I have been very open about my views on SAFe. I’m a supporter and, admittedly, cautious in my support. I am cautious because I worry the emphasis on people and the necessary mindset isn’t prominent enough on the “Big Picture”. In the wrong hands, the results of implementing SAFe could be….lacking (aka: horrendous) resulting in a horrible experience for all involved. While, honestly, the same can be said of any framework used to implement Agile; SAFe is riskier because it’s BIG. It can be HUGE even which, as we all know, isn’t the preferred way of operating. Recently, I embarked on an opportunity to coach a a group with a BIG vision and they want to be as close to Agile as they can be. Enter SAFe and the journey of making it safe for all those on board the train. I’m going to do my best to share this experience with you.
I’ll start by explaining what I mean when I say “safe” or “safety”. To me, a safe environment is one in which the values and principles of both lean and Agile can be put into practice without fear. It is safe to raise issues, learn, make quick decisions, disagree, develop, release code into production, be honest, tell someone “no”, empower people, trust people, try something new and do what’s necessary to achieve the vision everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) is aligned to. There’s more – lots more – but I’m sure you get the gist. This kind of environment isn’t an easy one to create from the beginning and even harder to achieve when an organization is established and set in their ways. So, where did I begin? With the people who invited me to coach them and their leaders.
Do you know how hard it is to get “higher-ups” to spend a day with you for “training”? Most of the time, it’s not even possible. I can’t tell you the number of times I have watched perfectly good and valuable training which, typically, would be a full day get hacked down to 2 hours. Funnily, it’s not the people receiving the training who require the cliff-notes version. It’s those below them who insist a whole day isn’t possible and you’ll be lucky to get those 2 hours. Then, you don’t get past slide 3 because slide 3 USED to be slide 30 and you’re training slides 2-29 off-the-cuff. And, just when you really get going….times up! Anyway, don’t get too excited because I didn’t get a whole day. However, I was able to spend a solid six hours with them and I believe that time is one of the differentiating factors for this particular SAFe adoption.
The first clue I had to the possibilities of this group was they didn’t balk at spending time learning about Agile, lean, SAFe and what it means to be a leader in Agile. The second clue I had was their laptops were down, phones were on silent and turned over and they were 100% present and engaged. Granted, I did ask them for that but they didn’t complain!! They just said OK and did it. Third, the place where we spent the majority of time was on being a leader in Agile and working on how they would work together to make this effort special – not only in WHAT they were delivering but also HOW it would be delivered and how they, as a leadership team, would work together towards realizing BOTH objectives. They immediately were applying what they learned to their team and their situation with completely open minds and genuine excitement. Finally, this group of leaders with open minds and genuine excitement realized and discussed how difficult this would be for those directly and indirectly involved and how, while they didn’t have the answers, would need to be supportive of each other through the journey of learning.
So far – and it’s only been a month or so – I have observed some pretty cool stuff that started during those 6 hours. I have watched these guys engage with others in a different manner and subtly shifting the tone of conversations by sharing their vision and extending invitations to be involved. I heard them asking other leaders (and each other) to “ask the team”. I have seen them catch themselves and correct behaviors to model Agile principles. Most of all, when they were up there in front of 150 team members, they all said (in a nutshell) they were there to support and enable the teams and their ability to achieve greatness personally and professionally. They talked about empowering the individuals and the teams. They stated they didn’t have a hard date and a backlog of non-negotiable scope. Instead, they had release candidates and the teams were in control of what was brought in and what was left out. They communicated their vision and invited everyone in the room to participate. The response from the teams has been awesome. From them I hear things like “These guys actually seem to believe in and want Agile so why don’t we try <insert experiment for team to get closer to Agility here>?
Here are the key learnings I have from this particular stop on this journey:
- Be very clear on what you want people to leave the room with following your time together and spend the majority of your time there. The training isn’t what’s important. What is important is what they do when they leave training.
- Ask people to set aside what their reality is – for a time – so they can learn without interference from it. Then, ask them if it’s OK to hold them accountable to that (assuming they agree to). This keeps the dialogue open without getting mired down in specifics from their reality.
- End your time with real-world application. NOW they can bring their reality in. This time is priceless. Minds are open. Challenging their conventional wisdom is fluid and the knowledge goes from theoretical to practical.
- Start with the mind-shift and take it from the TOP.