How does a Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe) Transformation stick and sustain? An important key to success is having communicative leaders who commit to organizational culture change. While this commitment is best obtained from the C-suite or VPs early in the sales cycle, it is also the hardest. SAFe Transformations tend to start and stop in the IT department, where the primary goal is to produce a faster software development lifecycle.
As any experienced coach will tell you, a SAFe Transformation that’s stuck in IT can lead to communication problems with other departments that are stuck in waterfall. To increase flow and understanding, areas like Finance, Compliance, HR, and Audit also need to transform and become more nimble. In other words, enterprise agility becomes necessary, and leadership commitment is crucial to making this happen.
So what happens when your client is in an IT Transformation and requires organizational understanding to optimize flow, but leadership isn’t involved? What can you do as a coach to improve that situation?
I encountered this very problem with a previous client, and my suggestion is to start by widening your net and begin building personal relationships with people (especially leaders) outside of IT. Don’t simply be an agile coach—be an active agile coach and engage anyone who will listen. Once other parts of the company start paying attention and getting involved in SAFe, it sows the seeds for the executive leadership to really pay attention.
In this article, I will share my own experiences with a former client, whose Audit department was actively engaged by me to become part of the SAFe Transformation, in turn causing other departments and leadership to follow.
Introducing Audit to SAFe
Building personal relationships with people outside of IT goes a long way towards creating company-wide understanding of agile and lean concepts. But it requires us coaches to be curious and a little adventurous, to drink some of our own Kool-Aid and go on Gemba Walks.
My previous client was a mid-sized gas utility company in the Midwest. While coaching their IT Transformation, I introduced myself to an audit manager over a proverbial watercooler and engaged him in a discussion about SAFe. After explaining why it was so valuable for the entire company, I asked if his department would be interested in learning more in an hour brown-bag lunch presentation. The hook was, “As auditors, you’ll be working with new agile teams. What if you could adjust your processes and expectations to their new way of working? Wouldn’t it be interesting if Audit could also become more lean and agile?”
It took some time before we scheduled the brown-bag lunch. I had to keep communicating and gently nudge him, but nine months after our initial conversation, I took the entire Audit department through a Leading SAFe class. We discussed how we could adjust existing audit and compliance-related processes into something more nimble, while still ensuring laws and regs were faithfully followed. We talked about how auditors (who are typically stretched thin) could iterate with teams and use acceptance criteria as a means to measure not just “done,” but also compliance (and to do so iteratively). With the right lean-agile attitude, the answer was, “Of course you can!”
The Leader Enables Agility
The VP who led Audit and Compliance voluntarily reached a tipping point; she saw the writing on the wall. Despite putting personal and emotional investment into a particular skill set for years, she was willing to forego her reliance on traditionally cumbersome, outdated specifications and was receptive to new thinking. She committed to investing in something she could have easily resisted. Many of her peers would have supported her in not changing (“Agile Auditing”...isn’t that an oxymoron?). Instead, this VP wanted to spend resources—people, time, money—on retooling her entire Audit department.
So how did this VP come around? Her own people—excited to get going—convinced her that transitioning to a Lean-Agile paradigm would increase both efficiences and effectiveness. If the organization could iterate as one large team, then everyone would be working on the same cadence with full alignment. Work would be delivered in small increments so knowledge transfer and learning kept up with the need for it in real time. In this case, while capabilities, features, and stories were delivered, Audit could concurrently verify compliance. They could contribute to stories and acceptance criteria to reflect the greater organizational need, not just a narrow definition of operational functionality. Additionally, they could learn while doing and do while learning. We anticipated a 90% reduction in wasted time by eliminating obsolete, serialized processes. How’s that for eliminating waste and optimizing flow, Taiichi Ohno?
