The rise of Agile’s SAFe is like a bad episode of the movie Groundhog Day

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The rise of Agile’s SAFe is like a bad episode of the movie Groundhog Day

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There was this great movie back in the early 90’s staring Bill Murray who plays a weatherman covering the annual Groundhog Day event (which is an odd tradition in the US wherein the emergence of a groundhog supposedly predicts when spring arrives early or not).  He gets stuck in a snow storm and gets smitten by the lovely Andy MacDowell but turned down cold in the pursuit of her.  Of course the most interesting thing about this move is that he gets stuck in some weird time warp and has the ability to re-live each day up to his pursuit of his love focus until he gets it right.  Lots of laughter and hijinks ensue making for a highly entertaining and fun filled movie!

Unfortunately, the recent rise and popularity of the Agile SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework “for the enterprise”) makes me feel as though I’m like the Bill Murray character but without the ability to get it right but still feeling as though I’m stuck in a déjà vu like experience.  But let me preface this by stating that I don’t want to diminish the hard work of the people who outlined this framework nor the “ideological” basis of it, which sounds pretty good on paper.

Yet I can’t help but feel as though this movement (and this isn’t the first proposal of scaling Agile… remember the “Scrum of Scrum” idea?) has many parallels with the traditional PMO/PPM model from the traditional community.  When the traditional prescriptive-oriented model started getting a hold in the workforce and done with a modicum of success, people had the bright idea to try and scale it up so that the organization as a whole could start benefitting from doing standard PM practices. 

But from my own anecdotal experiences as well as studies I’ve read from PMI and various other sources, this did not really work out so well.  The idea was to create project center of excellences, but instead just ended up slowing people down as they got drowned in processes, governance and standardization methodologies and documents telling them how to do everything with the possible exception of tying their shoes!  But in this process heavy prescriptive model, you have a framework that could at least support projects being delivered collectively in a mediocre McDonald’s like consistent way.

But let’s face it, as I’ve mentioned it on this blog some while ago, Agile is light because it assumes that your people are heavy.  This means your team, project manager and some person who is acting as an ambassador for providing your well-defined and meaningful business requirements (a.k.a., the Product Onwer in Scrum lingo) are heavy duty, high skilled “can self-organize” types of people.  Without kick-butt people, this whole Agile shindig will fail.  And if I’m not mistaken, very few companies have a whole bunch of these types on their payroll.

So the while the idea of scaling Agile is great, in practice I think it will be super freaking hard to nearly impossible.  Whatever the case may be, it’s not going to stop people from trying and creating more frameworks, training programs, consulting and certifications (Is the SAFe certification like PMI’s OPM3 certification but done faster?).  As Einstein once said, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result!”

Is this a fair assessment, or am I just being overly glib and facetious?  Let me know! 

Posted on: January 31, 2015 09:15 PM | Permalink

Comments (36)

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Good post, Don, your comments are spot on. Just because a tool or technique (e.g., Agile) is effective in one or more applications does not mean it can or should be applicable for every situation. Likewise, waterfall methodologies are not optimum for all applications. Rather than attempting to establish which methodology is "BEST," recognizing there are multiple methodologies available and selecting the best for a specific project''s needs/requirements seems to be the more pragmatic approach.

Hi Don,


Wonderful article. I am skeptical about really how safe is SAFe. As you correctly highlighted, it has the same problems (prescriptive, process-heavy) as any traditional approach.



In my opinion, I believe (especially in the agile environment) the project team should be given a minimum set of data they need to publish and maintain, in order for the "Management" to get the overall picture. Many automation techniques & technologies can help reduce the documentation requirements and yet fulfill consistent repeatable project management processes.

I agree that this particular approach to scaling agile is overengineering agile but how would you scale up agile? The alternative is to have a multitude of small agile projects that have to coordinate with each other to help produce the large project result. That would also create a process and governance nightmare. Does agile have a scaling limit?

