MonthOctober 2016

SAFe: Scaled Agile Framework – or is it?

Last week I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in a Leading and Implementing SAFe course. During this four-day course I would be introduced to the Scaled Agile Framework, learn how to implement it, and learn how to share it with others.

To summarize the outcome of course in just one line: it sucked.

How is SAFe a framework?

To me, a framework is a light-weight set of boundaries within which there is a lot freedom to do as one sees fit. If you see the SAFe Big Picture you’ll understand my initial skepticism at the term ‘framework’. Nonetheless, I was looking forward to having my skepticism rebuked and to learn how to see and use SAFe as a framework. All this in order to be able to better help organizations that need scaling scale.

Whether organizations actually need scaling or a scaling framework is an interesting discussion. I think that if you need scaling you should first look at your products and your architecture. Self-organizing teams with the help of a clear vision and a good architecture can get a long way.

Unfortunately, the way I interpreted the way SAFe was put down this week was as a methodology. These are small selection of some of the concerns I have after having taken the course.

Let’s start with the roles: Release Train Engineer, our “facilitating” Super Scrum Master; Release Management, the Super Product Owner of the Release Train; System Architect, who together with the RTE and PM act like the steering committee of the Release Train (also, drawn above the teams, like hierarchically superior). All set and ready to go, all required.

The format in which work should be sent to the teams is also set for you: User Stories coming from Features or Enablers, coming from Epics; Enablers that are used for work supporting other User Stories or Features; and if you open the Value Stream level there’s something called Capabilities as well. Additionally, there’s a selection of templates available for most of these items to fill out. All having been done during the course and available from ScaledAgile’s website for your day-to-day use.

My biggest concern, however, was the ‘Agile Release Train’. Calling a Release Train ‘Agile’ when the recommended time-box is 10 weeks is beyond me. Sure, teams could release more frequently (and I quote, because of “individuals and interactions over processes and tools, and stuff”). But once you’ve seen the monstrous PI planning board with all its dependencies between teams you may wonder how that could ever happen.

In other words: my skepticism was not only not rebuked, it was definitely reaffirmed and has even worsened.

SAFe the way I would have liked to see it

If SAFe really is a framework, I would have loved to see it like that. Perhaps with a various complementary practices that would make it work for specific scenarios, in which alternatives to certain practices would have also been discussed.

The power of SAFe to me is keeping synchronized across teams and Release Trains in a larger organization, in which each release train is an independent part of the organization focusing on a specific product or value stream. There would be direct contact between the customer(s) and the teams in each release train, where each release train would have their own tools and practices to handle how work comes in. Whatever works for the teams should be the practice, not whatever someone else tells them to.

I love the end-of-increment Inspect and Adapt opportunity, but without all the practices that SAFe introduces and without the compulsory interval of 8 to 12 weeks. It’s great to inspect and adapt with a bunch of teams working on the same product or value stream, serving the same customers. Just like the PI planning: a high-level “planning” event which can be used to identify dependencies and remove them on the spot. I’d call it PI refinement rather than planning and I would never give commitment to finishing a list of work or reaching certain objectives for the next 10 weeks. I’d be doing my customer a disservice in nailing down what we’re going to do for 10 weeks rather than giving them the opportunity to take a different course at a shorter interval. But I like the synchronization nonetheless.

I’d have loved to see SAFe as an enabler for Agile at scale, because that is what organizations need. Practices come from experience and that’s where coaches come in: to help an organization find a practice that works from them, in which there is multiple practices to be compared. That is what SAFe (or any other scaling framework) should enable.

Closing

Looking at this constructively, I see SAFe as an intermediary step for very large and very traditional organizations towards true agility. I think it’s loads better than sticking to a waterfall-approach and if an organization implements SAFe the way I heard it, they’d be far better off.

To reach true agility you’d need to take a lot of additional steps. Mostly you’d need to experiment, see what works for your organization, your teams, keep inspecting and adapting and changing things if they make more sense. And to me, that’s the danger of a methodology over a framework: it makes things fixed rather than up for change. Whereas a framework should give you those boundaries in which your organization can shine.

