What made us ponder at the SAFe Summit 2019 in the Hague

In May 2019 the Hague hosted the European edition of Scaled Agile Inc’s SAFe Summit. Targetprocess participated as an exhibitor, we also attended the event sessions and spoke with numerous attendees, including current customers of Targetprocess and those who are still finding their way on the path to business agility.

Back in the office, we thought we should note down the new thoughts and ideas that we came upon during the summit sessions or which struck us in our conversations with summit participants. We have also tried to draw some conclusions and want to share them here with the view to initiate a discussion with the readers of our blog and validate or turn down at least some of those conclusions together.

Big things first

This was our second visit to the SAFe Summit, after last year’s event in Washington DC. The main reason for us to stay away from the SAFe community for so long was that we originally believed SAFe to be just one of the paths to enterprise agility, and shared some of the concerns roaming among agile practitioners about SAFe being somewhat too rigid and dogmatic in scaling agile, leaving little space for the organization to undergo a true cultural transformation. As a vendor of agile work and portfolio management solutions, we thought our job was to make sure those solutions are flexible enough to be used by customers regardless of their framework choice, and should support an organization’s natural evolution. We still have this vision for our product and solutions, however, we have learned to appreciate SAFe and the depth of the consolidated knowledge that Scaled Agile Inc. and their partners have put together in these past years, which makes it so much easier for many companies to make their first steps towards organization-wide alignment, focus on value and faster delivery!

Furthermore, we have never been to another event with so many people sincerely and actively looking for ways and methods to scale agile. Complexity in the business environment is increasing at an accelerating pace, the same holds true for the intensifying competition. SAFe gives clear answers to many questions in those equations. And we must admit, you probably cannot just easily ditch all those hierarchies if you are dealing in an enterprise environment. As a result, Leaders of Change (be it Heads of PMO’s, Heads of Delivery, Product Managers, RTEs and attendees with other titles) look up to SAFe as the holistic model for scaling agile delivery, aligning it to the company’s strategy and portfolio decisions and making the next step towards the whole enterprise becoming more agile and thus future-proof. Consequently, we have revised our attitude towards SAFe and are happy that many booth attendees stopped by to have a conversation with us and acknowledged the flexibility and value of our latest software solution for implementing SAFe.

A certainly exciting trend we took notice of was the increasing number of companies who switch from traditional portfolio management and work management to outcome management. They are eagerly seeking for ways to focus on value delivery and look for software tools to manage agile value delivery. I took the opportunity and conducted interviews with event attendees from companies, such as Philips, Roche, APG, Nike, and the like. I was energized with the authenticity with which people from those enterprises want to deliver value to their customers. Scaled Agile Inc. terms it “Organizational Agility” which denotes re-organizing around value. We believe it is part of the global trend towards a value-centered society. The Stone, Bronze, Iron, Machine, and the Information Ages seem to give place to the Value Age where it is ultimately no longer about increasing the capital and amassing fortunes. For a growing number of people and organizations, it is more about creating and delivering value. The Give approach will eventually triumph over the Take approach.

To be more specific

It would be too ambitious to try to equip you with all the learnings from the four days of the summit within one post, so I will try to share specific highlights which we hope will help steer your efforts in implementing SAFe. But please do not hesitate to approach our team for more details with regards to some specific topics or conclusions.

Among the key points reiterated in many sessions, we would list:

  • To succeed in scaling agile it is important that everybody realizes how difficult it is and stays committed
  • To implement SAFe effectively: train the top management and train as many SPCs as possible, actually train everybody who is willing to get certified even if they do not need it directly for their role, this will foster the environment required for such a transformation

The current state of scaling agile

In the beginning of the conference Dean Leffingwell set the baseline for assessing various Lean-Agile capabilities according to the metrics developed by Scaled Agile Inc. and announced a survey for all attendees:

164 people took part in the survey: 30% from companies with 1,000-10,000 employees and 50% from companies with 10,000+ employees.

The aggregated evaluation for all assessed capabilities was “We Crawl”, which makes us think that many enterprises have already realized the need to scale agile, but few have mastered the path to agility yet. To assess the agile maturity of your own enterprise, consider the “Lean Enterprise Self-Assessment” sheet which can be downloaded here.

In his keynote, Dean Leffingwell quoted Dr. Mik Kersten: “Those who master large-scale software delivery will define the economic landscape of the 21st century”. Dean also outlined the progress of five technological revolutions and noted that each of them had an installation period, a turning point and a deployment  period:

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Nowadays, companies operate and compete in the Age of Software & Digital, and we might be right at its Turning Point. Those who succeed in scaling agile delivery might be at the forefront of this 5th technological revolution. For that, according to both Dean Leffingwell and Mik Kersten, organizations should use new managerial frameworks and infrastructure models:

Levels of agility

Inbar Oren, in his “Driving Enterprise Business Agility” session, noted that there are many levels of agility out there:

