Scaled Agile released SAFe 6.0 last month (March 2023) after being on the market for 12 years. As always, a new major version of SAFe generates a lot of buzz and controversy. Let’s talk about it!
The first release of SAFe in 2011 was received with a lot of talC in the agile development community. For years, practitioners had been discussing if there was even a need for what they called “agile scaling frameworks.” Most agile enthusiasts, authors and influencers, including some of the creators of successful and popular agile frameworks like Scrum, were strongly against the notion of trying to ‘scale agile.” SAFe was initially received as a trojan horse the ‘evil waterfall people’ gifted to the agile community with the goal of perverting and destroying everything good they had achieved
Fast-forward to 2023. We see SAFe being adopted by more than 20,000 enterprises across the globe, and more than 1,000,000 practitioners have been trained. A stunning 53% of respondents to the 16th State of Agile Report say they are using SAFe. Every major agile conference has a track or stage entirely dedicated to agile at scale. SAFe It has its own yearly SAFe Summit, which last year had over 80 speakers and 29 countries represented.
Yet the criticism never went away, and you still see many people, influential or not, investing time and energy to convince the world about what is wrong with SAFe and why it is evil. I once thought like that, but then I decided to study as much as possible about SAFe to criticize it like a boss. It turns out that all my assumptions were superficial and wrong.
Should we be talking about scaling agile?
One common wrong assumption I see critics use is looking at SAFe as a proposal to scale up agile processes as if the goal of SAFe was to be the logical evolution in agility for everyone.
The notion that SAFe would add bureaucracy in the form of new roles, processes, and artifacts to an already nimble, high performing, and truly end-to-end DevSecOps team feels absurd – and it is! If you have small agile teams that own entire value streams, great! Keep this design principle in mind as you grow by building new teams to explore new value streams; likely, you will never need to think about scaling agile.
Many large organizations currently have complex development systems with dozens (if not hundreds) of people. They may be under traditional structures or organized in so-called ‘agile teams‘ using Scrum and Kanban that own only part of their value stream but are most likely drowning in dependencies because of this design flaw. Teams self-organize around the development steps they can own without understanding how a local optimization may impact flow for the entire value stream.
It’s not about scaling agile processes. In many cases, the development system is already scaled. The real question is: how can we make it more agile without bulldozing the current operation and rebuilding everything from scratch? How can we safely become more agile at scale?
Can SAFe 6.0 help big organizations become more agile?
A few years ago, working as an agile transformation consultant, I was tasked with helping a complex development value stream become more agile. They had substantial knowledge silos, so 19 engineers were needed to create something of real value. The developers were also split between American and Eastern Asian time zones, which made things even more complicated.
Agile practitioners know that trying to run a single Scrum Team with that many people in such different time zones is at least questionable and risky, so what could we do?
Following SAFe guidance, we experimented by creating four teams, two in each region. Each team had 4-5 dedicated engineers and shared Product Owner and Scrum Master with the other team in the same region. We trained everyone and set up one Agile Release Train with all the recommended roles and activities in Essential SAFe. But more importantly, we always used the 4 SAFe Core Values and 10 SAFe Lean-Agile Principles to try to understand why and how to execute the recommended practices before we changed anything inadvertently.
Before learning about SAFe, most people, in this case, were skeptical about agility. They didn’t even want to try it because they couldn’t see themselves working as a cohesive, small, dedicated, cross-functional Scrum Team. They decided to give SAFe a chance because it felt closer to how they were organized. Building new teams from scratch didn’t require such a giant leap of faith. It was easier to revert the changes if they turned out to be ineffective.
Another important aspect of this story is that we saw SAFe as a starting point in our agile journey, not the desired end state. As the teams matured, they experimented with new and different ways of working beyond SAFe. That’s real agility!
In large enterprises, SAFe can be a smaller incremental change towards the truly end-to-end empowered high performing agile teams that you dream of. You will be surprised at how many organizations already have people playing similar roles and activities as those described in SAFe, they just need proper agile guidance.
A word of caution: Any process out there can be abused – Scrum, Kanban, or any tailored framework can do a lot of damage under a command and control and fixed mindset culture. SAFe can obviously do more damage if done badly because of the very nature of changing things on a larger scale.
Stefanini is an official partner of Scaled Agile and has SAFe Practice Consultants and other agile expert organizations. We help organizations navigate change and reap the rewards of agility at scale. In 2022, we presented at Agile Trends the Shell box case that we developed with Shell-Raizen (Shell Oil Brazil). Stefanini was awarded the “Best Case for Scaled Agile” in the conference! We would love to help you too!
Here are a few links you should check out:
- Find out What’s New in SAFe 6.0 – https://scaledagileframework.com/whats-new-in-safe-6-0/
- 16th State of Agile Report (2022) – https://digital.ai/resource-center/analyst-reports/state-of-agile-report/
- Shell-Raizen + Stefanini, Shell Box online – just make sure to choose the “translate to English” option in your browser search bar.
About Gercel Silva
Gercel is a SAFe Practice Consultant, Lean-Agile practitioner, transformation specialist and computer engineer with more than 15 years of experience in agile product development. Throughout his career, Gercel helped companies from small startups to global enterprises start and continue their transformation journey towards agility.
In addition to SAFe, Gercel’s agile certifications include Scrum, Kanban and eXtreme Programming. He has strong teaching, mentoring and facilitation skills. His interests include developing product development, product management, UX, DevOps and people development.
Connect with Gercel on LinkedIn