A response to ‘Agile does NOT work!’

I recently read a blog post on LinkedIn from Oleg Vishnepolsky from DailyMail Online and Metro.co.uk stating that ‘Agile does not work’ and ‘And never did’. The blog contains some interesting statements and asks for responses. Well, here is one:

1) Short-term thinking that results from following short iterations and daily stand-ups

Where does this short-term thinking take place? Who does it? What have you tried to change that?

I think you do want your development teams focusing more on the short term when it comes to what value they should deliver rather than on the long term. That doesn’t mean the long term isn’t important though, and being agile doesn’t mean you should forget the long term either. It means you should use the frameworks, tools, and methodologies that allow you to respond to an ever-changing world.

In fact, long-term is quite important in order to be agile. You need to focus on quality and prevent technical debt. You should invest in test automation. You should focus on creating the right amount of documentation (be it code documentation, infrastructure as code or something else). You should invest in gathering and sharing knowledge. Those are all examples of the long-term thinking required.

If someone doesn’t think about these things, I’d say they’re doing themselves and their company a disservice. You should help them understand why these things are so important, especially when you want to be agile, and help them keep focus on them as well.

2) Architecture that often times can not be deployed piecemeal

What kind of architecture are you talking about? What challenges are you facing when trying to deploy your architecture? What’s the relation of this to being agile?

One could argue that delivery and deployment aren’t the same thing. I’ve seen cases where entire work-flow systems were being replaced and in certain cases that wasn’t being done one piece at a time, simply because it was either too costly or too complex. That doesn’t mean those teams didn’t work iteratively and didn’t go get feedback as soon as possible. It just meant the final deployment to production was postponed to such time where the work-flow could be implemented as a whole.

I do believe that there’s only a certain number of situations in which piecemeal deployments, for software, are extremely hard or impossible. But in order to do piecemeal deployments your application or architecture does need to support it. In most cases I’ve seen, piecemeal deployment is hard because the architecture isn’t right in the first place.

3) Complex infrastructure in production that is supposedly continuously getting deployed over. If you are Facebook, you can afford automation. Can you ?

What kind of deployments are you talking about and what is blocking you from doing them continuously? What makes your infrastructure so complex you can’t deploy continuously? It could be your infrastructure isn’t ready for continuous deployments yet.

But yes, I believe every company can afford automation. Because every company that I’ve seen that doesn’t invest in it pays the price in the long term. They struggle rather than grow and have to invest in automation along the road anyway, but at an increased cost.

I would like to note that deployment should be a business decision. While you’d want your bug fixes out ASAP, I could imagine not wanting to change your functionality continuously. It’s perfectly legitimate to do some deployments every X weeks and introduce them properly to your users. I’ve had a company offer customers the option of either continuous deployments or one every 6 months. Those that chose the 6 months were still involved in the development effort and gave feedback frequently, but they only got the changes after they had prepared their staff for it.

4) Business expectations that they do not need to give you any requirements and that they can change their mind at any time.

I’m especially curious where this one comes from? How are development teams expected to deliver value without having any requirements? How are they expected to focus when they can change direction from second to second? How could the business be expected to be less involved when the development effort needs them to be more involved?

In my opinion the business has the responsibility to talk to development teams and explore the requirements together. Naturally they can change their mind at any time, but a proper preparation may prevent changes of mind down the road. Because changes of mind are often the result of questions being asked too late or too little, as new insights lead to new solutions. If you don’t have a transparent situation to begin with, how are you expected to inspect and adapt to that situation properly?

Closing

Yes, Agile is being used as a buzz-word and yes, there’s probably some Agile Coaches whom are in it for the money rather than to achieve true agility as meant by the Agile Manifesto. That doesn’t mean agile isn’t good or dead or whatever. Agile isn’t easy. Being agile isn’t easy. I do believe it’s the right option and the right way forward, but it takes time and continuous investment in order to be and remain agile.

A note to the author of the original blog post: my questions are genuine and I’d be more than happy to discuss these topics with you.

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