The sweet and bitter taste of SAFe

The CEO of Fly4You took another antacid pill and washed it down with the last of his bitter lukewarm coffee.

He harrumphed. The sweet minty taste of the pill, combined with the unpleasant bitterness of the coffee reminded him of his current situation. The promised sweet taste of SAFe and how that was going to enable him to compete in this digitally enabled world – agility at scale – and the bitter reality of it not working, with the resulting loss of business to the competition.

Why wasn’t it working? What can we do to make it work? We cannot afford to fail!

He looked at his performance report. Customer satisfaction is low – with all the errors on the website and in the unwieldy booking systems. Only 50% of business features are deployed on time. IT teams are overloaded with conflicting business priorities and projects, which is not helped by all the rework from errors and feedback from clients. Legacy systems that are more of a chain around the neck than enablers for value chains! And, on top of all of this, resistance to the transformation to new ways of working!

The CEO had read a recent article that explained the state of agile transformations, challenges, and tips. He was shocked to read:

  • 70% of digital transformations fall short of their objectives’ (Poor fit with Strategy)…….That is us thought the CEO!
  • 70% of respondents cited ‘Changing the Culture is their biggest challenge’….That is us again, thought the CEO.
  • 70% do not measure ‘behavior change’ or ‘value and impact’ of their training investments………We do! thought the CEO. We measure how many certificates we have….but NOT the value we are getting in terms of changed behaviors and business outcomes!
  • 70% do NOT have Continual Improvement as a core strategic capability
  • When asked if they ‘measure the actual value realized by new features in their products?’ 72% replied “Rarely”, “Once”, or “Never”……Groan! Thought the CEO.

Is it SAFe to do SAFe?

That is why he and his business and IT directors will be taking part in the Fly4You business simulation. To help identify why Fly4You, an airline company, is struggling, and to explore how to effectively use SAFe to translate ‘Strategy into execution’.

It all sounded so simple when we first adopted SAFe, thought the CEO, but the instrumental, bureaucratic reality was causing internal frustration, strife, damaged reputation, and loss of market share. He popped another antacid tablet into his mouth…..

Do you recognize these CEO challenges and frustrations?

Welcome to the Fly4You business simulation

In this simulation, a team of end-to-end delegates are brought together to explore HOW to scale up and scale out their transformation to new agile ways of working, and to discover how to improve the chance of transformation success by applying SAFe concepts.

This article describes what one team of delegates experienced in a recent simulation and how it relates to what they see in real life. This article also gives insights into common challenges in the market.

In the simulation, the team plays the roles of Business managers, Product manager, Product owners, IT architect, IT team, and RTE (Release Train Engineer) within the fictional Fly4You organization. Their job is to translate the business goals and milestones into working products to achieve the ambitious business outcomes desired by the CEO. However just like reality:

  • There are conflicting business demands and goals from the various business line managers.
  • Too many demands for available resources.
  • The IT organization also needs to make investments to scale up and enable business agility using new technologies, and at the same time manage the quality on ongoing business services.
  • As if this wasn’t enough on top of all this the team has to adopt these new ‘scaled agile ways of working’ causing even more demands on scarce resources.

What happened and how does this relate to reality?

The simulation started with translating the Strategy into Objectives and key results (OKR’s).

It was interesting to see how the discussions quickly became business discussions about ‘Customer journeys’, ‘Customer profiles’, ‘Flight bookings and flight options’ and ‘added value extra services’, and how the IT roles were ignored and marginalized – the team had created an instant ‘them and us’ cultural divide.

When IT joined in the discussion the terminology was ‘CI/CD pipelines’, ‘automated testing’, ‘IT platform teams’, ‘CPU, Bandwidth and storage capacity’, receiving blank stares from the business…..There was a clear mismatch in language, and IT was pushed into an ‘Order taker’ role, rather than as a trusted, strategic advisor and enabler.

It also became clear that the overall business strategy was not known or understood. Different business owners were all trying to defend and prioritize their goals. The fit with the CEO’s strategic ambitions were missing.

The experience matched finding from Industry challenges in the article above:

  • MIT Sloan Management: ‘….Only one-quarter of the managers surveyed could list three of the company’s five strategic priorities. Even worse, one-third of the leaders charged with implementing the company’s strategy could not list even one.’
  • Value Stream management ConsortiumRespondents when asked if they ‘measure the actual value realized by new features in their products?’ 72% replied “Rarely”, “Once”, or “Never”.

The CEO groaned “how can we collaborate and work towards shared goals if we don’t understand the strategy and results we want to realize?”

The team recognized this from reality. It was also a common theme in many of the Industry reports we examined – ‘Strategic fit’!

What else happened in the simulation that reflects reality?

  • …The CEO looked at the Inspect and Adapt board which contained reasons for failure and improvement needs from previous Program iterations (Portfolio releases). The improvements were being ignored as more and more features forced them out of sight and out of mind. “They dissolve over time just like the ant-acid pills only without taking away the bitter taste of failure!” grumbled the CEO.

The team recognized this in reality. It also matches a key industry challenge in the article above. As cited in a McKinsey article How to mess up your agile transformation in 7 easy (mis) steps’ – Misstep number 7 Not infusing experimentation and iteration into the DNA ( Culture.