Getting Audit “on the Train”
Building personal relationships with the Audit department, especially the leadership, and then educating them was ultimately how we got them on board with the transformation. They became part of the PI planning process as integral players and members of the ARTs. Admittedly, resources were scarce. With two trains, over 20 teams, and only 10-12 people available to perform audits at any given time, it was out of the question to have single resources dedicated to one or two teams. It simply wouldn’t scale. Yet, we had enough connective tissue to ensure auditors truly iterated and participated while doing so. How else were we going to unlock the benefits of training and auditing while doing? We brainstormed what a good definition of that looked like. Furthermore, the Audit department committed to stop using their own calendars and instead synchronized their planned work with PI and sprint planning.
The whole endeavor required a bit of chutzpah, a sense of humor, and some relationship building skills, but the result was way cool. We had a non-technical component of a complex, regulated gas utility directly involved in the SAFe Transformation. For the first time in my experience, we actually began truly scaling lean and agile across an entire company, and not just in IT. It caused people from other parts of the company to pay attention, especially the leadership. The seeds were sown.
Once the Audit Department found success with their new agile practices, HR leadership noticed and got involved too. We started working with HR to help determine how traditional roles could be recast as agile ones. It’s unreasonable and unfair to ask people to take risks and change behaviors if you don’t match career incentives to expected behaviors and outcomes—the so-called Organizational Paradox.
The HR department began to change the definition of traditional roles and added definitions of new ones so that career progression was clearly mapped out. They blazed new trails outside of the technology organization and operational community. They helped allay a real fear some members on the ARTs had: what happens if SAFe disappears and my original job has been filled? Having career tracks for scrum masters, product owners, etc. meant people could feel confident that their employment was secure.
As different business departments of the company became interested, leadership took notice and began taking steps to expand agility beyond the IT department. We were beginning to see critical mass accumulating. The CIO hired a new Managing Director of Innovation, and after I introduced myself to her and explained what was happening with our SAFe Transformation, she expressed interest in enterprise agility. This is where the company currently stands—with leadership primed to move forward, they are slowly but surely taking the steps to become a truly Scaled Agile organization.
How do you begin? Be more than a Coach.
Another coach and I spent almost a year socializing and proselytizing. You cannot simply focus on engaging whomever hired you and stay in your silo. We invested significant time going around the company to speak with whomever wanted to listen. This is what’s possible if you engage. You won’t always get traction, but we were pleasantly surprised at the excitement and willingness by almost everyone we spent time with.
The key is transforming yourself from a passive role (“just coaching”) to an active one. You coach, yes, but you also spend time educating an entire company, not just IT, about the transformation. You speak of possibilities. Eventually, you will meet people who have the right attitude and motivation to begin thinking about their own journey. Then it’s a matter of watching the dominos fall and witnessing a transformation that touches an entire organization. It’s a fundamental paradigm shift that truly affects culture change. In other words, real enterprise agility.
Knowing how to engage leadership is crucial to long-term SAFe success! For other important tips, view our list of essentials for your SAFe Transformation.
Written by Rodger Koopman
With over 30 years in technology, Rodger started his career as an Air Force officer developing weapons guidance systems and global terrestrial & satellite networks, working strategically in counter-terrorism at the joint DoD level. After retiring from the Air Force, Rodger was an early employee in two successful start-ups and a key participant in five mergers & acquisitions. When Itron acquired Rodger's first startup, he was tasked by Itron's CEO to move to Raleigh, NC to lead and re-organize Itron's R&D office. Rodger has led numerous successful implementations of highly effective agile practices and automated DevOps pipelines in both startups and multiple Fortune 100 companies. Now an Enterprise Coach, Rodger is a certified SAFe 4.6 Program & DevOps Consultant (SPC, SPD) and certifed AgilityHealth Facilitator. He holds master's degrees in Computer Information Systems from Boston University and Public Administration from the University of Oklahoma. He was an adjunct Computer Science faculty member for three years at the University of Maryland and four years at Rose State College, OK. His wife is an Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel and Veterinarian.