SAFe®  – Can You Scale Agile Without Chaos?

The benefits of an agile working environment are huge without controversy. One of the most well-known and used frameworks is the Scaling Agile Framework for Lean Enterprises SAFe®. As scaling agility is a highly complex project, SAFe® provides structure in this challenging process to achieve business agility.

Tools are used to support the methodology and make it easier to use overall. There are a variety of tools available to help with everything from task management to communication.

Getting started

The most important thing about scaling agile is not simply introducing new practices, but understanding that a well-thought-out strategy is needed. SAFe® is the most popular option for organizations that want to scale agile, but it involves a rigorous implementation process and training. It helps organizations align their goals at a program level, which is especially beneficial for larger companies. SAFe® also focuses on the concept of "value streams," which means that development teams aren't siloed from one another or from IT. Instead, they work together to ensure quality and speed throughout the process as interdisciplinary teams.

Whilst organizing around value streams and working in iterations, the overall productivity increases significantly. To help the teams focus on important tasks and to eliminate unnecessary workload, Scrum Masters on team level help teams to organize themselves - especially in the first stages of an agile transformation, but also further on during the development process - by establishing and improving the teams' organization.

Both methodology and tools are critical components when scaling agile, but culture is also key. The right combination can help you successfully implement an agile process and improve your team's productivity. With the right methodology, tools, and culture, the team's velocity and quality can be improved significantly.

But what does a culture for an agile environment look like?

When working with agile methods, it is important to create a culture that enables people to make decisions on their own. This includes ensuring that everyone has access to the information needed at the right time - for example by using tools like Confluence.

Using a tool to create a culture is of course not the only thing that needs to be done - people need to feel comfortable when making decisions. This can only be achieved when there’s no finger-pointing in case of a mistake, but a team spirit to learn from it and fix it together. This also enables people to experiment and discover new approaches for existing challenges.

SAFe® can help companies to achieve this culture, but it’s absolutely necessary to rethink the way you work together. On a management level, it’s often difficult to understand what needs to be done to achieve a culture where agility can thrive - in conservative project management thinking most of the decisions are made top-down.

The first step to achieving a cultural change should be to create a collective understanding of key achievements and a new way of thinking within high-level management. Responsibility for decisions shifts more and more to the teams - often it is difficult for managers to let go of the thought process of being the decision-maker.

A great example of how agile leadership flips the switch to a new way of thinking overall is the story of the U.S. Navy Submarine’s Commander David Marquet. In his book “Turn the Ship Around'' the story of an agile transformation is perfectly described - by asking the right questions and giving crew members the right amount of space, the transformation took management to the next level. Instead of giving direct orders to crew members, he started with the question “What are we trying to accomplish?” and asked for “I intend to…” statements. The next question was “Is it safe to do so?” followed by “Is it the right thing to do?” - which sets the decision base with competence and organizational clarity.

This is how the psychological ownership switched to the crew members - which led to a higher engagement and active participation in day-to-day operations.

This example shows that even in the most conservative and strict leadership models as used in the military, it is possible to create a culture that enables agility to thrive.

The first step when starting with an agile transformation is therefore to create commitment on a high management level. Once that’s done, the whole process can start with the next stage - training the teams.

The best results can be achieved by working with professional agile and/or SAFe® experts to avoid common mistakes and profit from years of experience with agile and scaling agile. To reach the full potential of those training, the teams should be directly trained within the tool they’ll be using in the future - but which tool should that be?

The perfect tool

When it comes to tools, there are dozens of options out there. Commonly used project management software such as Jira is widely used when it comes to agile methodologies - and it helps teams a lot. Unfortunately, Jira has its limitations, especially when SAFe® is being used. SAFe® hierarchy and terminology can’t be visualized in Jira’s out-of-the-box version, so apps for Jira such as Agile Hive are a really good idea.

These specialized tools can help to manage and track teams' progress using the SAFe® framework out of the box. Agile Hive integrates into your existing Jira instance and has been developed to help teams work with SAFe® more efficiently and effectively.