“Without embedding this as a core capability we will be unable to pivot as industry pressures demand more change and more agility” thought the CEO.

Visualizing the Program Kanban & PI (Program Increment) planning

The business as well as IT posted their features and technical enablers on the board. The amount of work was an eye-opener. But by having visibility into the OKR’s that the team had defined there were now shared insights into priorities, and sudden insights into ‘pet features’!

You may really want this and think that it is a good idea, but how does it support our key results in this PI?’ – a heated discussion occurred. Difficult choices need to be made.

Just like reality!” thought the CEO “we need to ensure we can govern this decision-making, in line with our desired outcomes!”

Another eye-opener was not just the prioritization of features, but insight into risks of NOT prioritizing IT architectural and system enablers (reducing legacy, technical debt, making IT future-ready)

There was a clear recognition from the team of consultants that this is often the case. Too little effort and investment in the IT enablers – or IT barriers – for success.

There is a hidden iceberg of technical debt and legacy that can stop our transformation” thought the CEO. “At least now we have visibility into what this iceberg looks like!”

Strategy to execution Trust & Confidence

The features hung on the board, teams ran off and started filling team backlogs with user stories, the situational awareness was gone, the instruments (Visual board) became out of date and no longer contained information to enable effective decision making. The dependencies were unclear. More invisible rework and incidents were mysteriously taking up team time impacting carefully laid program plans “Maybe we can shut down the Service desk to stop all of these errors coming in” suggested one business manager!

The CEO realized that “situational awareness is key. We cannot make effective business decisions and align scarce resources without this!”

There was little synchronization between teams and Product owners and everybody was proud that their WIP (Work-In-Progress) boards were filled up with user stories, enabler stories, and rework to build features and solve issues (technical debt).

The Inspect and Adapt board with the long-standing impediments were now on the floor….well out of sight and out of mind. “We can’t look at that now, there is no room, besides if we do that we’ll miss our OKR’s”. Said one Product owner.

If we don’t structurally and consciously focus on improving, things will only get worse as demands grow” thought the CEO, “…but allocating resources on improvements means some short-term features and value will be delayed!” ….This was a new bitter reality! The CEO looked at his empty packet of antacid pills.


The CEO asked one of the business managers if the OKR’s were going to be realized in this Program Increment. “I have no idea, I have lost visibility. I am trusting that the teams are doing what is right. That is agile…..trusting and empowering people” smiled the business manager nervously.

The question was raised around Trust.

Do we have confidence and trust that the features will be finished?” asked the CEO. “Give your level of trust 0-5.”

The IT team scored a ‘3’, The RTE asked why?

‘We are full in IT, if anything goes wrong or we get rework, customer feedback or issues occurring we have a risk….we also have no room for learning and improving. We are ‘Feature-Full and Fit-to-Fail!’.

This was also recognized as an issue in reality, lack of synchronization of teams, lack of visibility into dependencies, not limiting work-in-progress – and a lack of effective risk management to highlight these!.

Strategic fit?

The CEO rubbed his throbbing head. “What are the team goals for this iteration?”

A list of features and user stories were named. It was unclear to the CEO how these related back to the OKR’s.

This was another common observation. Goals are mentioned at the start but teams lose focus. They become focused on ‘features’ and the output of work.

There is lack of end-to-end team ownership and focus on outcomes to be achieved” thought the CEO. The ‘why’ questions become so easily lost in the hectic of doing the work.

Making change stick!

In 3 rounds the team had gone back to ‘old ways of doing things’ – driven by time pressure and demands to ‘get things done’ – the focus on governance (situational awareness and effective decision making related to goals) was not embedded into team behaviors. The CEO realized that this required practice, feedback, coaching if we are to embed these new ways of working into ‘the way we do things here’.

“..All of the SAFe ways of working rest on the right mindsets, behaviors and culture!…”

Transfer of Learning

Between simulation rounds, teams had identified and discovered real-life challenges or ‘impediments’ that they recognized in the way SAFe is adopted and used. New insights were gained and a powerful dialogue was enabled. An end of day flip-chart represented their own ‘Inspect and Adapt’ board:

  • The need to improve Business involvement in shaping strategy and OKR’s
  • Ensure a consistent alignment between Strategy, strategic themes, portfolio, and backlogs
  • Outcome-driven instead of Feature-driven
  • Prioritization and reprioritization (uncertainty and surprise) of features AND enablers
  • Governance – dealing with conflicting priorities and scarce resources
  • Making Continual learning and improvement a core capability
  • Synchronizing teams
  • Reserve time in the backlog for learning and improving
  • The need to prioritize System enablers – Platforms, legacy architecture
  • Measuring – Not just Velocity, but also the quality and OKR’s
  • Fostering a culture of true collaboration – effective communication, decision making, saying ‘stop’ when we see things are not working.

The question is, will the real-life ‘Inspect and Adapt’ board be embedded into new ways of working, or will it be dissolved and pushed under the table as the bitter reality of feature demands drive short-term goal focus, rather than building long-term, sustainable, strategic capabilities.

“SAFe gives us the instruments and guidance” thought the CEO, “but it is collaborative behaviors that bring it to life, driven by shared, owned goals”.

Which of these challenges do you recognize?

Which stakeholders from your organization need to be confronted with these challenges?

If you want to know more about Fly4You, click here.

DASA, DevOps