Somewhere in the basement of an ambitious yet innovative American tech company, project ‘PURPLE’ was in full swing. With just a trickle of engineers, all handpicked by the CEO himself, the project was such a high secret venture, that every team member was literally frisked every single time they entered or exited the project premises. They were not allowed to talk about it, let alone to the public but not even to a member of family.
So why was this so important to the CEO and the company? We probably would never really know what was running through his mind at that point of time but on hindsight, we can guess that deep down the CEO knew that the product was about to revolutionise the world. Deep down, either knowingly or unknowingly a clear roadmap for the next generation product vision was being established.
The CEO was Steve Jobs and the product was none other than the first generation ‘iPhone’. What started as an enhancement for an iPod went a long way in setting up the roadmap for today’s modern world smartphones.
As exaggerated, as it may seem, it is still very relevant to the topic we will be exploring here today – the SAFe® implementation roadmap. In simple terms, if your organization is like a mountainous region of the Himalayas, then you would want to use the SAFe implementation as the ‘Sherpa’ to guide you to reach Mount Everest.
SAFe Implementation Roadmap - Overview
We all are well aware, that SAFe is a way of taking any iterative Agile ways of working (normally restricted to a few teams) and scaling it up at various levels of the organization, whilst applying a mindset of Lean manufacturing.
Considering the implementation of SAFe is a major decision for any organisation and should not be taken lightly, it will involve a significant amount of effort, training time and of course cost. Understanding SAFe can be tricky, but understanding it is a must. At the end of the day, if you want to do something, you would want to do it correctly, wouldn’t you?
My suggestion would be simple. If you want to implement SAFe please go ahead, but do not rush it. Take it one step at a time, follow the SAFe implementation roadmap. This roadmap (depicted in the diagram below) is a very useful strategy and charts out some critical moves which are needed in order to achieve organizational change.
1. Why is it required?
It basically describes the steps, or as Dan and Chip Heath call it the ‘critical moves,’ that an enterprise will have to take, in order to implement SAFe in a successful, reliable, and orderly fashion. One can’t go too far into their SAFe adoption without following these critical steps as not only does the roadmap provide you with a safety net of proven techniques, it also makes your transformation journey that much more enjoyable.
2. This is Why Your Agile Transformation is Failing
While we will discuss in detail as to why the roadmap is a necessity, it is also important to understand some of the stumbling blocks which we need to be wary of before beginning the transformation. Let’s look at a few common pitfalls that organisations will need to tackle.
- Hierarchical way of leadership: Lack of commitment by higher management, possibly due to organizational culture or fear of failure, is a big setback for the agile transformation. The teams should be motivated and encouraged to learn and practice to excel so people are not always in a ‘survival mode’ setting. Various reasons like ego clashes, miscommunication, lack of ownership etc. are a classic recipe for failure.
- Trying to swim before you float: In swimming, the most basic technique beginners are taught is ‘how to stay afloat in water’. It is essential to get the basics right and try achieving one thing at a time, rather than putting your feet into too many things and thereby sinking. For e.g try to implement the approach in one pilot program, prove that it works successfully and then radiate it across other programs.
- Lack of common sense: Things can’t be changed overnight, the sooner this is realised the better it is. Agile/Lean will fail if it cannot coexist with more traditional parts of an organisation, especially in big enterprises. There must be a transition period where you learn technical practices that will help you overcome some of the traditional/legacy challenges eventually.
- Synthetic Transformation: An idea for change may have been accepted in general but eventually the team will need to grasp an understanding of why they are doing that practice. Otherwise, it won't necessarily be that practice that gets them in trouble but their lack of fundamental understanding, which will cause them problems, or at least expose their lack of innovation or adoption of emerging new practices.
- Running out of gas: Keeping the transformation moving with a sustainable pace is another challenging ask. This is where you need to make sure that you have the right set of change agents (like SPCs) who can keep echoing the need for change and be the catalyst who can continue the movement required for a large-scale transformation.
What are the steps of a successful SAFe Implementation Roadmap?
While the Scaled Agile framework team recognises that not all transformations will be fail-proof, they have charted out a 12-step guide, which recommends a path to the roadmap journey, backed by the fact that successful implementations will always have something in common. Let's go through the steps in a bit more detail.
1. Step-by-step explanation
- Reaching the Tipping Point - Organizations at some point will arrive at a situation where an overwhelming necessity for change will be felt. There could be many reasons but the most obvious one would be the fact that they would be constantly struggling to deliver user requirements earlier into the market thereby lagging behind in business trends.
- A ‘burning platform’ as referred by SAFe could be the reason. If not for this reason, a mindset of change may set it when a true visionary is handed over the reins of the organization. A new vision , new targets and early adoption of technical trends in the business cycle could well be the signs to watch out for. This is what is referred to as the tipping point, a catalyst for change.
- Train Lean-Agile Change Agents – Once the vision is set and the ball is rolling, it's important to create a pool of strategic change agents. Agents who can help with the transformation and pull their coaching weight are needed to influence teams and individuals in aligning to the roadmap. Remember, a great SPC would be the one who can guide an organization to balance business agility with predictability; both of which are extremely important to the typical enterprise-scale technology organization.
