Unlocking SAFe: How Federal Agencies Can Operationalize Agile at Scale

Earlier this year our CEO, Amy Wright, wrote about how the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is helping the federal government solve its toughest application service delivery challenges by scaling Agile within their organizations. The benefits of SAFe include greater alignment around customer needs, transparency across teams, faster value-based product delivery, motivated teams, and enhanced customer satisfaction.

But adopting SAFe can be tricky. Common challenges include resistance to change, extending Agile across multiple teams and programs, scaling too fast, and clinging to old ways of doing things.

Clearly, adopting SAFe values and principles requires a cultural shift. But where do you start? As Agile practitioners, here are our best practices for successfully realizing a SAFe transformation.

To empower cultural transformation, start from the top

Because SAFe requires a fundamental shift in thinking and culture, it’s critical that a baseline understanding of the benefits of Agile methodologies is established across the organization. The role of leadership is critical in the cultural change. CIOs and functional leads must lead the change by communicating the reasons for change, share the desired end state, and align teams around this vision. Specifically, leaders must convey why and how this new framework for using DevOps and Agile practices will benefit individuals, teams, programs, and the entire organization.

Then move onto the basics

Another crucial aspect of a winning SAFe transformation is training. Each individual and team will have unique training needs that must be identified.

Line up some training around the basic principles, practices, and methods of Agile such as Scrum and Kanban. Once these concepts are understood, additional training requirements should be identified, such as how teams fit into this new framework. Certain roles, such as Product Owners and Release Train Engineers, may also require more specialized training.

There are numerous SAFe certifications and interactive classroom training experiences available to assist with this critical foundational training. Be sure to engage a certified trainer(s) or qualified coach(es). Coaches help guide the organization through SAFe implementation and help mature Agile practices of the team, program, and organization.

Employ coaching to drive sustainable change

Agile training is a critical part of the SAFe Implementation Roadmap, but it’s not a case of one-time and done. For an organization to drive sustainable incremental change and mature its Agile practice, education must go hand in hand with coaching. Continuous learning is an integral part of every successful SAFe organization.

Coach and Scrum Masters are servant leaders who equip teams to self-organize to continuously deliver value.

Alongside executive leadership, Agile coaches are integral to ensuring that teams self-organize around goals they are given without the need for management intervention (a critical measure of success), solve problems early in the development process, learn as they go, and are motivated and happy

Establish a community of practice

A successful Agile and SAFe implementation hinges on continuous improvement across teams. While coaches and Scrum Masters can guide development teams through the various stages of maturity, the initiative to drive transformation comes from within the team. Think of it this way, a coach isn’t there to tell the team how to solve their problems they’re there to help the them solve it for themselves based on knowledge-gain, lessons learned, and shared set of values and principles.

An important part of this process are retrospectives. These are meetings held at the completion of an Iteration/Program Increment. Hosted by coaches, retrospectives create an environment for teams to share feedback and focus on improvements.

During the retrospective, the development team reflects on the newly completed phase. They discuss what went well, what didn’t, and work on an action plan for improvement. The retrospective also serves as an opportunity to celebrate successes and boost morale.

In SAFe terms, this small cross-functional team of people is called a Lean-Agile Center of Excellence (LACE) or “guiding coalition.” The LACE works diligently toward successful transition to SAFe and adoption of Agile best practices.

To scale successfully, take your time  

When implementing the SAFe Lean-Agile way of working it’s critical that your organization begin with a single, small team who is fully committed to Agile. This team can then take smaller wins and extend them to the program and organization, building on incremental progress and value delivery.

This team has a choice of Agile methods. Many use Scrum, a popular framework for managing work. Another alternative is the Kanban method. Kanban is a useful starting point for smaller teams because it helps them adopt incremental changes and work through bottlenecks. It can also be less intimidating than a full Scrum method.

Then work your way up

Once teams realize a measure of success, your organization is ready to scale its Agile practice. While the foundational elements described above are essential to facilitate change, the onus is on leaders to empower their teams and foster a culture of collaboration and continuous learning.

SAFe is a mindset everyone can benefit from

Agile and SAFe are effective methodologies that are changing how IT departments work and how employees and teams are energized. But the Agile mindset brings benefits that extend across the organization – benefits that are especially important in today’s uncertain times. Agile puts people first, helps organizations pivot more dynamically, promotes innovative solutions, and builds resiliency for the future – all critical capabilities needed to navigate rapidly changing technology landscapes and customer needs.