As part of the research for Martin Seibert’s newest book - We Run on Agile - he had the opportunity to speak with Richard Wilson of Jarow Digital. With over twenty years of implementing Agile at scale, Richard co-founded the company with Mark Richards - a SAFe fellow who has launched between 30-50 trains over the last decade.  

Hi Richard. Thanks so much for allowing me to record the call so that we can talk about SAFe and the book I'm writing. Clara told me that you have practical experience with bigger companies and SAFe. Tell me a little bit about your experience with scaling agile, SAFe and maybe also about some other methologies in that realm.

So, I guess a little about me first. About a year ago, we decided to create a company called Jarow Digital. With Jarow Digital we felt there was an opportunity in the marketplace to look at how we can help our clients with their tooling in terms of agile at scale implementation.

We felt that many companies were possibly using Jira or Microsoft solutions to try to manage their delivery and, you know, were really struggling to take it up a notch to actually manage those areas.

I partnered with Mark Richards, who I would have loved to get on this call, because he could had add a lot more richness through his experience in scaled agile and SAFe implementations. It's always interesting to talk to someone like Mark, who is a SAFe fellow who probably has launched between 30 and 50 trains over the last 10 years.

But you know, I come from a background where I’ve been an SPC for about three years and working in a scaled agile framework or agile at scale for four or five years.

Prior to creating the company called Jarow Digital, I used to work as a Senior Manager for Accenture in Melbourne and also for Accenture as Senior Manager in London. So, you know, I guess, part of those exercises have been dealing with agile at scale.

Are you still in Melbourne?

Yeah, I'm still in Melbourne.

Ok back to SAFe, sorry for interrupting your flow...

The criteria was, you needed to be a SAFe client, you needed to have to have done a couple of PIs. You needed to be quite mature in your agile processes. We’ve really come a long way and Australia may have been an early adopter of SAFe. You have Mark and Em-Campbell Pretty who were part with the original case studies for Telstra, way back.

What we were finding in this  region is that we had our early adopters, but a lot of people have veered away from SAFe. It’s really more that the need to have a bureaucratic framework that has put a lot of people off.

I was actually often put off by SAFe in the beginning. Because I thought, oh, this is like agile, but pretty much still the waterfall sequential process. It’s just like a curtain, an agile curtain covering your old processes. How do you explain that to a customer? What do you say for that matter? Is it like a bridge or is it something else?

So, even Scaled Agile themselves say, it’s not a destiny, it’s a framework, it’s something to help guide you. Originally it was designed as a concept to get you, to get to a certain point and then when your maturity outgrows SAFe, then you could probably leave that behind. You know, the classic agile …

So, it's a bridge?

Yes, it was effectively a bridge - which is what it was designed to be in the first place. Because if you don't understand why you're doing any of these things, you can start and go down a path that ends up actually not being as agile as you'd like it to be.

Yea, that’s kind of how I had to warm myself up to the framework. Someone just told me, Martin, calm down, this is just a bridge. This is just helping people to get there. And the way that I was trying to approach it was too fast. It was like leap-frog, and other people didn't want to do make these big jumps. There are so many people who don’t like to change in the way you think they may. Actually, I think, SAFe is a pretty good way to transform how people work, and help the existing business to be more streamlined and adaptable…

And I think, it’s been an interesting journey for many organizations. There have been very positive case studies, where, you know, they’ve taken SAFe on board. They have understood the task to get people trained, and leadership have really adopted servant leadership roles and grasped what they are trying to do in moving forward.

On the other hand, you are also seeing organizations who have started with some Tier 1 consultants or companies who do strategy consulting. They've gone in, trimmed down the head count and said "Now you're agile!". 

Again, it's a journey not a destination. This bridge was put in place to make them start thinking about where they're going with baby steps.

I say, if you want to start, being with an Agile ReleaseTrain and being with a tribe: your teams. If you're trying to get large organizations on board and train a lot of people they have to understand why they're doing all of this otherwise you're just perpetuating bad practice.

This is a continuous learning process and you have to understand why you're trying to do something and not just push people through SAFe training.

I say, if you want to start, being with an Agile ReleaseTrain and being with a tribe: your teams. If you're trying to get large organizations on board and train a lot of people they have to understand why they're doing all of this otherwise you're just perpetuating bad practice.

