At this stage the team picks an ART that contributes to a large Value Stream. This is a critical step as this will create valuable learning and prove the benefits of SAFe if done in the right way. At this stage more training is needed for the leaders and stakeholders in this particular ART.
Launching the ART starts with training the Agile team and subsequently proceeding to PI (Program Increment) Planning.
Further coaching is needed for the teams to not only understand what Agile means but to live the values and philosophy. This is to ensure that the participants develop an Agile mindset and do not revert to the old ways of working.
The experiences and learnings gained from the first ART launch can be used to launch more ARTs and involve more Value Streams by repeating the steps taken for launching the first ART.
The new method of working will put a strain on the enterprise portfolio. At this stage the enterprise leverages Lean Portfolio Management to align the organizational strategy with the execution.
This is the stage at which the enterprise has successfully implemented SAFe and rebuilt themselves as an Agile enterprise. This time should be used to reinforce the learnings till the new practices get embedded in the organizational culture.
Now that we know about how SAFe operates, we can be clear about the benefits. SAFe also brings with it a set of challenges. It is important for an organization to factor in both the benefits and disadvantages of the Scaled Agile Framework before deciding to implement it across their organization.
SAFe operates at various levels. Even though we talk about SAFe in the context of large and complex organizations. SAFe can be implemented for Teams, smaller organizations, large organizations or at a Portfolio level. There are different modules of SAFe training created for different organizations and contexts.
The success of SAFe is certain to increase its adoption across geographies and industries. A large reason for its success can be attributed to the training at various levels and the stringent processes put in place to ensure that implementation stays on track. Like any other framework the success of SAFe implementations rests on the people who drive and adopt it. It is also a testament to the efforts of SAFe practitioners who keep contributing to improving the framework over time to make it more relevant to time.