5 Common (and Wrong) Expectations of a SAFe® Transformation

May 8, 2019

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (1532)

SAFe® is all the rage, folks. With over 300,000 trained SAFe practitioners in demand all over the globe, including at over 70% of Fortune 100 companies, The Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®) is by far the most popular framework for scaling agile. Considering that Scaled Agile, Inc. started in 2010, this growth is no small feat. SAFe has a positive track record as the most viable framework for better solution delivery (just see one of their 50+ case studies), and many businesses may view it as the silver bullet to solve their modern value delivery problems.

It’s in our instinct to ‘seek the path of least resistance‘, and SAFe could very well be the easiest, most clearly defined way to scale agile. Consequently, it’s common to enter a SAFe Transformation with a set of false expectations. Whether you’re considering SAFe or just starting the journey, my goal is to help you prepare for reality.

As a lifelong learner, student of leadership, and Agile Coach who is a certified SAFe Program Consultant (SPC), I have seen firsthand the value of setting good expectations, realistic goals, and achievable outcomes. The following list is not exhaustive, but it highlights some of the potholes and misthink I’ve encountered that can spiral into real disorder, if left unaddressed.


Expectation #1
SAFe® will fix our customer & business problems.

SAFe® is not a silver bullet.

This may be the biggest misconception when a company starts their Transformation. SAFe will not fix your customer and business problems—it will expose them! You cannot change a process and expect to fix a misaligned organization with an unclear purpose. That requires change of people, process, tools AND culture. “Culture,” as Drucker once said, “eats strategy for breakfast.” Culture is the lagging indicator of the change. If culture is your problem, then SAFe will expose it, and it is up to you to take the time required to change.

Your customer focus will begin to clarify once you have a more collaborative, aligned company culture. Remember that this requires time, patience and leadership! Once everyone is aligned, then you can have a more strategic focus on the business problems that are preventing you from delighting your customers.


Expectation #2
SAFe® won’t change business & operations.

They will change and it’ll be hard.

This expectation touches our #1 issue of culture, but also dives into the scary realm of change. Whether you like it or not, SAFe will touch on power structures that are typically immune from organizational change. This is an especially difficult adjustment for those who enjoy wielding their power and authority, as SAFe attempts to decentralize decision making to speed up execution. Significant disruption will occur in organizations with a high command and control culture. Consider nothing sacred!

Areas that will be impacted by the SAFe Transformation that are also high risk spaces for resistance to change include:

  • Management derives organizational power from Budgets and Policy. These controls allow them to wield power with authority but not necessarily influence. They often see the loss of personnel or budget as a loss of power or decision authority. They can inhibit adoption by direct or indirect actions, such as withholding assignments, delaying decisions or claiming budgetary restrictions.
  • Personnel derive their power from process and tools. They can control the rate of change by simply pointing out that tools or processes would be violated, and the tools and processes were established in order to institutionalize Management Policy. Once again, the change can be mitigated by stalling or avoidance.
  • The third rail of a large enterprise includes organizational institutions that provide indirect support to customers but wield extraordinary amounts of power and influence. Departments such as Legal, Risk, and Human Resources could all find various ways to directly or indirectly impact your transformation (or better yet, join it!).

From James Belasco and Ralph Stayer’s Flight of the Buffalo: “Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have—and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up.” This statement is completely applicable to SAFe Transformations. As an organizational change leader considering SAFe for competitive advantage, you must have a strategy for dealing with these top 3 risk spaces, especially with the third rail. Human Resources, for example, will need to reevaluate role definitions, compensations and personnel evaluations. Recall Mintzberg’s 5 P’s of strategy—Plan, Pattern, Position, Perspective and Ploy! You may not get it perfect the first time, but moving forward is the natural order of things. Start With Why, rally your people to the real problems, and empower them to unleash real solutions.


Expectation #3
The SAFe® Transformation will end, we’ll be Agile.

You are never done.

“We’re done!” or “When will we be done?” are refrains that set you up for failure. Don’t bother establishing a deadline for ‘finding better ways to deliver value faster,’ because that is truly a false deadline.

McDonalds has never once thought that their service was ‘fast enough,’ or that their menu had ‘enough value.’ For 70+ years, McDonalds has continued to grow and innovate, offering an abundance of product offerings at all mealtimes in 35,000 locations in over 100 countries. And they’re still growing. While you may not be planning to serve 100 billion cheeseburgers, you can probably understand that the competition is trying to eat your lunch! Only when competitors stop trying can you consider standing still (hint: I still wouldn’t!). Don’t set false deadlines. Instead, use metrics and data to inform continual change plans. Continue to learn, improve, and transform; unless you decide to go out of business.

McDonalds growing and innovating worldwide


Expectation # 4
The change happens on a timeline.

