Don't take the SAFe route before answering these agile questions

If you commit to running an agile enterprise, Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is worth a look. Here are three questions to answer before deploying SAFe.

Image: Scaled Agile, Inc.

If you've at least dabbled with Scrum or any other agile software development technique, I'm sure you've run into the scalability challenge. Scrum works fine for a small team working on a project, but it was never intended to drive a large-scale effort, let alone an entire enterprise.

Enter Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), a well-developed, thoughtfully contemplated framework for coordinating and organizing multiple Scrums into programs that are further scaled into a portfolio that could conceivably run an entire large organization.

The prospect of embracing the agile paradigm at the enterprise level is appealing to many leaders, given the volatile competitive environment they're forced to deal with. However, if your organization is not ready for SAFe, its deployment might be met with an unwelcome degree of resistance and disruption. Here are three questions you should answer before heading down the SAFe route.

1: Do I really want an agile organization?

Why do you think you want an agile organization? Most leaders don't ponder this question long enough.

There's a difference between a nimble organization and an agile organization. A nimble organization structures itself to respond to volatile external constraints by making scope a dependent variable or balance. Without such a fixation on scope, the organization is allowed to pivot on a dime without much disruption to the organization. There are many strategies for making an organization nimble, but in almost all cases, the organization embraces the idea of iterations with fixed time-boxes. Building an agile organization is one of the ways to make an organization nimble.

An agile organization is a nimble organization with the added element of self-organization. Self-organization is a leadership style that empowers the individual contributors in the organization to make group decisions based on their natural ability to coalesce into a complex adaptive system. This is a very sophisticated style of leadership that isn't always appropriate and doesn't always turn out the way the leaders are expecting. Many leaders -- in their zeal to orient their enterprise toward agility -- forget about this integral aspect of the agile philosophy; as such, they invariably compromise the delicate ecosystem of the nascent agile enterprise with their anxiety of surrendering control to the masses.

If you're not ready to embrace the agile philosophy, pursue an alternative to nimbleness and stay away from SAFe or any other agile-based framework.

2: How well do I run Scrums?

If you're not successfully running Scrums now, you won't be successful integrating all of your Scrum activity into a framework like SAFe. There are a couple of fundamental mistakes leaders make when considering SAFe for their organization.

The first is that SAFe will solve all their Scrum problems -- that's only true if the nature of the problems you're having with Scrum have to do with scalability. If you're having more classic problems with Scrum, like conflicts and/or lack of involvement from key people, this will only be exacerbated if you try to deploy SAFe.

The second mistake leaders make is going straight from a non-agile world to SAFe. Although this might work in theory, I don't recommend this approach in the real world. It goes back to the original question. If your answer is, "I don't know; we don't do Scrums right now," that should tell you something.

If you aren't currently practicing Scrum, ease into it with your data science team. Pull an interesting project off the shelf and ask them how they feel about running a Scrum. Once your team is proficient at running Scrums (and that could take a while), you're ready for SAFe.

3: How long can I wait?

If you're in a hurry to take the enterprise agile, forget it. Some leaders have the fallacious idea that an organization that has proven to run successful Scrums in various areas of the organization can adopt SAFe quickly and easily. No way. Like any organizational strategy, you're looking at three to five years before your organization can successfully navigate the change. You can start today, and reap some of the benefits, but don't expect to get the full benefit from SAFe for quite some time.

The long pole in the tent has to do with organizational change management (OCM). I can't understand why organizations don't take OCM more seriously for a move like this. OCM is more than just training and communication -- you're trying to shift your culture and that takes time.

From an OCM standpoint, it's no different than any other enterprise-level shift in values. You must consider what agile means for your organization, and pick a point on the horizon three to five years out where your vision lives. Then, you must carefully build a shaping plan that gets you from here to there. There's no way to shortcut the process. SAFe gives you the mechanics for getting there, but you still have to deal with human behavior.


SAFe is an excellent move for your organization if you're committed to running an agile enterprise. Don't make the mistake of jumping in too soon with the wrong expectations. Ask yourself if agile is really what you want for your organization, and whether you're ready to take the long but fruitful journey. If the answer is no, that's okay -- there's nothing wrong with localizing your agile activity to your small data science team.

If you decide to take it to the next level, be sure to get expert help and hold on tight, because it's going to be an interesting ride.

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