So tell me a little bit more about Jarow Digital

As I said, we started about a year ago - our core business being the implementation of Jira Align. When Atlassian acquired AgileCraft, that was a game-changer.

How dependent is Jira Align on Jira?

Jira Align was originally developed to be standalone with integration support for Jira (and I guess also for Microsoft Azure solutions.) Atlassian really sees the team tool as Jira. It's only when you want to scale-up, that a move to Jira Align makes more sense.

Which I guess is a challenge for you guys with your solution, Agile Hive?

Yeah, somewhat. As an Atlassian Partner, we're used to eating the crumbs that Atlassian leaves behind them. And actually with the current Jira Align pricing that's actually a significant amount of crumbs!

So now that you've mentioned it - what made you curious about Agile Hive?

Essentially, many customers were feeling the burn of the Jira Align pricing and we felt that we needed some other solutions to offer to them. We're trying to solve agile at scale challenges for organizations and many customers, because of where they were in their agile maturity, weren't actually ready for Jira Align. So you can't justify the pricing.

I think there was an expectation that the pricing would be similar to Jira or Jira Portfolio and of course it's nowhere near that. So we were on the lookout for an alternative and you were recommended to us by a fellow silver partner.

The customer's journey starts with Jira and you'd have gone up to Portfolio or Advanced Roadmaps when Jira stops getting the job done. That's when you move to a solution like Agile Hive until you've outgrown it which is where you probably go up to Jira Align.

Yeah we've been talking to Volvo and they said "We want to have 100 ARTs and 5000 teams". I said, I think you've got the terms wrong - you probably have 100 teams and they went no no no...we have 100 ARTs and 5000 teams. And I said, that's the kind of scale we haven't seen with Agile Hive yet and told them they may want to start with Jira Align right away.

I think that was the right answer. Agile Hive, from my view, is a really good solution for one to two ARTs. But when you have more than that, you're going to be pushing the boundaries of what it was designed for. But as you say with Volvo, there are organizations operating at a different scale. Whether or not operating well is a totally different conversation.

Ok, moving on to another topic - I heard you also give SAFe trainings since your business partner is a SAFe Fellow, right?

Right. Mark does that as part of his coaching business, giving customers private SAFe classes/training to bring people on board.

When I was at Accenture, I did a lot of the internal SAFe trainings. These training courses refreshed you, brought you back to the basics and improved your knowledge. The product owners in these courses were given tools to teach, explain and articulate what they were trying to achieve.

SAFe was my North Star - it helped me get a sense of where I wanted to take the organizations depending on where they were in their journey and what they needed to help solve their business problems. But, not everyone is ok with using the term SAFe because they might have had a bad experience with it.

SAFe was my North Star - it helped me get a sense of where I wanted to take the organizations depending on where they were in their journey and what they needed to help solve their business problems.

Yes, we've seen that often with our American customers and they ditched the concept without using it. it's like with the term Wiki - where people weren't allowed to use it even though they were using Confluence because Wiki didn't sit well with management. So they started calling it Intranet or whatever.

Do you have experiences with customers who are trying to adopt SAFe and it doesn't take? What can people learn from your experiences?

Really good question! You'll see more successful implementations when leadership has experienced or done a couple of PIs and gone through a transformation. They have a far better understanding of the growing pains and what you need to do in order to bring all of that on board.

You need a leader that is battle-scarred but is also a good servant leader with the understanding of what it takes to go through this process. That means, basic agile principles or if they come from a scrum master/product owner background.

Too many people have just gone through the two-day SPC exam course and think they know it all. I look at them and thing, you're just starting your journey.

Sure you could hire consultants but they would just be guides - you need to own this and you need experience to bring this forward. This is a hard task because how do you gain experience without having done it before?

I hear you saying that you need to get your team fit with experience and you have certain expectations: They should have experience in SAFe, they should have done a PI, they should have a software development back ground and know scrum and product management. Those are big asks.

Let's assume I'm a total newbie - is there something easier. like a book that I can read or should I just start with the SPC course or leading implementing SAFe? Where do I start?