  • Team agility (mostly manifested in keeping agile rituals)
  • Technical agility (making use of practices like TDD, etc.)
  • Team of Teams agility (a capability to group themselves around a product or value stream, in order to deliver value on that level)
  • agile Product Management (starts with design thinking and knowing how to do good customer discovery, focusing on “What” needs to be delivered in the first place, which personas and their Jobs2BeDone are we servicing, etc.)
  • DevOps culture
  • Continuous Delivery pipeline
  • Business Solutions and Lean Systems Engineering
  • Lean Portfolio Management
  • Lean-agile Leadership

For example, let’s zoom in on Business Solutions and Lean System Engineering:

  • An important aspect of it is planning. It is important to do it for multiple horizons
  • Another is Continuous Compliance: incrementally delivering on compliance needs to avoid the risk of audit failures, and iteratively adjusting to any possible changes in compliance regulations

Or take Lean Portfolio Management (defined by SAFe as one of the core competencies of a Lean Enterprise), it can be translated into 3 dimensions:

    • Strategy and Investment, which is about the vision, funding, strategy and portfolio alignment
    • Portfolio Operations, where value streams are driven and program operations fall in
    • Governance, where an organization would be looking at capabilities to forecast and budget dynamically, measure lean portfolio performance and coordinate continuous compliance efforts

Richard Knaster, one of the authors of the new course by Scaled Agile Inc. on Lean Portfolio Management, pointed out that in his experience many organizations struggle with defining their strategy. A typical mistake would be to mix together real portfolio-level ideas and more low-level work items such as Features, into one “portfolio backlog”, which becomes a confusing mixture of Why and How items.

In his presentation, Richard emphasized the need to move away from the project-driven work mindset towards a product or value-stream mindset. Project-driven work inhibits the flow of value in an organization. Also, the gate-phased approach received its rightful criticism for not being of any help to mitigate risks. Companies should restructure themselves around value they deliver to end customers, and use a multitude of lean portfolio tools: from SWOT analysis, through portfolio Lean Canvas with its iterations, LMP roadmap, portfolio epics definition and finally innovation accounting metrics in order to build a portfolio management practice that is truly supportive on the path to an agile enterprise.

What we found interesting was the mention of the Portfolio Sync event, which has been added to SAFe v4.6 and, similarly to ART Sync, allows for gathering short-cadence and regular insights into the progress of portfolio work and reflects how the strategic objectives of the company are supported.

Among other topics, such as agile Contracts, Lean Governance, Participatory Budgeting, and dynamic Value Stream budget adjustment, Richard also stressed the importance of Technology Business Management (TBM), which is a practice helping to run IT as a business and thus to find a common language and alignment on IT costs and value delivered between IT leadership and other business stakeholders. Richard has recently written a whitepaper on this subject.

SAFe at Scaled Agile Inc.

In his presentation about Scaled Agile Inc. and its partner program, Dean Leffingwell mentioned that the systems built nowadays tend to get more and more complex, and this calls for agile methodologies in general and for capabilities to manage big and complex system development in particular. He envisions Scaled Agile Inc. to be the leading, trusted, go-to source for continuing education for the knowledge workers who build the worlds’ most important systems.

For that purpose Scaled Agile Inc. is working on new courses and is expanding its partner program:

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New courses are planned for Lean Portfolio Management, SAFe for Business, agile Leadership, SPC+ (the next level for those trained as SPCs already), Product Management and Health Check Assessments.

As an organization, Scaled Agile Inc. counts 120 people and applies SAFe:

They confess it is not easy for them either:
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But Dean strongly believes SAFe is a clear answer in the situations when:

    • Time to market is slow
    • Quality is not what we want it
    • Work is not fun
    • Good people with poor results - is a bad system

The ART of “selling” ARTs

Andew Sales who has many years of experience in delivering SAFe implementations, and whose webinar on Lean Portfolio Management you may have attended earlier, focused on the typical challenges an agile consultant or an internal employee may face when “selling” the need to introduce agile Release Trains into their organization. He emphasizes that a key factor to success is to start with a Value Stream workshop, which would address the following:

  1. Get key stakeholders onboard: actual Business Owners as well as funding stakeholders and technology managers. Andrew referred here to the earlier blogpost by Mark Richards with a solid overview of the subject.
  2. Identify how value streams run in the organization
  3. Re-organize people around value /value streams, or in other words - design ARTs. A few ideas Andrew suggested here
    • Assign Product Owners
    • Let POs communicate the vision (as team missions)
    • Let the ART form itself around a demand for particular skill requirements
  4. Sequence ARTs accordingly

Another technique Andrew recommended, if you stumble upon skepticism and resistance to launch ARTs, is writing a Case Study from the Future. This works as an exercise that creates a frame where a working group imagines the ideal state they have achieved by restructuring the organization into ARTs, all the benefits this has brought and then looks back at the path towards it. Such a case study sets a motivating goal apart from rationalizing the ARTs.

A case study from Bosch

Joerg Jockel, one of Bosch’s agile pioneers and since 2018 VP of agile in the Mobility Solutions division, and Richard Mutschler, a PMO lead at ETAS (Bosch’s daughter company) and one of the founders of the agile transformation initiative, shared the story about ETAS’ Journey to Scaled Agile with SAFe.

