One of the questions that we regularly get from our customers and prospects is whether they can introduce the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) for Lean Enterprises by themselves. They ask us because we don't do SAFe consulting ourselves, but work with consultants and produce a SAFe software called Agile Hive. Systematically, it would be better for us if companies could quickly implement SAFe on their own. This way, they would only need to buy our software and start using it. But:
Here is why:
Top reasons to engage a coach or consultant for your SAFe project
If you are implementing SAFe, you need many prerequisites that only a few companies have. You need the right culture of transparency and collaboration. You need teams that are already experienced and successful with Scrum. You need management and leaders who know agile and believe in the upside over traditional command and control and Taylorism. Most companies don't have this throughout the whole organization and thus have to argue and convince in very diverse and demanding discussions. It is as if there are hundreds of ropes tied to your project, and people pulling on them fiercely. The force is different. And understanding who is pulling from which angle and with which power is tough. To keep it short, implementing SAFe is full of surprises and very, very difficult to master.
If you are trying to implement SAFe in your organization, you're likely doing it for the first time. We see some organizations with leaders who seek to achieve SAFe adoption for the second, third, or even the fourth time. While this is valuable, they have experienced failing to implement SAFe in the past. Consultants and coaches who specialize in SAFe will have experiences from multiple successful and not so successful cases, including networking with other SAFe consultants about specific challenges in the field. Their abilities can help your team and your company not only to avoid common pitfalls, but also to increase the chance of success in your project.
When you have ready-made procedures for simple elements while implementing SAFe and a guide who'll help you stay on the path, you'll be able to move much faster. Such advantages include less repair time, less fixing, less error searching, and fewer discussions about issues that the industry already has tested and proven right.
Hiring help for SAFe isn't the only way to a successful project. But we see with a lot of our customers that, when much is at stake, it's safer to hire an experienced SAFe coach. Please make sure to verify the coach's experience. You want them to know SAFe implementations, not just some general agile knowledge. It would also be beneficial if the coach possesses experience in similarly sized companies in your industry.
Photo by Petr Sevcovic
A SAFe coach can effectively help
- Inspire and validate overall strategy
Hearing stories of other companies of similar size or from related industries is a strong motivator for many people. As good SAFe consultants will have a big network, they may even be able to get you in contact with other SAFe practitioners who can tell you about their agile transformation. Also, even if the consultant does not have these contacts, they may still be able to help you enter communities with such networks. An excellent SAFe consultant will be able to be a thought leader for your implementation, as well as a skilled coach to validate your implementation ideas and steps.
- Plan the project and keep up with the emergent changes
If you see a GANTT chart of the whole agile transformation project in your company, you should be very cautious. A GANTT chart is a tool from a deterministic world. It feels known and well-established in big corporations. But it's deceptive and flawed. An agile transformation in a big company can never be planned top-down. There are way too many surprises and unplanned incidents. An experienced scaled agile consultant will help you to update your plan along the way. It's paramount to monitor changes and react flexibly. If you foresee that your project will change and if you plan for adaptations, it’s an essential and significant first step. A consultant will continuously remind you and help you to do so.
- Operational coordination and communication
The Japanese car manufacturer Toyota is a prominent agile thought leader. They have a management practice to "nurture roots." The metaphorical idea is to take good care of the roots of your plants so that they can grow. In reality, this management practice means that you go down in the hierarchy of the organization and start talking and discussing decisions with all employees. Toyota is said to endlessly discuss essential choices in the company at all levels. The company’s challenge with this approach is not that people do not feel heard, but rather that they grow tired of exhaustive discussions. The significant advantage, however, is that this management practice leads to rapid implementation, as all relevant people have been involved in the topic and understand the decision. It's easier to follow and support something if you believe in it. A SAFe coach can help you spread the word in your organization and make sure that your people have a say in the process. Getting the support of a lot of people to make relevant changes in your organization is not only crucial, but also a time-consuming part of an agile transformation. A coach can often help with such coordination and communication tasks.
- Avoid common mistakes
There are a lot of things that repeatedly go wrong in scaling agile efforts. A SAFe coach knows those problems and can help you identify, mitigate, and circumvent avoidable challenges as part of the engagement. Most people do not build a house without an experienced architect. One of the main benefits of such an approach is to prevent you from having the same deceptive assumptions and spending time and money on issues that have continuously proven to be problems. Don't be that foolish organization that makes the same error as hundreds have before.
