Digital Economy Dispatch #125 -- The SAFe Approach to Digital Transformation
Digital Economy Dispatch #125 -- The SAFe Approach to Digital Transformation
2nd April 2023
It is now 3 years since the UK announced its first Covid lockdown at the end of March 2020. It’s hard to imagine just how much we’ve all had to adjust since that point. As lives and workplaces have been turned upside down, we have learned that coping with frequent change is essential. This has required many adjustments: From reorganizing our houses to be both home and office, to redefining our daily habits, to re-evaluating what matters in our lives. It’s been a long journey.
In that time, we’ve also learned a lot. At the top of the list for many of us is the importance of being agile. In essence, we have created a way of working and living that allows us to adapt to these uncertain times by adopting a philosophy and set of practices that increase our resilience in the face of uncertainty. Somehow, we have had to find ways to allow frequent adjustments without being in chaos. Staying grounded while shifting to cope with the winds of change.
Throughout this time, a renewed focus on agility has also been essential to organizational strategy. They too have needed to grow their ability to sense-and-respond to the world around them, to increase the pace of decision making, and to collaborate in new ways across their teams, amongst their partners, and directly with their customers. In large part, they have achieved this by accelerating their digital transformation efforts and revamping their digital strategies to be able to gather data quickly, communicate frequently across a dispersed workforce, and speed up releases of new product and service capabilities.
However, such fundamental re-alignments are not easy to undertake. The scale and complexity of most organizations make change hard. What may seem to many to be a simple adjustment or a straightforward fix can quickly become a major effort to redefine decision making processes, alter long-term plans, and coordinate multiple product teams across different business units. No matter how motivated you may be, it is hard to keep images of Sisyphus pushing a rock uphill from coming to mind.
A conclusion many organizations reach when faced with the challenge of introducing wholescale change is to look for a framework: An organizational model and set of guidelines that can be used as the basis for a blueprint to galvanize everyone around a common vision. Many such frameworks have been developed over the years and have been used to help coordinate change across a wide variety of organizational needs.
A classic illustration from my past experiences is that of ongoing software process improvement programs such as the Capability Maturity Model (CMM). The CMM (and its evolution into CMMi) is a simple five-level structuring framework used to assess the repeatability and predictability of software delivery practices. It was widely used across many organizations in the 1980s and 1990s as they sought to add consistency, rigour, and repeatability to the software development and delivery practices that had been rapidly evolving with the widening deployment of computer-based systems. It was particularly embraced where risks from software failure could be catastrophic in large, complex organizations in sectors such as aerospace and defence, manufacturing, and real-time control.
Frameworks such as the CMM provide structure and a phased approach to improvement that becomes part of the organization’s culture, language, and operating approach. They bring together different parts of an organization around a common way of working. However, like many structured change programs, they also often end up being overly bureaucratic, inflexible, and expensive to manage. What might start out as a well-meaning effort to align teams around a common purpose can soon become a set of rules, metrics, certifications, and exclusion criteria that dominate large parts of people’s daily efforts. Rather than liberate teams to a new way of working, the framework becomes a cage that restrains their thinking and defines their actions.
This creates a significant dilemma for organizations looking to shift to create a more flexible, responsive approach to adapt their ways of working to today’s uncertain times. How do they manage the widescale adoption of agile practices?
A Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)
Over the past 20 years, agile approaches have become dominant in software development and delivery. The agile methods that have emerged seek to shorten the time-to-delivery through optimized concurrency, early visibility into problems and blockages, reduced late rework through continuous feedback, and greater co-operation at all stages. Experience through that time has highlight their advantages in rapidly changing scenarios, or where there is uncertainty as to the user needs. In these situations, agile delivery approaches offer the flexibility required to evolve at pace towards solutions that adapt quickly to emerging needs.
Wide adoption of agile approaches in many organizations, particularly in those sectors where software plays an important role, has been at the root of many activities addressing the drive for greater flexibility. Agile practices are becoming an increasingly important aspect for most organizations offering digital products and services, and an essential part of every organization’s digital transformation efforts. Driven by demands for fasted turnaround, organizations have studied the practices of high-performing teams to see how they could be replicated, including how those teams tried to shake off the overly constraining processes they believed were hampering innovation and creativity. From this emerged a series of principles for agile development, most famously captured in the “Agile Manifesto” and a series of development practices that encapsulate those principles – notably the Scrum method.
