If you’re a newly minted SAFe Program Consultant (SPC), then congratulations! After all your agile/project/program management experience and diligent studying to pass a difficult exam, you deserve a sense of accomplishment. However, as you may already suspect, your journey has only just begun. To be an effective SPC for years to come, more will be required.
Today’s topic is near and dear to my heart. I’ve had the opportunity to work with and observe several great SPCs during the last five years, and I’ve learned nuances and success patterns for the multifaceted endeavor of becoming a great SPC.
Great SPCs are a special breed of people who are comfortable operating at many levels and in various environments. They have to wear many hats and change those hats from day to day; often multiple times within a given day.
As an SPC, you play a critical leadership role in Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®) Transformations, driving the culture change that prepares organizations to succeed and sustain on their own. In this post, I will describe seven dimensions that I believe characterize the greatest of SPCs and offer some guidance to help you become a better Lean-Agile change agent.
1. Be Agile
If you’re an SPC, then you are a change agent who combines your technical knowledge of SAFe with an intrinsic motivation to improve a company’s software and systems development processes. The key to this intrinsic motivation? A Lean-Agile mindset. The greatest SPCs have a deep understanding of agile principles, allowing them to apply appropriate agile practices as they work with organizations.
For an organization to become agile, it has to start with you. You must be the one to demonstrate Lean-Agile leadership, setting the right example and fostering cultural change. Never forget that agile is more than just processes and practices; it requires a shift in motivation and, in most cases, a new way to accomplish work (note: steer clear of the traditional “Command and Control” way of working!).
Remember The Backwards Brain Bicycle? This video demonstrates just how hard it can be to change your mindset. You might think you and your team(s) have embraced agile principles, but it’s possible that you all have room to grow. Start by reflecting on the Scrum Values: Commitment, Focus, Openness, Respect, and Courage. Also, check out 6 Videos that Reveal the Secrets of Lean-Agile Leadership for deeper understanding of what it means to live by Lean-Agile principles. These videos are easily digestible and even inspiring, giving you further motivation to go out and lead the change!
2. Be a Servant Leader
Want a good SPC mantra? Try “serve first.” You’ll find that the greatest SPCs prioritize service over leadership. By serving others, you earn the privilege of leading people that are on transformative journeys.
Coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, "Servant Leadership” advocates that the main goal of a leader is to serve. To be a valuable Servant Leader and SPC in a SAFe Transformation, you want to support people in producing measurable outcomes. Start by listening to teams, trains and stakeholders and focusing on their needs. Help ARTs to develop so that they constantly improve and perform at the highest sustainable level.
If you want to be a great SPC, then serve others in your words and actions. Roll up your sleeves and model behaviors for specific roles like Release Train Engineer, Product Owner or Scrum Master. Modeling these roles builds credibility with members of the Train and also allows you to walk in the shoes of those you are trying to serve.
3. Be a Value Deliverer
Since the major goal of SAFe is to deliver value (see the SAFe House of Lean on the right), the greatest SPCs focus on the facilitation of value delivery by teams and trains. To be great, you need to constantly be thinking of how to facilitate the delivery of Business Value (i.e., real, measurable products) to the organization that you’re serving.
Value is in the eye of the stakeholders. In order to deliver the right kind of value, desired outcomes must be agreed upon as the Agile Release Train (ART) is launched and progresses from Program Increment to Program Increment (PI). Product Management and key stakeholders should see a track record of results produced by each ART that aligns to their priorities.
Through coaching, training and mentorship, you can help facilitate true value delivery. Gently guide your ARTs to the realization that the SAFe principles and practices are designed to support more efficient and predictable value delivery with higher built-in quality.
4. Be a Teacher/Trainer
Some SPCs specialize in teaching or training other Agilists. Some SPCs alternate between delivery and teaching, depending on the needs of the ARTs. Regardless of who, how much, or how often you teach, prepare yourself to be the most versatile teacher you can be.
The greatest SPCs can instruct and inspire Lean-Agile leaders, RTEs, SMs, PM/POs, development team members, executives, stakeholders, and novices. Stay ahead by keeping current on the latest release of the Framework and enable yourself to teach the courses that are needed by the ARTs that your serve.
Part of the privilege of being an SPC is that you have an abundance of learning resources from Scaled Agile. You can complete Course Delivery Enablement (CDE) online and pass an exam that allows you to teach the course. However, if you’re feeling some uncertainty about the subject matter, I suggest taking a public course and getting certified that way. Watching another deeply experienced SPC or SPCT teach can be an amazing learning experience—you can hear real world examples, gather stories, network, and pick up a teaching trick or two.
