6 Tips to Start Your Agile Transformation with SAFe

Do you want to decrease the amount of time it takes to get your products to market?

Do you want your employees to be more productive and happier at work?

Do you want customers who are delighted by your near-flawless products?

If all these things sound good to you—and I don’t know why they wouldn’t—you might want to check out the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe).

SAFe adheres to Lean-Agile principles to help enterprises develop and sustain complex systems of production while producing results quickly. It can provide all the benefits for your customers, employees, and the bottom line that I mentioned above… if it’s implemented correctly.

If it sounds like SAFe practices could improve your organization, take a minute to check out six things you should know to get through a SAFe agile transformation as smoothly as possible.

6 tips to help start your SAFe agile transformation the right way

Forgive the pun, but a SAFe transformation isn’t always a safe bet for your sanity in the short term.

While SAFe touts a slew of benefits—from increased productivity to higher quality products—there are a few things you should know before you kick off your agile transformation with SAFe.

1. Be (at least a little bit) Agile before implementing SAFe

I’m not saying that your whole organization has to be Agile—that’s the end goal of a SAFe transformation, after all. I’m just saying that your organization should already adhere to some fundamental aspects of a Lean-Agile culture before you consider implementing SAFe.

How do you know if you’re ready for a SAFe transformation?

Alan Zucker, founding principal of Project Management Essentials, says “the most common symptom” of an organization that hasn’t yet embraced Lean-Agile culture “is that the teams are not empowered or self-managing.” Performing Agile teams are one of the “cornerstones of SAFe” according to Zucker.

A few other questions to ask yourself when assessing your organization’s Agile maturity:

A SAFe transformation doesn’t happen overnight. It involves changing the way people approach their own work and working with others. You should ensure that your teams are already somewhat comfortable with some key Lean-Agile principles before scaling it to your whole organization.

A few Lean-Agile principles you might want to review with your teams:

  • Building in increments instead of producing a large, unwieldy finished product from a Waterfall-esque plan
  • Encouraging your employees to identify their guiding motivations in their own work
  • Decentralizing the decision-making process to encourage your teams to self-manage

Your next step: Assess your Lean-Agile maturity level. You could do this by observing how teams currently work or by distributing a survey among employees asking them how Agile they find their teams to be. Once you have an idea of your Lean-Agile maturity, you can make an informed decision about how ready you might be to enact an agile transformation with SAFe.

2. Ask yourself if you really need to implement SAFe

Implementing SAFe is a huge commitment that will impact your entire organization, so you don’t want to make this decision lightly. Now that you’ve taken stock of your company’s Agile maturity levels, ask yourself if SAFe is what you really need.

As Zucker points out: “SAFe is not an easy, lightweight tool.” You shouldn’t commit your organization to adhering to SAFe methodologies just because you think Agile is trending or because Lean-Agile principles work well for one of your teams.

Your next step: Reexamine your thoughts on how SAFe will affect your organization. Ask yourself if the estimated time, financial, and mental commitments will ultimately be worth it in the end.

To get a better handle on your SAFe readiness, Al Shalloway, CEO of the Lean-Agile training and consulting company Net Objectives, recommends that you identify the specific problems you’re trying to solve with SAFe, as well as the specific parts of SAFe that will be useful for your organization. If you can’t pin these down, SAFe might not be your best option.

3. Accept that this change isn’t going to be easy

Alright, so you’ve settled on a SAFe agile transformation as the best decision for your company.

Now take a deep breath and repeat after me: I accept that people do not like change and that my employees are people. I will expect complaints and pushback, as well as the occasional non-constructive bit of feedback. I will expect to hit bumps in the road and make a mistake. I will learn from these mistakes and keep moving forward.

Now copy and paste this and put it somewhere where you can reference it easily when you’re having a particularly hard day. Because you will have some hard days.

SAFe transformations are never easy. You’re trying to change the way people approach work, and people easily become set in their ways. Trust me, a veritable creature of habit, when I say that there will be some people—maybe even entire teams—that will resist the changes you’re trying to make as much as possible.

Just remember that you’ve already determined that moving toward a SAFe methodology is what’s best for everyone and that getting there can be an arduous process. But in the end, it will all be worth it.

* Change takes time. Attend to changing the eco-system people work in. They are already good, but their system can be improved.

Your next step: Relax. Remember why you want your company to align with SAFe principles. And brace yourself for the (temporary) chaos that big changes can bring.

4. Know how to explain yourself and the SAFe transformation

One easy way to combat complaints and overcome obstacles in the SAFe transformation process is to provide context to the people you want to accept the changes you’re making—a.k.a. your hardworking employees.

When you’re changing the way your employees work, upending processes that have been developed over years or maybe even decades within your organization, they have a reason to be a bit defensive.

And though you don’t owe individual employees an explanation about how you want your company to work and function, providing context for changes—especially big changes—is always appreciated. Plus, it might help you head off complaints before they even reach your inbox.

Your next step: Jump into the Agile mindset of getting very transparent with your employees. Hold a company-wide meeting or write a blog post to explain what’s happening and why. Explain why you feel that SAFe is the best choice for your organization as a whole. And let people know that you and your designated Lean-Agile change agents are open to feedback and constructive criticism.

5. Be prepared to set the example

You can hire a million consultants, but your company leaders are always responsible for implementing large-scale internal change. Don’t expect your employees to sit through seminar after seminar from an outside agency for a week and be prepared to implement SAFe principles.

Be prepared to demonstrate, in thought and action, how your organization will be applying SAFe methodologies, as well as answer questions and address concerns throughout your agile transformation.

As Shalloway points out: “Changing behavior is uncomfortable.” He recommends that, as a good agile transformation SAFe leader you should “be committed to go through that discomfort yourself.” Shalloway feels that this will help you both “demonstrate your commitment and give you insights on how to help others through theirs.”

Your next step: Set yourself and your change leaders up for success from the beginning. Seek out and provide resources that will guide you through SAFe best practices. That could mean having a small group of designated change leaders attend training sessions, or it could mean hiring outside consultants who will assist your organization through its agile transformation.

Do whatever it takes to set your company leaders up for SAFe success from the beginning so that your employees are able and willing to learn from their examples.

6. Get ready to make mistakes (and learn from them)

As I already mentioned, this change won’t necessarily be easy. You’re changing the way your whole company functions, so you shouldn’t expect it to go smoothly.

You’ll probably bump up against some processes and ways of doing things that just don’t work for your organization. You’re going to try things that people hate. You’ll probably run into a huge issue that needs to be fixed at least once a week.

Bottom line: you’re not going to do everything right the first time, and that’s okay. As long as you’re willing to learn from your mistakes and course correct, you’ll be okay in the long run. And as Shalloway puts it, “sticking to dogma is not as effective as experimenting and learning.” If you find that certain aspects of SAFe aren’t working for your organization, change and adapt them to your company’s needs, not the other way around.

Your next step: Encourage transparency and honesty from your employees from the start. Let them know that you’re all going through this change together and that everyone—including you—is learning how best to implement SAFe within your organization. Create time and space where employees and teams can submit or voice any questions or concerns. Share these with your whole company so that everyone is aware of the obstacles their coworkers are coming up against and can provide feedback, advice, or even just a sympathetic ear.

You’re not alone in your SAFe transformation!

There are lots of training resources and tools out there to help you with your agile SAFe transformation. In fact, Targetprocess is one of those tools!

Investing in the people and tools that will help you through your SAFe implementation will give you resources to turn to when your SAFe knowledge runs out or your patience wears thin. These people and tools can help you create a roadmap for success that adheres to SAFe principles and works for your organization.

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