Over this time, agile approaches have become widely used across all kinds of organizations and to support activities far beyond software development. To get a sense of the current situation with agile adoption we can turn to the 16th State of Agile survey carried out in Summer 2022. It had over 3,000 respondents, with over 70% of them from companies with more than 1,000 employees.
One of the key findings of that latest study was the growing focus on business value and alignment of agile work to business value. The review indicates that application of agile methods across the enterprise grew significantly over the Covid period as a way to support organizations to improve their flexibility and stay focused on business needs. Many turned to so-called “Agile Frameworks” to help them to do that.
The most popular agile framework by far is the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). Compared to 2021, use of SAFe as the preferred agile framework has gone from 37% to 53% in 2022 . SAFe is a framework that blends agile delivery techniques with a broader set of management practices aimed at providing a more disciplined and scalable model for organizations wanting to support a synchronized rollout across its teams. It claims it is deployed in over 20,000 companies and to have over 1 million people trained in its use.
No surprise then that supporters of SAFe point to its broad themes and comprehensive approach to agile delivery as its strengths for organizations seeking to adopt agility at scale. It aims to help coordinate agile approaches beyond single teams and toward an organization-wide adoption of managed practices. These are explicitly aligned with business objectives and synchronized to ensure an enterprise-wide view of status and progress. As such, it offers a meaningful compromise between the rapid changes required to deliver capabilities to customers with the on-going management oversight and coordinated rollout essential for efficiency.
For its detractors, and there are many, the attempts to coordinate and constrain agile delivery through such a rigid framework is anathema to the agile principles. They argue that such frameworks inherently focus teams on delivering outputs against relatively fixed goals and timeframes. In doing so, they force alignment to plans and project-based constraints that invalidate the basic goals of an agile philosophy: Create more value and better outcomes with and for your customers. They believe that in the SAFe way of working, teams chase delivery of features which inevitably results in measuring their success based on the quantity rather than the quality of their efforts. They see that subverting agile methods such as Scrum to work within traditional management and reporting schemes is fundamentally flawed. Rather, different and more responsive management schemes are required.
Released at the end of March 2023, the latest version, SAFe 6.0, is an illustration of the challenges facing any “agile framework”. This release expands the framework significantly in areas such as lean delivery and Value Stream Management, makes major enhancements to align with Kanban, incorporates guidance for integrating AI, Big Data, and Cloud, supports alignment with techniques to manage Objectives and Key Resources (OKRs), and describes numerous patterns for extending agility through the enterprise.
Individually many of these make a lot of sense, particularly in large, complex organizations struggling to align different digital transformation initiatives. However, collectively what you are left with due to the inclusion of all of these elements is a massive, growing compendium of practices covering almost every feature and facet of digital transformation. While this has been welcomed in many quarters as useful additions as the footprint of digital transformation grows, for others it is a clear example of how ”un-agile” SAFe has become.
It is easy come up with arguments in support of both perspectives. Even so, the summary may well be that regardless of your views on its agile credentials, SAFe can be seen to play a valuable role in supporting scaled, disciplined change. It is a comprehensive framework that encourages organizations to take systematic, deliberate steps to increase understanding of agile principles, improve flexibility in delivery practices, and align teams across the organization to collaborate in measured, meaningful change. Something all organizations are required to achieve in today’s topsy-turvy world.
To Agile and Beyond
In the 3 years since the first Covid lockdown was announced in the UK, we’ve all learned that it’s essential to be flexible and to expect the unexpected. No surprise that organizations have turned to agile methods for an answer. However, “Move Fast and Break Things!” cannot be the mantra driving agility for many organizations. They require a balance between speed and rigour. They must support delivery with discipline. The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) attempts to provide that by surrounding agile sprints within a comprehensive set of management practices. Some view this as a necessary step to scale agile efficiently. Others see this as “anti-agile”. In SAFe 6.0, the latest release, by adding yet more into this mix to expand its adoption, it offers a tangible demonstration of why achieving agile at scale involves compromises that may end up disappointing many of those it seeks to help.