Understanding Agile as a Cycle

May 28, 2020

About a year ago, Marty Cagan, founder of svpg.com, posted an article saying that companies using the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe) and other scaling frameworks were just utilizing these frameworks as another attempt to command and control. Although Cagan admitted to not knowing much about SAFe, he claimed that it was just a metaphor for doing it wrong.

At the time, I was upset that a leading thinker in the areas of product development and customer focus had called out SAFe. I have used SAFe successfully at multiple Silicon Valley product companies to improve customer focus and connections to teams. However, I also had a deeper, quiet agreement with what he said. A lot of people were doing SAFe wrong, and Cagan had likely seen or heard of one of these “Cargo Cult” implementations.

I think there is an interesting pattern emerging in agile and SAFe today, seen in part by Marty Cagan but commented more deeply by Oliver Staley in his article, “Whatever Happened to Six Sigma?” published September 3, 2019.

Staley points out that while Six Sigma was a solid model for manufacturing quality excellence, it also caused third-party partners to twist and certify anyone with a check, ending in a lack of results and causing the marketplace to turn away. “The merchants of Six Sigma wanted to keep expanding the market,” and so it was oversold, causing an over-expansion and decline in the use and importance of Six Sigma.

This decline was also rooted in the removal of the quality problem in American manufacturing. Instead, the shift and increase in software problems began to drive the marketplace. Today, companies are rightly turning to software process improvement.

Back to Marty Cagan, who sees companies using scaling frameworks without customer connection and engagement. Are these truly SAFe implementations, or individuals and systems attempting to label and mimic something they don’t understand as Agile, or “Cargo Cult” implementations? In reality, many of these people do not believe or even understand these frameworks or the principles behind them. They are simply driven to implement something that looks like a framework in order to gain conformity or short term rewards for their behavior. To me, this is a symptom of deeper questions about the nature of business cycles:

  • Has SAFe begun an over-expansion period, where total assimilation will cause incorrect and destructive systems to label themselves as SAFe?
  • Will the strategy of making money overtake the core values of SAFe and create a decline in success, as waterfall systems label themselves SAFe or Agile?

And the biggest question of all:

  • Have we as a company taken everything we can from SAFe and removed software issues from driving our marketplace?

I believe we still have work to do and minds to change.

Want to know what the most common anti-pattern in SAFe implementations today?

Written by Scott Green


Scott has over 20 years of experience in implementing process improvement within Software Development companies. His foundations in Agile, eXtreme Programming (XP), and Scrum have enabled him to deliver products and solutions for enterprises around the globe.

He began the exploration of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®) and became an SPC in 2014. Scott specializes in integrating Scrum Teams into larger Agile Release Trains that are focused on Value Delivery, organizational OKRs, and KPIs. Scott has led many SAFe Transformations and enjoys helping large-scale enterprises appreciate transformational benefits including; increased speed to market, improved quality products, and higher employee engagement.