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I’m going to take a risk today. I’m streaming live…and I’m going to raise a controversial topic.
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Let’s get to it…
Scaled Agile Inc. is amazing. Their marketing strategy is truly incredible. Their business model is finely tuned to extract as much money as possible, for as long as possible, from the largest enterprises on Earth, to merely entrench the status quo while also giving the appearance that a change has taken place.
I’ve lost a lot of training business to Scaled Agile. I’ve declined lucrative consulting contracts because the client has pre-determined that the Scaled Agile Framework will be their silver bullet.
But, hey, this isn’t a rant about Scaled Agile. I admire the business success they’ve achieved. Part of me wishes I could compromise my strongly held personal convictions and ride that lucrative wave. Some days, I think if I were a more savvy business person - I would either join them or replicate them.
Instead, I want to tell you why I’m not a SAFe trainer or coach. And, before I continue, I want you to know that I don’t begrudge others who have become a Scaled Agile trainer or consultant. If you’re one, I believe you’ve done what you thought was appropriate for your career and for the companies you work for.
Why I Do Not Teach SAFe
The short answer is that I can’t spend my energy doing something that I’m not passionate about. And when I look at SAFe, all I see is a large, bureaucratic structure that is an incredible tool for micromanagement.
You see, I’ve spent my career understanding agility and technical excellence. I help companies with the ways they use agile practices. And to be Agile Engineering Coach, I’ve always felt, is like being a bureaucracy disassembler. And when I look at Scaled Agile Framework, I see many layers of bureaucracy.
Now, I understand not everyone feels this way about SAFe. I’ve had great conversations with some of the Scaled Agile fellows. They’re intelligent people. Interesting. I believe they’re in it for good reasons. But I’ve also worked with some SAFe consultants who I know for a fact have never been in a real agile team. They worked in a dysfunctional enterprise their entire career, then they sat in a classroom for a few days and, voila, they’re suddenly arguing online with the authors of the Agile Manifesto and taking jobs to advise valuable companies how to “go Agile”.
And that’s why so many SAFe initiatives, that I’ve observed, often boil down to the introduction of new words to describe old processes and roles.
Hmm… some people lodge that complaint against Scrum or Kanban. A few people go through training, get a certificate, then everyone starts using the word Sprint or measuring cycle time — without changing anything else.
The difference though is that I’ve seen teams achieve the intended results of Scrum. I’ve observed teams improve their time to market and service level with Kanban. I’ve observed the results with my own eyes. AND, companies can approach Scrum or Kanban with low risk experiments. SAFe, in my opinion, carries a much higher risk.
And I, personally, have never seen good results of SAFe. I have watched as companies spend obscene amounts of money to anoint hundreds of their people with a new certification; they adjust all the job titles, rearrange the staff, only to end up with a bureaucratic structure that is indistinguishable from their previous condition.
The most successful parts of SAFe are its business model and marketing strategy — it’s incredibly lucrative, I have no doubt. But in my experience, the results don’t justify the hype. If SAFe does produce good results at all, I often wonder if credit is being given where it’s not due. Here’s what I mean:
Inside of the Scaled Agile Framework you will find parts of Scrum, a little dab of Kanban, you’ll find something that resembles Continuous Integration and a Continuous Delivery pipeline (CI/CD). Now, for example, CI/CD is an intensely effective practice. When a company can get that right, it’s remarkable how much overhead can be supported. Imagine there’s a super powerful engine inside a massive apparatus called the Scaled Agile Framework.
We must ask ourselves: is the massive structure even necessary? What if we can run this powerful engine in a Learjet instead of a giant 747? What’s the power to weight ratio?
When I think about the most agile companies that I’ve worked with, I see some important characteristics:
They can deploy code multiple times a day and release new product features into the marketplace incrementally and frequently.
They keep quality high, and rarely compromise on this. I’ve worked with teams that are capable of zero escaped defects for many months on end.
The product developers operate in proximity with their end users. The feedback loop between end users and teams is very tight.
And decision-making is pushed out to the teams who work most closely with the code and the end users.
In my experience, these things are achieved by descaling and pairing down the bureaucracy — agile companies can make decisions rapidly, they seek and respond to new information from their marketplace, and they know the best way to be nimble is to keep quality high.
In fact, I have consulted with some companies to help UNINSTALL SAFe. They had gone down the path thinking that the results would be remarkable only to find they suffered all their previous dysfunction.
Again, I don’t intend for this to be a rant about Scaled Agile — rather, it is my explanation why my resume doesn’t have those certifications on it — why I’m not an advocate. The truth is that I’ve been in SAFe classes. I’ve worked with SAFe consultants and trainers. I have colleagues who are SAFe fellows. But, stubbornly and sometimes at a cost to my hireability, I instead try to steer people toward the foundations of agility such as: iterative & incremental development, close end user proximity, and minimal bureaucratic structure; just enough to support a bounded environment for action; just enough to encourage motivated individuals to collaborate in relatively autonomous, self-managing agile teams.
I’ll end by saying this:
As a trainer: I like to help people by teaching Agile Engineering Practices like Test Driven Development; by teaching Scrum, a lightweight and simple framework, and by teaching Kanban practices and principles.
But as a CONSULTANT or COACH: I’m actually framework agnostic. I know there is no silver bullet and every company seeking to improve can’t copy and paste a giant structure like SAFe into their org. They must instead forge a path using the great ideas and agile practices that meet their needs and works in their context.
Thanks for listening. Hey, if there’s a topic or question you’d like to me to address, let me know in the comments.
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