The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), based on the work of Dean Leffingwell and his team, is a hot topic these days, and the discussion about it is characterized by hot language on both sides. Some people love it, others not so much. Taking sides on something like this is to be expected. But is it productive?
SAFe may not be the safest thing to talk about right now. But when it comes to discourse in the Agile community, we tend to be civil about it. So we thought it would be safe to come out with our own thoughts on the framework based on our experience of working with it, of reviewing the materials that describe it, and our experience with Agile adoptions and implementations in general.
Getting the Big Picture
Over five days at the Agile 2013 conference, we had many opportunities to study “the big picture”. And each time we did, we felt like there was something missing. We realize now that that something is people.
In the Agile community we value individuals and interactions over processes and tools. We know that processes and tools are vital, but we acknowledge that their vitality is predicated on how people work together as they use them.
When we think about individuals and interactions, we think about organizational culture. Without a healthy workplace culture, processes and tools—even the very best—don’t work as well as we hope they will. We believe this is why so many Agile adoptions struggle and often fail.
Lots on “What”, Little on “How”, Less on “Who”
SAFe provides a detailed blueprint of what organizations can do structurally, but it is much less detailed about how things can be done, and it offers almost no information about interactions and individuals and the workplace culture that might support their success. This appears to have been a choice made with regard for the focus and scope of the effort as Mr. Leffingwell wrote in a recent blog post:
SAFe is largely quiet on the topic of implementation, change management and evolving corporate culture. We are focused on the framework content and continually understanding, and codifying best practices that people like you, in the field, discover. That is more than enough charter for us. However, we do understand that changing corporate culture to better reflect the behaviors and aptitudes of a Lean|Agile enterprise is a critical aspect. But, in our view, this is best achieved as result of success and better outcomes, rather than an object of attention to be addressed directly.
Let us consider this last sentence carefully. Is positive culture change best achieved by improved outcomes that result from new practices? Or are improved outcomes more likely to result from positive changes in culture?
We believe this is a false dichotomy. In our experience, the greatest successes and the most spectacular outcomes (the extraordinary productivity increases that research on Agile often describes) are achieved when culture and practice support each other in a positive feedback loop.
The Ever-Present, the Foundational, the Inseparable
Merely choosing to begin any type of Agile adoption is, in itself, a phenomenon of culture. An organization’s decision to trade one set of practices for another is only possible if the choice is culturally viable. Culture and practice are inherently intertwined and in play simultaneously. Our best chance of winning the game comes from leveraging both.
Culture is the soil in which the seeds of change are planted. To maximize our chances of success, we must tend to the earth as much as we tend to the business of getting things out of it. If the soil isn’t fertile when we start, and if it isn’t tended carefully along the way, growth is stunted, change withers on the vine, and in many cases, new initiatives die altogether.
SAFe is a strategy for change. It is a set of strategies, actually—a large and very impressive set that brings obvious value to organizations considering or executing large scale Agile adoption. But we have heard many times since organizational luminary Peter Drucker coined the phrase, that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Why? Because even the best seeds have low yields in bad soil.
Back to Our Roots
We don’t have to go back to the Dust Bowl days or read The Grapes of Wrath to understand the importance of soil and, by extension, the importance of culture in advancing strategy. The soil of culture is where strategic change is grounded. Nor do we have to go back to the world-saving work of Norman Borlaug to know that the highest yields come from inspired and careful cultivation. But we must go back to Snowbird, Utah and the work that was done there in February of 2001, to remind ourselves of the fundamental ideas upon which Agile is based and why so many of us were so attracted to it in the first place.
When we do go back—when we read again the Manifesto and the Principles that define our work and enumerate the values of our global community—we see a group of people at the center of the software industry expressing the idea that people are at the center of software development.
Through all the projects and products we have contributed to and all our years of coding and coaching, we have come to believe that individuals and interactions matter, not only more than processes and tools, but more than anything else.
Culture is Complementary and Crucial
Culture without practice is daydreaming. Practice without culture is a nightmare. For SAFe—or any set of practices—to be optimally effective, a complementary cultural component is vital.
In affirming the importance of culture in Agile adoption and implementation, it appears that we are not alone. Mr. Leffingwell seems to be considering this as well. In the same blog post, he writes: “So maybe I’m wrong about just waiting for results before worrying about culture.”
To us this is neither a matter of right or wrong nor of waiting and worrying. Culture exists; it is here, now, in every organization where we work. It has mass and velocity; it is always moving in some direction whether we know what that direction is or not. And where it is moving always matters.
Just as we can make conscious choices about practice, so too can we choose to shape culture with commensurate intention. When we do, we bring under our control a force for powerful change while simultaneously reducing risk. Is this a larger charter than attending to practice alone? Certainly. Do we think the effort is justified? We do.
We are happy to see that Mr. Leffingwell is also thinking about culture. It is our position that if we separate culture from practice, focusing on one to the exclusion of the other, we miss the opportunity to maximize results and minimize risk.
Haven’t We Known This Since the Very Beginning?
In pondering the interconnectedness of culture and practice, we we see why the dialog about SAFe has been so heated. In fact, we think Jim Highsmith saw this back in 2001, when he wrote:
…while the Manifesto provides some specific ideas, there is a deeper theme that drives many, but not all, to be sure, members of the alliance. At the close of the two-day meeting, Bob Martin joked that he was about to make a “mushy” statement. But while tinged with humor, few disagreed with Bob’s sentiments that we all felt privileged to work with a group of people who held a set of compatible values, a set of values based on trust and respect for each other and promoting organizational models based on people, collaboration, and building the types of organizational communities in which we would want to work. At the core, I believe Agile Methodologists are really about “mushy” stuff, about delivering good products to customers by operating in an environment that does more than talk about “people as our most important asset” but actually “acts” as if people were the most important, and loses the word “asset”. So in the final analysis, the meteoric rise of interest in, and sometimes tremendous criticism of, Agile Methodologies is about the mushy stuff of values and culture.
We too believe that people are most important. We believe that culture is the engine that drives the most extraordinary results and that inattention to culture is the most common impediment to the success of Agile adoption and implementation.
What Will Make SAFe Safer?
The question is not whether SAFe should be used as the strategic basis for large Agile adoptions. The question is this: What will make those adoptions most successful? We believe that culture is the answer to this question; we believe that culture is the key to making SAFe safer.
Culture is not a replacement for strategy; it is a complement to, and an enabler of, strategy. It is also the true scaling agent of large-scale change. Without sufficient attention culture change, strategic change is all too often gamed, and then thereby undermined, sometimes to the point of total failure.
Through our work, we have come to value interactions and individuals over processes and tools. That is, while we believe that there is value to the latter, we value the former more.
Amr Elssamadisy and Steve Peha