Depends on where you're starting from! (laughs)

From zero. I'm a manager with five years of business experience but not in software development. We're a traditional business and people tell me we want this SAFe thing - I want to be cutting edge in the next months or years with this project. I know it's going to take a long time and will be a big transformation. I just want to be a part of that but I have no clue as to how to go about it.

My first question to you, Martin, is why you want to do that?

Because I love this company and I want to help transform it.


(laughs)So what are you asking?

This is a serious question, why do you want to do it? Do you want to do this because it's trendy?

In the beginning people just see the wave moving in that direction and think they need to be a part of that..

But if you don't understand the why - and let's look to Simon Sinek -, you are not going to hit in the right direction. You have to know why.

Ok, so let's assume I do understand why - I've understood that mutual trust and working eye-to-eye results in a better outcome. I know that we didn't do this in the past and we had a more micro management style. But now I've read a lot of books and I really understand that agile is the way we should try to do things. So what now?

I think there are different levels. What is lean? What is the minimal thing that you need to do as a individual? Do you run a Kanban board yourself? Do you plan what work you do to generate ideas? You really want to start off at a team level and not with your high level manager.

But if you can't do Scrum and basic Agile and are trying to scale that, you're going to get yourselves into all sorts of trouble and create difficulties. You're essentially just accelerating a train crash with issues you were already having.

If you happen to have a couple of scrum teams within your organization, start there. Do those scrum teams have interdependencies? Get a scrum master and go on from there. 

Once you get to the stage where you have SAFe going with two scrum teams there's still too much overhead. I mean, there is a reason why they say 50 is the minimum for an Agile Release Train. The complexity of having 5 teams communicating, understanding the prioritization and dependencies is when you need to start to put an Agile Release Train on top of that. That's just so you can manage and move forward in what you're trying to do.

So, start small and start with yourself. Build one piece at a time by understanding the smaller stuff first before adding an Agile Release Train, let alone for one hundred ARTs like you mentioned earlier.

So, start small and start with yourself. Build one piece at a time by understanding the smaller stuff first before adding an Agile Release Train, let alone for one hundred ARTs like you mentioned earlier.

Ok is there a book that you would recommend to people? Should I read the documentaion on SAFe or...

So if you've done your SPC there are a couple of things I kind of encourage people to do after that. It also depends on the type of learner you are. It's interesting, I was talking to a gentleman earlier this morning who said "I've done my SPC so what do I do next, Richard? I want to get into this space."

Through the SPC you've unlocked a whole heap of other exams that can take you to that next level of Product Owner or Scrum Master, also Lean Portfolio management. Maybe there is a course of action for you to see if there are enablement exams to build on that.

Safe 5.0 Distilled: Achieving Business Agility With the Scaled Agile Framework by Dean Leffingwell & Richard Knaster has just come out so if you'd like to read a book, get that to get the full picture.

You probably picked up most of that in your SPC training, but maybe not. It's still good to look at that and see how you're doing there. My other go-to book at the moment in terms of trying to gain experience is The ART of Avoiding a Train Wreck by Em Campbell-Pretty. You'll gain some insight into some of their successes and failures in launching Agile Release Trains.

Yeah, ok

SAFe itself has a whole lot of learnings and depending on the challenges you're having - that's a good starting point for most people. Depending where you are in the organization as well.

Cool, The Art of Avoiding a Train Wreck.


Ok cool, is there anything that we can do to make you more interested in Agile Hive?

So, I think my view is that we are reasonably interested. I know I have to do some administration...

Did you get the demo from us or...

Yes, yes I got a demo - I loved the demo

It's like a basic overview of the...

...and obviously being an experienced SPC delivery lead person, I kinda get how it works.

Yeah, I'd assume so. That's also our experience. People who know SAFe get Agile Hive much much faster. The challenge is also that we're not trainers or coaches. We're trying to get away from services. So we kind of rely on people like you to be the bridge between the software and the company in need. Because if the company is in need, we almost always have to connect them to someone who will help them understand.

And that's the journey. You know, one of the things you're seeing with Jira Align for example - and I think Jira Align is probably, you know, five to ten times more complicated than something like Agile Hive - is that you do probably need a partner implementation to help you get up and running in terms of configuration and understanding. If you have a savvy, experienced SPC that would go a long way in moving in the right direction.