- Education and training of staff
Implementing SAFe also means instilling agile thinking in your workforce. The good news is that we all intuitively think and behave in an agile way. The behavior of children especially reflects this thinking in a lot of facets. The traditional businesses of the last decades have taught a lot of employees and leaders that command and control, excessive planning, and deterministic thinking are the way to go. It's one of the core elements of SAFe consulting to work with such thought models, compare them with a modern agile world, and show the differences. Changing the default from distrust to trust isn't something that we would recommend be done internally. For it's the internal structures that have created the thought models and made them routine. You will most likely need external considerations to break with tradition and show the way to transparency, collaboration, and trust.
- Selection and configuration of SAFe software tools
Getting the thinking and the mindset right is the basis of an excellent agile adoption and deployment of Scrum and similar frameworks. But if you want to scale agile methodologies with SAFe within your company, software is necessary. I do not see big companies with multiple agile release trains (ARTs) ever work without software to support their agile scaling processes. It does not necessarily have to be our product, Agile Hive, based on Atlassian Jira. There are tons of alternatives out there that can do the trick. Good SAFe consultants will know different solutions and can help evaluate and choose the right one for you.
- Increase adoption of methodology and usage of agility software
Have you ever heard of the "conveyor belt of software"? It's an excellent metaphor that I first encountered in a talk from Daryl Duke in Amsterdam in 2013. He explained that, just like the conveyor belt for suitcases at an airport during baggage claim, software in companies comes into the hall and leaves again if no passenger takes it. Bags that have cycled for too long will be removed from the belt and hidden somewhere out of sight. So, a common strategy, according to Duke, is to simply ignore the new shiny software that comes through the conveyor belt long enough until it dies officially. We all know that uniquely collaborative software is in dire need of high utilization and adoption by its users. So, not working with a collaboration software is the best way to kill it quickly and efficiently. And, before you get angry at your people for ignoring your new software baby, take into account what their situation. In a lot of cases, they will have heaps of work, and there will be multiple stakeholders trying to pull them in different directions. Ignoring software is a valid and efficient strategy. It's not mean. For a lot of people, it's smart and logical. If you are reading this book, you probably know that using collaboration software saves tons of time. But it's one thing if the company benefits and quite another if I will benefit. It's a one-by-one task to convince every single employee that there is something in the software for him or her individually. That's the ultimate trick: to turn all employees from ignorant bystanders into passionate and vocal supporters of your movement. As with education, talking to individuals takes a lot of time. In such situations, externals can help. In a lot of cases, they know better about software specifics, its applications, and how to handle adoption objections. Use such specialists and let them help you build this adoption force internally via multipliers.
Things that you should be doing internally
There are a couple of things that we think should not be delegated to externals. In most cases, this comes down to a combination of not working at all or not being useful or even being counter-productive to do so:
- Management Support: Strong backing from the top
SAFe implementation is not a grass-roots movement. Although the people lower down in the hierarchy of an organization primarily benefit from more freedom, more autonomy, and more influence on decision-making, it's the top management who needs to make this approach work through support. If you want to lead your organization in such an effort, you should not be surprised to see resistance at all levels in your hierarchy. Managers may fear losing power and control. Employees will suspect you setoff setting a trap that lures them into harder work and more sacrifice for the company. It is not uncommon that agile organizations have fewer clear borders between work and leisure. Work-Life-Balance turns into Work-Life-Fusion, which isn't a welcome thing for all. It undoubtedly has challenges and dangers for employees to lose themselves in work and burn out. It's paramount that the leadership of the company whole-heartedly supports this effort. Do not squeeze out more productivity. Instead help the organization cope with complexity. You can take care of all stakeholders, including employees. To keep it short and straightforward: You need your CEO and the board of directors to fiercely stand behind this initiative. If this is not the case, you have a task you should tackle first. Not having strong backing from the top is the number one reason for the failure of SAFe implementations.
- Working on your company cultures like the general approach towards transparency, autonomy, mastery, and purpose
If you are thinking about changing the routine behaviors in your company and the ways in which they should change, this is something that you cannot outsource. It needs to be done and influenced by your people. It doesn’t work to have a top-down change management initiative to change company culture. Neither should it be a grass-roots movement. Changing your company culture to embrace high levels of transparency, autonomy, mastery, and purpose within its organizational cells is a widespread practice that is changed slowly and over time. It also doesn’t work without strong backing from the top. But it's something that needs to come from within your teams. You can use externals to identify areas and situations in which you violate your aspired values and cultural elements. But make sure that you slowly adhere to them and that people want it as an inherently internal task for the leadership and the people together.
- Owning the project and the results
There should be internal full-time employees who lust for the agile transition within your company. Such a movement will experience a lot of disappointments and drawbacks, as it's inevitably caught in politics and destined to question existing hierarchies and power structures. Externals are easy to cut out. Groups of people who aspire to the goal and have the standing to weather the storm lead successful SAFe projects.
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