The change must stick and sustain!

Sustainability! Sustainability! Sustainability! Sustainability! Sustainability! Sustainability! Sustainability! It is not enough to implement an Agile Release Train! Focus your efforts on making the changes sustainable! When time passes and change happens, the Agile Release Train (people, processes and tools) will need to be refreshed, retrained, and retooled.

Abraham Lincoln recognized the value of keeping your ‘edge’ in work. He said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Our technology platforms are constantly changing, updating and realigning; our tools and needs are constantly in churn; and our people are changing, maturing, leaving, joining and learning. Develop a strategy around understanding and leveraging this knowledge for your competitive advantage. You will be glad you did! Don’t make the mistake of declaring victory in the first 6-12 months. No matter how successful you appear to be, the Lean-Agile mindset has not yet stuck and will not sustain without a strategy. Kotter talks about making it stick, I say you must also make it sustain! See Expectation #2.

Do more than implement an Agile Release Train!


Expectation #5
SAFe® is an IT Thing.

SAFe® touches the entire enterprise.

Although SAFe Transformations usually begin in IT, SAFe ultimately touches every aspect of the organization (again, revisit Expectation #2). It is not simply a ‘development team’ or an ‘IT thing’ or a ‘non-management thing’. It requires leadership action from everyone—daily, weekly and annually. It requires continuous learning, re-learning, adjustment, planning, and communication. It requires thought, vision, people development, team building, and decision making. In a single word, it requires Leadership.

Too often, SAFe is seen as something other than organizational change. Frankly, SAFe looks at reengineering the entire organization so that everyone is aligned. This alignment helps the organization become the most efficient mechanism for delivering value to customers, leveraging economic principles of scarcity and utilization in a hyper-competitive world. It requires leadership to get people to think this way. If you are not on a solution team, then you and your team should prepare to go back to school, just like the rest of the organization.

I have seen a Transformation where the C Suite and the staff bought in, but the middle management layer did not. What resulted was a ‘false transformation’ phenomenon, where the company didn’t get the results they were hoping for, and so they stopped investing in the change activity. This is a real and common problem, and one that applies to all scaling frameworks. This is the C Suite failing to lead. Smokey the Bear used to say, ‘Only YOU can prevent forest fires!’ This could be your forest fire!


Ready to Deal with Reality?
Always return to SAFe® Values and Principles.

SAFe is certainly attractive. It provides some great ‘out of the box’ starting points for using agile solution delivery teams. There are clearly defined roles, responsibilities, and ceremonies, all of which can be implemented within your current organizational structure. In today’s technology landscape, this means that SAFe is applicable to just about every sized company in every industry.

But SAFe is not revolutionary; it is evolutionary. SAFe is a journey! Rather than looking at SAFe as your cure-all, look at it as an educational starting point toward continuous learning and adjustment. Follow and embrace the SAFe Values and Principlesalongside your own organizational values and principles. No two companies have the same strengths, weaknesses, customers and problems, so it is unlikely to find a perfect, detailed roadmap for your specific journey, but it is possible to use SAFe as a guide and rely on experienced coaches to point out some potholes!

SAFe core values: Alignment | Built-in quality | Transparency | Program execution

SAFe principles: #1 – Take an economic view #2 – Apply systems thinking #3 – Assume variability; preserve options #4 – Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles #5 – Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems #6 – Visualize and limit WIP, reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths #7 – Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning #8 – Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers #9 – Decentralize decision-making

SAFe is a journey

By starting with the SAFe values and principles, you can look at your business opportunities, risks, priorities and challenges and get a sense if SAFe is a good fit for addressing the challenges your organization faces. Keep in mind that it will potentially call into question how you do business, what you value and how you present your value proposition to your customers. If you are looking at SAFe, then you already believe there might be problems, or at least potential problems, with the current order of things.

If you are planning to start a SAFe Transformation (or maybe you’ve started but could use some guidance), I encourage you to reach out for help. An experienced outsider, specifically an experienced SPC who has been involved in several transformations, can help you put things into perspective. Whether you want assistance in building your roadmap and strategy or are in deep need of a cultural assessment, contact us! We’re here to help.

Written by Travis Reed


Travis is currently on his third career, drawing his passion for helping Organizational Leaders implement ‘Good Change’ in their organizations using Agile, Lean, and other practices. He has led multiple Enterprise-wide Re-engineering efforts within the context of Digital Transformation, Agile Transformation, and efforts in Lean/Lean Six Sigma. His energy and passion are powered by his experience in System and Software Development and Support for over 25 years, as well as the problems he encountered and the learnings he developed. He retains multiple industry certifications including SAFe Program Consultant, Certified Discipline Agilist, Enterprise Business Agility Strategist, and Lego Serious Master Strategist.