But you know, what we're also seeing is that too many coaches out there are holding onto their pre-Covid beliefs  of "let's not focus on process and tools but focus on communication, as opposed to focusing on what needs to be delivered."

They kind of go "no" to tools and rather than really trying to leverage and lean in to see what they can get out of them.

Yeah and customers do need to learn in the end. That's...

Yeah that's what it is.

Yeah, cool.

So, Martin, one of the questions I wanted to ask you is what your book is about. I didn't quite catch what you're trying to tell the world.

So, the title is "We Run on Agile". I've just written another book in German - the English version will be released hopefully this year. It's about social intranets and another solution based on Atlassian Confluence. You could say it's an advertisment in book-form for Linchpin Intranet. But basically it's not talking about the software but rather how to apply a good intranet to you business.

Which I think is a really important point. Something that was poorly done with Jira Align - because it still wasn't Atlassian - was the connection to Confluence. And really, the Jira Align people will hate me, but it's just a ticket moving machine at different levels...

I think, Agile Hive will scale much further than an ART. We do see customers using 5, 10 and 15 ARTs - which is already a massive amount of people below that. And I think it's the tight integration that we have with the Atlassian tools that sets us apart from Jira Align, which is just a broad Agile Craft cloud software.

It may be faster and easier to implement with Atlassian Cloud software and Atlassian is moving in that direction, so killing the server implementation of Jira and Confluence. That may be the edge Jira Align has because we haven't even started a cloud implementation of Agile Hive. So this is only a Server and Data Center only solution at this point.

But 99% of our customers are in that realm right now. Germany doesn't talk about Cloud too much at this point. And the integration that we have is so much better and the ability to leverage that - those softwares Confluence and Jira - I think it sets us apart and helps us to grow that solution. There is a significant overlap of where Jira Align could add value and where Agile Hive adds more value, keeping it all together. And then there's a sphere where Jira Align is much better.

Look, there are always crossovers. There is no fixed line where you say "now you should be Jira Align". There are blurry boundaries - I think that's always fair to say. And I think, you know, one of the things you are seeing is that even though Atlassian is pushing Cloud, a lot of their customers are still on the server version. And you know they try and give all the right incentives but you know they've got to give the right incentives to their Marketplace solutions as well. 

Most people are still happy with on-prem. They feel there is no incentive for them to go to Cloud. Unless sales support drops, the real concern is then that they look for other solutions rather than go to cloud.

Atlassian does have the homework of making the transition not only easy from a technical standpoint, but from a business standpoint. There are price increases that are too much for customers and they just don't want to do that. It's not easy. We could spend another hour on that topic.

Actually, you've covered all my questions - a pretty good basis for a short article. To answer the question on the book because I didn't fully answer. The social intranet book was more on collaboration, communication, documentation and knowledge management. This new book is more on processes, Agile, agile practices and how we do that. Also, SAFe scaling and the experiences of how we do that with our customers. It's probably going to be more centered on what we do as a company because that's something I can easily talk about.

Yeah but I think the pain and the process of how you guys have done it internally is what people will be interested in understanding and learning about. You know, what worked for you, what didn't work, the mistakes you made - because everyone I still think is going through this type of journey to a certain extent.

And another reason is to propel the message of Agile Hive. So...

Yeah, I get that.

Basically, it's a book about the challenges that we had and see with the customers in relation to SAFe. The market out there doesn't have too many good books on that, so I'm hoping to make a contribution there.

You know, I guess it's kind of where there's a synergy between us. We're coming back to the core and roots of why Jarow Digital was formed. One of the things that happened was, Mark had gone to Japan to do studies there. And he came back and felt we really missed the trick on understanding our metrics. You know, we needed to become a learning organization, we need to measure things far, far better than what we have been able to do. We need to pay much more attention to that to identify where stuff is not flowing through the system, and you can't do that with Post-its.

Yeah, I agree

Or at least not very well - you can write things on the back of cards and thinks like that. But no one ever does - or at least I haven't seen anyone doing it.


Alright Martin, great conversation - thanks very much.

Thanks for your time and have a good evening!

You too mate, cheers! Bye!

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