Friday, March 29, 2013

Scaled Agile Framework Applied 5/5 - Conclusion

What you see is all there is

I've just finished reading a book called "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman.  Set in the world of psychology and behavioural economics, it delves deeply into the role of cognitive bias in decision making.  The driving theme in the book is the division and interplay between intuitive response and deliberate reasoning, with a particular focus on the fact that the influence of intuitive response on our reasoning is far more pervasive than we realise.

A concept Kahneman returns to repeatedly is WYSIATI - "what you see is all there is".  In short, the vast majority of our reasoning is based on what is immediately apparent - unless something signals a warning sign that we should look deeper.

As I've been thinking through how to wrap this series up, one of the things I've been looking for is a "key takeaway" from my SAFE journey to-date - and as I finished the book a few days ago it struck me.

For me, the single most powerful aspect of SAFe is visibility.  Of course, lean and kanban practitioners will quite rightly suggest that this is not something SAFe contributes as the power of visualisation of work in progress (WIP) and flow has been central to lean for many years.  What I feel SAFe gives us, however, is a structure and an approach to providing both strategic and tactical visibility:

  • At the portfolio level, I can visualise the WIP and flow of multi-million dollar initiatives, the application and ratification of my investment prioritisation and the distribution of these initiatives (or parts thereof) across my programs of work.
  • At the program level, I can visualise the WIP and flow of significant features as they travel through my gating and funding cycles and are eventually implemented and deployed.
  • At the team level, I can understand my flow in the context of the teams surrounding me.
At each level, I'm looking for different insights to support different decisions and generate different feedback.  What I need is an ability to provide a simple and clear enough depiction of the state of my world to enable solid intuitive decision making and ring the warning bells that will trigger deliberate reasoning at the right times.

Achieving this has without doubt been the most significant contribution of SAFe to the BI COE.

Does structure kill agility?

When I speak to agilists about SAFe (or read their blogs), there is a prevailing concern that it looks far too structured and formal and will kill off the empowerment, collaboration and innovation that Agile seeks.

The simplest response to this is to resort to complexity theory.  To quote Jurgen Appelo's Management 3.0 - "Without a boundary a system lacks the drive and constraints to organise itself".  Or in Glenda Eoyang's Facilitating Organization Change ... "Just as a person needs time and space to incubate thoughts before a new idea can emerge, a system needs a bounded space for the emergence of new patterns."

For a single Scrum or Kanban team, the principal is "just enough structure to enable innovation and feedback".  When you start to consider hundreds or thousands of people in hundreds of teams, "just enough structure" is a little more complex.  

I would contend that SAFe provides a structure and a set of constraints and boundaries that facilitates growth and change.  As the growth occurs, the formality and structure can be gradually peeled back to the bare essentials necessary to support effective participation in the enterprise lifecycle.

The challenge for the SAFe coach, of course, is guiding the tuning of the formality - recognising when it is both over and under constrained and assisting the group in selecting the right adjustments and collecting feedback on their impact.

What about the results?

At this point, it is too early to provide quantitative assessment on the impact of SAFe at the portfolio level for the BI COE.  It has triggered many changes which have removed waste and improved flow for the demand management group.  Two months in, the manager of the group felt he had recouped roughly two full-time employees' work by eliminating administrative waste.  This was supporting a shift of focus from "keeping up with admin" to "pursuing insight and improving strategic foresight".

For the Strategic Delivery release train, however, there are some hard numbers.  When she presents on their SAFe journey, one of the opening lines the general manager regularly uses is a quote an executive director issued about their group a few years ago - "they're the laughing stock of [enterprise] IT".

Following are her current metrics on improvements achieved in the past 12 months:
Average delivery cycle time down from 12 months to 3 months

Frequency of delivery increased from quarterly to fortnightly
Cost to deliver down 50%
100% of projects delivered on time and on budget
Happy project sponsors (NPS 29)
Happy teams (Team NPS 43)
My favourites are the last two.  For those not familiar with NPS, it represents "Net Promoter Score" - a system achieving growing popularity as a measure of customer loyalty.  Customers are asked a question along the lines of "On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely are you to recommend us to a friend or colleague?"  Respondents are classified as either a promoter (9 or 10), passive (7 or 8) or detractor (0 to 6).  The NPS score is then calculated by deducing the percentage of detractors from the percentage of promoters (eg 20% promoters, 70% passive, 10% detractor would yield a score of 20% - 10% = 10).  In the employee context, the question becomes "How likely are you to recommend working as part of Strategic Delivery to a friend or colleague"?"

I believe that whether or not you are cheaper or faster is important but secondary - whether or not you are delighting your customers/stakeholders whilst building happy teams is the true measure of your success.  Whilst there is no baseline measure on the "Happy sponsors" front, as she characterises it the baseline probably would have been somewhere close to -100.  When it comes to happy teams the baseline was -20, showing a massive shift for the positive in just one year.


My time coaching the BI COE came to an end a couple of months ago.  I believe any good coach has two missions - enable your customer's success and make yourself redundant.  As 2012 came to an end it became apparent my time was done and I moved on to fresh challenges closer to the heart of the enterprise.  It was hard to let go, and in my ways writing this series has been cathartic for me as I relived the journey.

Of course, it continues without me.  The GM of Strategic Delivery has become such a passionate believer in scaled agile that she flew out to the USA in February to join the ranks of Dean's certified SAFe consultants, and she's decided that since I'm no longer writing about her world she'd better start.  To stay in touch with the continuing journey of the EDW Agile Release Train, please visit her blog.

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