Want some immediate pointers on how to be a better SAFe teacher? Check out 10 Teaching Tips for Your First SAFe Classes by Randy Smith and Scott Green. These suggestions are like a checklist to help you prepare for any of your upcoming SAFe classes.
Teaching Agile practices is important for SPCs, but remember that the greatest SPCs ensure that the principles supporting the practices are valued more. This should be emphasized directly and indirectly as you teach and coach.
5. Be a Coach
To be a great SPC and coach, you must model the behavior that you expect teams to adopt. Sure, coaching is about motivating and guiding your teams, but the coaching role expands far beyond that. According to Lyssa Adkins, “Agile coaching is more about who you are and what behaviors you model than it is about any specific technique or idea you bring to the team.” She provides the following rough estimate: “…agile coaching is 40% doing and 60% being.”
As a Coach, your and your teams’ success depends on HOW you coach. According to Daniel Goleman, author of the best-selling book Emotional Intelligence, self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills distinguish truly effective leaders. Even if the SAFe practices and processes are done right by your teams and Trains, if you fail to drive emotions in the right direction, then nothing will work as well as it could. So brush up on your emotional intelligence! Show that you’re aware of your behavior, avoid being an autocrat, and demonstrate humor and positivity. This will cause you and those around you to excel.
If you are a great coach, then your role as an SPC will most likely expand over time. You may be asked to provide advice to other SPCs or members of current and/or future ARTs. Prepare yourself to share leading practices and respond to questions regarding the “best” way to do something. Also be prepared to respond to challenges to the framework, with questioners seeking to optimize local results without considering the impact to the larger system.
6. Be a Public Speaker
Being a great SPC calls for a great deal of public speaking! You will likely be called on to lead group discussions, facilitate PI Planning events, educate senior leaders, and present at meet-ups or gatherings. If you haven’t already, then it’s a good idea to sharpen those communication skills.
If public speaking does not come naturally to you (and it doesn’t with most), then seize opportunities to practice by participating in a public speaking group or your local Toastmasters club. Toastmasters has helped many great SPCs build confidence. As you practice in front of a supportive group and gather constructive feedback, you will develop influential public speaking and leadership skills.
Also remember that public speaking is about more than sounding convincing and smart. It’s also about bringing social awareness to the table—can you read a room? Are you empathetic towards those you are interacting with? You are trying to build trust and connection with those you work with, so constant communication, transparency, and openness are required.
7. Be a Lifelong Learner
The Scaled Agile Framework is constantly evolving. As a practitioner, you must also evolve, not just learning about the latest SAFe updates, but also taking on challenges and sharing resolutions with others who may be on similar journeys.
The greatest SPCs stock their physical and electronic bookshelves with the works of Dean Leffingwell, Don Reinertsen, Gene Kim, Lyssa Adkins and others. If you’re looking to stay current, check out Scaled Agile’s Recommended Reading List. This (evolving!) list of 10 books are considered to be the most relevant and important to SAFe’s underlying principles and values. As the pace of change quickens, the pace of our personal evolution must also accelerate, and these works enable us to expand our minds and prepare for future challenges.
As Agile organizations mature, previously advanced topics like Lean Portfolio Management, DevOps and Business Agility have become the water-cooler talk of today. You will need to know these concepts as you continue to embrace a Lean-Agile mindset and as you teach, train, and coach others.
As you may have gathered while reading this article, the seven dimensions are not mutually exclusive—each overlaps and builds on the others. As you improve your skills in one dimension, you are likely to improve your skills in another. While this makes it easier to become a great SPC, keep in mind that very few SPCs have arrived at the pinnacle of all of these dimensions. In true SAFe fashion, we must all practice continuous reflection and relentless improvement.
Are you an SPC with proven experience leading and transforming large groups of people? You may have what it takes to be an ICON Coach.
Written by John H. Thompson
John is a results-oriented, MBA-trained business management leader with 20+ years of business, consulting, and Agile coaching experience. He has been an SPC since 2015 (SA since 2014) and has employed SAFe to coach Executives, Program Leadership, Scrum Masters, Product Management, and diverse technical teams, helping them make transformational change from traditional waterfall-oriented approaches to Agile and SAFe delivery practices and principles. His efforts have resulted in improved program alignment, higher velocity of work delivered, and quicker responses to customer requests. His broad skills were gained through sound Fortune 100/500 industry experience and delivering multi-million dollar Enterprise Performance Management (EPM) and Business Intelligence solutions. He has balanced experience in coaching, consulting, program/project management, and systems development and has also co-authored several Agile Boot Camp courses. John enjoys playing Jazz, Gospel, and virtually any kind of music on his Alto or Tenor sax. He also loves travel and photography.