The session was held on a high tone of surprise and exceptional achievements, and there was indeed inspiring content presented by both the speakers.

Joerg started by presenting the business challenges a 400+ thousand employee giant like Bosch is facing today, in general, embracing digitalization and IoT (#likeabosch). Joerg works for BBM, the Mobility Solutions unit at Robert Bosch GmbH, which is the most profitable group with 234k staff across 8 divisions and 4k staff in R&D alone. Cross-collaboration is perceived as the key to innovation in this R&D unit. Agility was chosen as a path towards shorter development cycles as well as a way to deal with increasing complexity. Scrum slowly made its way from Software into Hardware and into engineering teams.

The agile transformation was not a top-to-bottom initiative or a one-shot project, but rather a flow of events. Represented on the timeline above they all converged into bigger and higher impact steps. For example, to ensure entrepreneurial spirit and collaboration at all levels, at some point Bosch shifted from individual to team and organizational bonuses.

SAFe was chosen in 2016 as a framework for:

  • bridging the islands of agile transformation happening across BBM
  • standardizing agile notions (different terms were used across the company and led to frequent misunderstandings)
  • a clear and consistent value definition process (which did not impact the decentralized decision-making process that still exists at the tactical levels of the Bosch organization).

Bosch is currently running 1860 people in 17 ARTs across 8 Solution Trains. How is portfolio steering possible in this organization? Joerg explained there are 15 managers that need to align to drive this, and they do so by:

  • Portfolio Kanban visualization on a big wall
  • A Big Room ritual, which is a 2-day workshop where these 15 managers work in break-out sessions to analyze and prioritize ideas that then flow to the Board. This method has proved very effective (2 such meetings run so far, with facilitation and coaching by Thorsten Janning from Kegon, an agile consulting company in Germany that was helping Bosch).

Richard Mutschler further took over and told the story of ETAS - a 100% subsidiary of Bosch, which started their agile transition in a strong position of sustainable and fast growth. Actually, the story of ETAS was peculiar also for another reason. Thus, the big transformation started from a seemingly small initiative: after the company had practiced Scrum for a few years, in 2015 they ran an employee survey only to find out that employees were experiencing a lack of alignment and transparency.

Faced with the challenge to make everyone at ETAS feel like one team, they chose SAFe as the framework that can unite the whole organization (and not just IT) as well as provide a structured approach to portfolio management.

By the way, the first step for the portfolio team at ETAS was the analysis of the market and business cases, then they worked out the architecture and processes that are required to support this architecture, and only subsequently the organizational structure.

A few years down the road the results of this work were so convincing that Bosch’s CEO asked the senior management officially to transform the company into an agile organization. What started with an analysis of responses to an employee survey turned into an initiative that transformed and is transforming the entire organization.

Starting the first ART, however, wasn’t easy. To form the ART leadership team it was required to ask 8-10 experienced colleagues to step out of their daily jobs, which certainly brought a lot of criticism. Richard thinks this strong reaction was a healthy situation for him to train his commitment to the whole plan. Luckily he had ETAS’ CEO support, so he could trust himself to go all the way.

Richard’s takeaways and advice to the audience of the summit were to be brave and stay committed. In the presentation, he also made it clear the success of ETAS’s transformation is not related to a specific framework but to the way people were guided through this transition. Namely, it was important to respect existing decisions and instead of bringing about change, question those decisions instead and change only when the change is needed. Some other lessons learned:

  • Training top management is critical, it earns trust and commitment
  • Such a transformation is coupled with a lot of new terms, so training many people to share the understanding of the new terminology and principles was important. Everyone in the ETAS organization could get a ticket to an SPC training

Guess what? That same employee survey they held again in 2017 positioned ETAS to the first place in Bosch’s organization.

DevOps: hotter than hot

DevOps is considered to be one of the five core competencies of the lean enterprise. At the summit, we heard that the DevOps engineer has become the most highly sought out role while DevOps related searches skyrocket in Google:

As a result, there was plenty of talk about the role of DevOps and about Gene Kim’s book at the summit. The book was referred to as the DevOps Bible 🙂

At Targetprocess, we are glad that our teams are progressing fast with the GitLab integration which we started in March. Please let our Customer Success team know if you are interested in a demo of the integrated solution.

Watch the recording of our webinar “How to Define the Right DevOps Metrics” we hosted together with Icon Agility Services to learn how to define and collect the right metrics to see a full picture of your value streams, including DevOps.

SAFe regards DevOps as a means to transform the whole organization by improving the flow of value through the Continuous Delivery Pipeline. To implement DevOps successfully, it is important to understand what causes the tension and impedes the value delivery, namely, the conflicting priorities: the Dev teams are set on maximizing the delivery speed and the Ops teams strive to maximize the system stability.

To assess the maturity of your own DevOps, check out the SAFe DevOps Health Radar.
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We hope these highlights of the summit will help you in your work, we would like to conclude them with the inspiring thought from the last keynote where Anders Indset appealed to the attendees:

“You are all Leaders of Change. Make it a purposeful change. There are so many serious problems with a global impact. Lead the change in the right, meaningful direction!”

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