SAFe Helps the Federal Government Solve its Enterprise Application Transformation Challenges at Scale

The notion of government as a rigid institution bound to legacy software development practices is no longer as tethered to reality as it was a few years ago.

Increasingly, federal agencies are adopting Agile and DevOps methodologies to develop applications and deliver products and services faster and more efficiently.

However, we’ve seen that larger organizations struggle to incorporate Agile principles into their development projects. The list of obstacles is long, but the main stumbling block we encounter in our work with federal agencies is scaling Agile within their organizations.

Achieving Agile at scale is hard

A key characteristic of Agile has always been an emphasis on small teams. Scrum teams, the group of individuals who collaborate to deliver the solutions, are typically limited to five to ten members. But large government software projects rarely fit this mode. Maintaining coordination across siloed teams when there are 50, 100, or 1,000+ cross-functional stakeholders involved is challenging.

Federal agencies need other frameworks to organize around so they can maintain alignment and focus on continuous improvement during the development process. Which is why we’re seeing a natural progression from early Agile techniques in the federal government to a more holistic approach that aligns vision and value while speeding delivery of large scale, enterprise-wide systems and products. It’s called SAFe.

What is SAFe?

SAFe is a Scaled Agile Framework based on proven, integrated principles, practices, and competencies for achieving business agility using Lean, Agile, and DevOps. It provides organizations with a framework on how to use DevOps and Agile practices to deliver faster-time-to value.

It emphasizes building high-performing teams-of-teams that use design thinking and customer-centricity to provide a continuous flow of value in support of the envisioned future state. By aligning strategy and applying Lean-Agile leadership skills that drive and sustain organizational change, agencies can remove many of the delays that characterize the front end of the development process and deliver a usable form of the product (known as a minimal viable product or MVP) much sooner.

This is important because development teams often bear the blame for slow product releases. It’s an unfair judgment, particularly in government. In fact, the clock doesn’t start ticking on a project the moment a team of developers begin writing code – it starts when the agency identifies a need for a solution, and that can be months earlier. What follows is a time-consuming process of gathering requirements, consultation with governance organizations, developing budgets, and beginning the acquisition cycle. This can take up to 18 months, during which time agency needs can change, resulting in a solution that can fail to meet the organization’s objectives, in addition to the costs associated with the unmet need.

Woven throughout SAFe is the notion of shifting from a pre-defined functional scope and long lead times to an empirical process. In this process, teams generate and test hypotheses to validate an idea and put a usable form of the product into the hands of the customer as early as possible in the development cycle. They then use what they learn from the experiment to decide what changes to make and what experiments to perform next. As they do so, the product evolves to meet more and more of the stakeholders’ needs.  With SAFe, user feedback is incorporated quickly (something that large organizations typically struggle with) to help iterate and improve the product while ensuring it aligns with strategic goals and changing business requirements.

Adopters of SAFe have seen notable results. The most common benefits include a 20-50% increase in productivity, 25-75% improvements in quality, 30-75% faster time to market, and a 10-50% increase in employee engagement and job satisfaction.

Large Defense department expedites product delivery with SAFe

 At Macro, our knowledge and use of SAFe principles have been put to use on one of the largest systems implementations in the world. This modernization effort encompasses more than 30 distinct systems, the maintenance of 111 system interfaces, and the elimination of 300+ interfaces. With a stakeholder base that includes multiple agencies, and covers over a million service members, ensuring that the final release met these broad and diverse needs was critical.

To increase speed of delivery and integrate stakeholder feedback early and often in the process, Macro, along with our industry partners and government customers, implemented a SAFe methodology for a large-scale system upgrade.

This project was unique due to its size and complexity and is based on a COTS solution with major data conversion elements – a solution type that historically has not lent itself to Agile implementations. Despite this, our customer’s internal leadership strongly sponsored a SAFe approach and invested in training team members on its methodologies.

The investment paid off. With our team’s assistance, our customer expedited its original plan to get an upgraded enterprise system into production from 18 months to 8 months – a highly significant decrease in implementation and development time.

Overcoming the existential fear of change

To achieve the kind of digital transformation that SAFe can bring when building large and complex government solutions, the impetus for change must come from the top. That doesn’t mean senior leadership announces to employees that the agency is adopting SAFe and everyone cheers but walks away thinking “now what?”. It means beginning a cultural shift that starts with building an understanding of the purpose and value of SAFe and Agile and clearly communicating the benefits to stakeholders across the organization.

Management must be the leaders of the change and create barrier-free environments that break down silos, give everyone a voice, and are conducive to flexibility and agility. Teams should have the opportunity to try Agile approaches, learn continuously (even from their failures), and share their experiences. Meanwhile, customer needs should be closely studied, and processes should be adapted to fit those needs.

Process must change

There is also a process shift. A key difference between agencies that have adopted SAFe and those who have not are contractual considerations. It’s hard to become a Lean enterprise and achieve agility if product requirements are set in stone months before coding begins. That’s the antithesis of the concept of an MVP. However, agencies that write pre-defined SAFe principles into their contracts, as the U.S. Army did, and accept that requirements will change are better positioned to adapt and deliver value based on the priorities or changing needs of the organization.

Let’s have a conversation about SAFe

While many federal agencies have adopted Agile and DevOps, SAFe builds on these methodologies so they can execute these principles on projects at scale. SAFe practices break down the functions and hierarchies that create disconnect and misalignment. They marshal every part of the organization around delivering technology-based solutions that are value-focused, not function-focused.

There’s much more to tell you about SAFe and how you can use it to make your organization leaner and more Agile and scalable. I look forward to having that conversation with your agency.