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Is a Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) Right For Us?

Where It All Started Two years ago I became a SAFe Program Consultant (SPC). Although most of the work I’ve done since 2002 has been in the Agile space, this was my first exposure to Agile at scale. Actually, let me restate that. We’ve scaled Agile at a variety of clients in a variety of […]

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September 04, 2015

Where It All Started

Two years ago I became a SAFe Program Consultant (SPC). Although most of the work I’ve done since 2002 has been in the Agile space, this was my first exposure to Agile at scale. Actually, let me restate that. We’ve scaled Agile at a variety of clients in a variety of ways, but this was the first time I saw someone put pen to paper and really define how to do it.

Shortly after that training, the Chief Architect of a federal agency asked me what I thought about SAFe. Having an only academic view at that point, this is what I sent to him.

My First-Ever SAFe Related Email

At the team level, there is little doubt that the implementation of Agile methodologies, particularly Scrum, has helped transform software development engagements in a positive way. However, once you go beyond the team level and attempt to scale at a much larger level, there is simply little in place to guide an organization in that direction.

To fill that void in the marketplace, the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) has become increasingly popular and more organizations are looking to it as an answer to the issues that they are encountering.

Good Things About SAFe

Not-So-Good Things About SAFe

So, What’s Happened in the Past Two Years?

A lot! As a frequent attendee of Agile-based conferences, meetups, and workshops, scaling Agile has been the talk of the town. These presentations, and subsequent discussions, have ranged from cordial exchanges to screaming matches. And, it hasn’t just been all about SAFe. Not a day goes by without me talking to someone about Large Scale Scrum (LeSS), Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD), Scaling Agile at Spotify, Scrum at Scale, and/or Scrum of Scrums (SoS).

At Excella, we now have six SPCs on staff. We hosted SPC training at our Arlington Tech eXchange (ATX) in February. We are helping a federal government agency implement SAFe for one of their most important programs. But, again, it’s not just all about SAFe. We have LeSS Practitioners on staff. We’re experimenting with other scaled Agile approaches on our engagements. We’re creating training that discusses the good and not-so-good aspects of all the popular scaled Agile approaches. In essence, we’ve immersed ourselves into this world to continually improve ourselves and the clients with which we work.

What I Think Now

Although my understanding of SAFe has gone from merely academic to practitioner-level, the thoughts that I put in that email two years ago remain unchanged. In addition, I’ve witnessed first-hand one more not-so-good thing about SAFe – big bang approaches like this are expensive.

When you look at the “big picture”, the Program level includes several people/teams that are critical to the success of the engagement. Most organizations that I’ve encountered don’t have all these people/teams and it costs a lot of money to bring them in or retool who they have. And, trying to get by without them doesn’t work.

Does this mean that I’m a proponent or opponent of SAFe? Neither…and both.

SAFe is not perfect. None of these approaches are perfect. If you’re looking for the perfect approach for your organization, you’ll never find it, ever.

I would instead continue to stay true to Agile principles, push the boundaries of what’s comfortable for your organization, and continually get better at what you do. Taking an incremental and measured approach to scaling will help you land on what works best for you. That is, of course, until something changes, which we know is right around the corner.

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