Good article Don, i agree with Bill and Russ

Don,

I am really impressed. Can I have the diagrams of this post in a better resolution, they are not really very readable.

Suhail Iqbal

Suhail, I am happy that i can provide you something which is the link itselt. Hope you found it earlier and if not, here it is. http://scaledagileframework.com/

+1 for getting me to read an entire article just by referencing the Groundhog Day movie...

I'm still digesting the diagram!

Hi Don,

Really good thoughts. Agile, in my mind, is first and foremost about getting the *work* for the project done faster and with less waste. When we start focusing on the powers above the team doing the project work, there's always room for process improvement, but I am not sure it will ever reach a level where it can follow the essence of what Agile is.

you can't scale Agile - but you can be agile at scale...

See http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2015/10/29/microsofts-sixteen-keys-to-becoming-agile-at-scale/

Also our book https://leanpub.com/agilevaluedelivery-beyondthenumbers said the same thing as Denning above...but 6 months before his article was published

Two things struck me we when I first cam across SAFe:
1. It uses the same flawed modelling technique that traditional management likes that shows a top-to-bottom and left-to-right flow. This disconnects the customer and the why of things from result - not a good thing. So if we don't change our fundamental models, then how do we change our thinking? And if we don't change our thinking, then how do we change our behaviors?
2. I felt that "scaling Agile" was a nonsensical concept as agile is a mindset...so exactly how do you scale a mindset? Scaling Agile as concept is also most often tied to the idea of scaling Scrum....but how do you do that?

I have seen SAFe work well in my organization and I have also seen it to be not successful. The key differentiator (imho) is the degree of involvement of the product manager and product owners. Without active business engagement, delivery will suffer regardless if you use SAFe or not.


i find myself in agreement with Cynthia Parcell , i have been training SAFe for 2 years now and also closely watching implementations in companies like Phillips and CISCO . In context where organization and system is complex and has many internal and external integration dependencies taking proactive approach on planning , architecture and content management work.

if the organization is working in very volatile context where requirement need prioritization on weekly level SAFe may not be good choice.

Now we have SAFe version 4 and the picture is also changed. You may like to look at small video on SAFe 4 here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0eqwUU15Eg

:)

Don, great post and reflection. There is no silver bullet, not with agile or traditional.

Even traditional portfolio/program/project management is not fully implemented in most companies.

So instead of creating nice fit-for-all models, maybe we should try to find more specific solutions for the market, which is mainly small and medium businesses in my part of the world. Scrum or agile is very suitable for some of them. Others are still driven by accountants sticking to annual planning and quarterly targets - for them agile will never work.

Don, great post and reflection. There is no silver bullet, not with agile or traditional.

Even traditional portfolio/program/project management is not fully implemented in most companies.

So instead of creating nice fit-for-all models, maybe we should try to find more specific solutions for the market, which is mainly small and medium businesses in my part of the world. Scrum or agile is very suitable for some of them. Others are still driven by accountants sticking to annual planning and quarterly targets - for them agile will never work.

Don,

This is a great post. I like your last statement "Whatever the case may be, it’s not going to stop people from trying and creating more frameworks, training programs, consulting and certifications " This is the main challenge we are experiencing in most organizations. Too many extra non value added adding to the stack. People talk and talk and talk ... but no value to the organization at the end.
My thought is simply SAFe is not working for growth seeking small and medium size businesses.



Don, thanks for sharing this information. Would have to agree with you, Cynthia and Thusi above; there needs to be active business engagement and understanding. Without this, it's extremely difficult to implement/manage this process.

Great post. Stimulated a lot of discussion. I think I agree with the general premise that to make any agile framework work, you need to have quality people and really empower them to do their thing. I am working on a SAFe project now, and it is working...but you really need to work the system, and the resistance is more cultural than anything about SAFe.

Good reflection
Thanks for sharing

Impressed

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