After all, which tool is the right one for you really depends on the individual challenges in an agile environment. Of course, the effort needed for individualization should be as low as possible, while considering the team's needs. When teams are trained in methodology and the first PI Planning is in sight, but the tools are either too complex or not suited to the team's needs, the overall project could fail. When it comes to selecting the right methodology and tools for your organization, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each business is different and will require a unique approach.

From our experience with customers, we often encounter similar challenges in SAFe® transformations.

  • Not enough transparency
    When using agile methods it is important that everyone has access to the information needed at the right time to make the right decisions. Transparency is also one of the core competencies of SAFe® - it also includes creating trust to ensure openness, as well as Lean-Agile Leaders. With Lean-Agile leaders, and keeping in mind that transparency is key, the right tool and clear communication can help to create transparency on all levels. Communication itself should be supported by using internal wikis such as Confluence, Social Intranets like Linchpin or task management tools like Jira. Those tools can help with the first steps  - with access provided for all relevant users. But just using Jira is not enough to scale agility with SAFe ®. Teams also have to be trained within the tools so the tools can be used to their fullest.
  • Not enough resources or budget in IT
    In many agile transformations most of the resources and budget are used in operative tasks such as training for employees and restructuring - once that’s done and teams want to start using their new methods, the search for a tool begins, but all of the budget has already been spent. It is crucial to involve IT early on, so a tool can be found in the early steps of the project and budget and resources can be planned accordingly.
    scale agile without chaos - budget
  • Missing knowledge about Tool and Method
    Training your teams is essential to create a knowledge base - teams have to be able to use methods and tools and continuously improve.
  • No cross-functional teams
    Teams are often siloed from another and the organization is not structured around value streams. Silos create massive delays due to a possible lack of communication, commitment and deviating priorities. A customer-centric organization oriented around value streams can help optimize flow to quickly deliver solutions with high quality.
  • Lack of desire to change
    Teams are working with the existing tools and methods and don’t want to change a running system, as the improvement in the way of working is not communicated enough. As people start working with the new tools, the benefits outweigh the flaws and teams start to fully commit to the agile transformation.
  • No continuous improvement
    Once the first steps in an agile transformation succeeded, teams are working with the existing setup without thinking about improving any further. It is really important to not rely on achievements but to constantly improve processes and organizational structure and always think about how to improve further.
    scale agile without chaos - improvement

Conclusion

After all, tools and methods need and leverage each other.
It is not possible to create an agile environment without the right tools - teams need to be able to work with new methodologies and focus on improvement, without bothering about technical difficulties. Tools need to be a help in this process, not a risk. Throughout the whole process, tools and methodology should complement each other. It can be a real challenge to synergize both pillars - for example, teams could be trained very well and show a high motivation for agile methods, but the tools provided are not capable of allowing perfect PI Planning. Otherwise, it’s possible that the tool provides the perfect base for agile methods, but teams are not organized around value streams as they’re not defined yet.

This can be solved by thinking about method and tool as a duo - and as always - communication is key. IT needs to be involved and a budget for the tools needs to be provided -  a planable approach for scaling agile is key to success.

When all relevant stakeholders from the method and tool perspective are involved early on in the project with their requirements, the overall understanding and commitment growths.

The best thing to do in an agile transformation is to work with experts - often common mistakes can be avoided by relying on experts' knowledge.

We unite experts all around the topic SAFe®, Scaling Agile and the perfect tools for your journey with our initiative Scaling Agile Society.

No matter the state of your project, our experts would love to support you. In cooperation with our partner Kegon we can provide method and tool assessment, training for SAFe® and tools, assistance and support, as well as implementation and optimization for tools and processes. Of course you can book a free, non-binding consultation first!

To understand better how SAFe® helps to create a culture of continuous improvement, also visit our article here: https://blog.seibert-media.com/2021/12/16/safe-creating-culture-continuous-improvement/ 


Further Reading