In today’s connected world, ideas can spread and like wildfire. New technologies emerge continuously and so do new processes to support them. One particular approach emerging in the past decade is the idea of scaling the agile framework to large organizations. There are many frameworks and methodologies that have emerged for scaling, including the least prescriptive, Scrum of Scrums (SoS), to more regimented frameworks, such as Large Scaled Scrum (LeSS), Disciplined Agile Delivery (DaD) and many homegrown scaled approaches (i.e. Spotify).
One scaling approach that has been gaining momentum is the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), whose adoption rate has grown by nearly 50% from 2014 to 2015. Created by Dean Leffingwell, founder of the Rational Unified Process and director and chief methodologist at Scaled Agile Inc., SAFe provides a detailed and sophisticated framework to the complex problems of delivering quality software at the large scale of 50 or more people. The framework has been successful, with enterprises that have adopted it reporting improvements of up to 75% in TTM (time to market), increases of 50% in productivity and 50% decreases in defects — not to mention overall increases in happiness within delivery teams.
However, SAFe has been criticized in some circles as being too complex to adopt, especially with the expansion of ideas and techniques in the current version, 4.0, so Scaled Agile Inc. has responded by releasing a bare-bones version of SAFe called Essential SAFe.
Essential SAFe is a great first step to improving scaled delivery if your organization has not attempted it at all, or attempted it before but felt the resulting pain with too many bottlenecks, problems discovered too late at the program level, underestimated dependencies, no creativity and just plain low morale in your delivery teams. SAFe helps shift focus within your enterprise to fix processes over fixing people, since processes (whether good, bad or otherwise) will often produce similar behaviors in your delivery teams. Don’t beat your people, beat your process!
Essential SAFe still keeps in the framework of Lean-Agile Principles, Lean Agile Leaders and the basic components on building and releasing Agile Release Trains (ART) as the chief method of delivery for organizations at the program level. Having experience with agile delivery certainly is expected, but Essential SAFe can be implemented with less skill in agile (i.e. Scrum, Kanban, Scrumban, Scrummerfall, etc.). Recognize however, that the less mature your organization is at agile, the more challenges you will experience implementing Essential SAFe.
The heartbeat of Essential SAFe focuses on that ART and should still focus on 50 to 125 people, based on Dunbar’s limit, but can be trimmed down if necessary. So this advantage allows your organization to start smaller in case you wish to test this framework, track results and grow from the success of that ART. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither should your complex delivery organization.
People often fear that deploying SAFe at their organization will remove jobs. In fact, SAFe is designed to allow you to keep the same people but retrain them to fill new functional roles. In some cases, SAFe may justify adding new roles to help improve overall delivery velocity. Hence, that fear of losing one’s job is unfounded, unless one is unwilling to learn new skills.
Essential SAFe is still challenging, since it involves cultural change. If it was easy, you would have already implemented an improved delivery model right at its inception. As Peter Drucker has put it, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Essential SAFe still requires the training of SAFe leaders at the enterprise level for all key stakeholders (including the CIO, the CTO and senior executives), as well as the SAFe practitioners. There’s no shortcut for training and getting a full delivery commitment, but at least there is a “quick start” approach to rolling out Essential SAFe and embarking on Agile Release Trains.
So if you have been holding back on implementing SAFe because you’re concerned that it’s too complex and believe that it hasn’t been proven in the field, take a look at Essential SAFe and the Scaled Agile Inc. site for more details. It’s not easy to make a change, but Essential SAFe provides you with a step-based approach, so you don’t feel like you are trying to boil the entire ocean of software delivery. In reality, you can get an ART speeding along in a matter of weeks!
Michael Dougherty is a seasoned agile practitioner and trainer with more than 12 years of experience, and he has been bringing “order from chaos” as an IT consultant for more than 24 years. As the former vice president of the Agile Leadership Network in Houston, Texas, Michael has a passion for process and has spoken on several topics, including technical debt and agile checklists.
Michael is currently the national project manager at Magenic, leading a massive training program for the company's offshore and delivery center consultants.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Michael Dougherty and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications Inc. or its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.