Reflections from the SAFe European summit 2019 & experiences from Tieto CEM
Many enterprises have taken agile methods into use especially in their IT operations. While this is great, surviving (let alone thriving) in today´s fast changing world requires more. Becoming a truly lean and agile enterprise is the best bet for any organization aspiring to succeed. This calls for a framework that lets enterprises ‘fail fast and succeed even faster’ – and a fundamental shift in work, culture and behavior. Enterprises need to be able to assess, test, analyze, and act upon new technologies. As said, agile was a major step toward enabling this shift, as it has a rapid feedback loop. The challenge with agile is that it was originally developed for small teams, and it doesn´t scale and align between teams.
How does one implement agile with hundreds of teams, and get the teams to align with each other? Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is a great option. SAFe was created in 2011 by Dean Leffingwell (current version in use is 4.6, released on October 03rd, 2018). It’s developed for big and complex enterprises that still want to take advantage of agile methods.
SAFe provides an opportunity to scale agile, by marrying the iterative development practices of agile with the mindset of Lean manufacturing. Lean thinking aims at using fewer resources and eliminating waste to maximize customer value. SAFe drives faster time to market, an increase in productivity and quality, and also higher customer engagement. A core benefit of SAFe is that it not only provides alignment between teams, but also to all levels of the enterprise that are involved in solution development: Team, Program, Large Solution and Portfolio. As a result, there is greater visibility and alignment across the organization.
Another benefit with SAFe is that it also involves upper management on a portfolio level, and combines planning with the enterprise’s strategic themes. In the past, the person who shouted the loudest may have got his/her work done, but they won´t have this benefit anymore. In SAFe, work is prioritized with methods such as WSJF (Weighted Shortest Job First). WSJF is a prioritization model used to sequence jobs, such as Epics, Features and Capabilities, to provide maximum economic value the fastest.
The SAFe framework also ensures that everyone from upper management to individual agile teams share the same vision and goal, thus making the enterprise focus on the most important topics at hand.
At Tieto CEM we have over 15 years’ experience with agile methods. SAFe is the latest addition to broaden our understanding of agile ways of working. The first teams started using it in autumn 2016, with more teams adopting SAFe principles thereafter.
We noticed that following SAFe principles requires higher commitment from customers as well. It is not something that only vendor teams will implement during the delivery, as SAFe is a common effort and commitment is needed from all the involved parties. In the beginning there were a lot of questions about the framework’s benefits, and people felt that it required extra work. However, quite soon people realized that the framework helps the individual teams to align, as it was quickly understood that teams share a lot of dependencies. It is also valuable to get people to sit in the same space even for one day per program increment (PI) during the planning day. People naturally start discussions and many problems get solved. This also helps to fulfill one of the basic principles of agile development: getting people to talk and interact with each other.
For the most part the teams didn´t deploy the whole SAFe framework at once. The framework is substantial, so incorporating parts of the framework and learning the basic principles with the team worked well. This way it quickly became apparent what works and what doesn´t, and it was easy to add more SAFe building blocks as necessary. The main idea was to constantly develop and iterate the ways of working, and build a common view with the customers. At present, the teams have found the best SAFe ways of working for them, but they still continually make small changes and they are not stuck with the mindset that “this is the only accepted way to do things”. In addition, some deeper, fundamental conversations took place – conversations that every enterprise needs, in order to find the best way to use SAFe, because it doesn’t make sense to have every single SAFe component just for the sake of it.
As a general remark, not all teams initially found SAFe necessary. However, at some point the teams noticed that SAFe not only helps with dependencies, it also helps managing the backlog. It used to be common for teams to spend time with some important feature and once it was demoed, someone came and asked why they spent time with this specific feature, when feature “XYZ” would have been so much more important, and additionally, why didn’t the implemented feature have “this and that” included. With SAFe, the backlog was sorted for the teams for one program increment (usually 8-10 weeks) on a feature level. Consequently everybody knew what the focus was for the next 8-10 weeks and no one could say that they had something more important.
In conclusion, the teams had their fair share of challenges when learning to implement SAFe. However, the learning curve was fast and payoff visible as soon as the teams understood SAFe’s benefits. Moreover, SAFe has genuinely helped convey business requirements and priorities to individual agile teams. Previously the message got lost in translation and changed along the way, but now everybody is aligned and on the same page.
Saara works as a Senior Project Manager & Scrum Master at Tieto CEM. Saara is passionate about the agile ways of working and enabling teams to be the best versions of themselves. She believes in self organizing teams and when teams are given the opportunity to take responsibility, they usually meet their goals and often even exceed those. Saara´s motto at work is “people first”.