- Train Executives, Managers, and Leaders It is important for leaders to learn new skills- skills that will help them execute the roadmap strategy through constant and early release of value through their Agile release trains. A clear understanding of the SAFe lean agile principles will help them a long way in achieving their goals.
- Create a Lean-Agile Center of Excellence Referred to as the LACE – Lean Agile centre of excellence, this is nothing but a group of like-minded people who help with implementing the SAFe lean agile ways of working. From a leader’s perspective, getting the right set of people onto LACE will be key to unlocking the fullest of its benefits. The LACE will normally take charge of radiating the vision throughout the organisation, providing training where necessary and also helping with charting the roadmap elements along with the change agents.
- Identify Value Streams and ARTs - Identifying value streams and in turn the related ARTs (Agile release trains) is THE most critical activity for SAFe implementation as this will form the backbone of the roadmap execution. In order to get this right, an organisation would need to spend some quality time in understanding their value streams, which are normally of two types-- operational value streams and development value streams.
Typically, a workshop would be arranged for organisational value stream mapping since this is a critical step in implementation of the SAFe roadmap.
- Create the Implementation Plan – The most important aspect of this step is to try and not get too detailed with your planning. In a true agile fashion, it's important to plan a little for the iteration, execute the same, learn from it and then repeat the exercise. It's all about the inspect and adapt philosophy. This simple yet powerful incremental approach to SAFe implementation will help with the solution development.
- Prepare for ART Launch – Once you have sorted out the above two steps, the next step is to get your ARTs right. Defining an ART aligned to the value stream is important from a change management perspective. In principle the following sub-steps are recommended:
- Define the ART
- Set the launch date and cadence for the program calendar
- Train ART leaders and stakeholders
- Establish the Agile teams
- Train Product Managers and Product Owners (POs)
- Train Scrum Masters
- Train System Architects/Engineers
- Assess and evolve launch readiness
- Prepare the program backlog
- Train Teams and Launch the ART – Well this step is more of moving the parked train out of the station and launching it to carry out the iterative process of enhancing value streams, keeping business agility at its epicentre.
- Coach ART Execution - “Whenever you let up before the job is done, critical momentum can be lost and regression may follow.’ – John Kotter, Leading Change.
The trains are all set now to deliver value incrementally but mere knowledge is not understanding. It takes a few iterations, and a few PIs before the train can stabilize. This is where SPCs (SAFe Program consultants) will be key to ensure that significant effort is put in to constantly coach the ARTs of the intended value delivery. This will help organisations to tap into the core potentials and purposes of the ARTs rather than just scratching their surface.
A successful ART will have a culture to
- Continuously explore – the vision, roadmap, backlog and architectural runways in order to respond to the market in a timely fashion
- Continuously Integrate – To inspect and adapt from system increments
- Continuously deploy – To deliver faster and be ready for release when the market needs it.
- Launch More ARTs and Value Streams – This is the step that represents the largest amount of work that will be pulled into the roadmap. It requires persistent leadership guiding the organization towards a cultural shift inducing new values and norms aligning with the sole purpose and vision of the SAFe implementation roadmap.
Once an ART on a particular value stream has proved successful and shows positive returns, just take that working concept and apply it on similar value streams, include more ARTs. Only by scaling up will the organisation achieve faster time-to-market, improved productivity, and increased employee engagement. As a checklist though, the SAFe Implementation Railway Kanban can be used to determine the readiness of launching subsequent ARTs.
- Extend to the Portfolio – Once it's proven that multiple ARTs are running successfully, its time then to apply it at a portfolio level (using Portfolio level SAFe process) with the added guidance of the Lean Portfolio management function. This is where we would need to start aligning value streams with the enterprise strategy and thereby establishing enterprise value flows. Fostering a leaner approach to supplier and customer relationships will go a long way in ensuring tactical business strategy solutions.
- Accelerate – This last step is basically to ensure that you are set up to build on your benefits. Start understanding where you are in terms of achieving business agility. Multiple assessments are available to help quantify this, provide options to enhance and reap in more profits by improving your business agility.
What are the benefits of an implementation roadmap?
The benefits of referring to the SAFe implementation roadmap are far reaching. Although it's not the magic wand you are looking for, it does give you a head start with your SAFe adoption. It's like putting the right step forward.
- Bird’s eye view of the mission, vision and goals
- Identifying and Scripting the critical moves
- Achieving organisational change organically
- Sustaining enterprise-wide growth and transformation
- Achieving a measurable business agility
Any major decision like whether to or not to implement SAFe is almost likely to be very contextual. I am sure the adoption of SAFe by virtue of its SAFe implementation road map will help organizations reap the benefits in the longer term, in its race to achieve a sustainable business agility formula.
However, the key would be in trying to understand and measure what impact it is resulting in, and measuring some of the key aspects & business outcomes (like cycle time, release frequency, NPS, key business metrices like customer retention etc.) will be critical along with the adoption of SAFe.
Remember, similar to Apple’s roadmap for powerful handheld devices, the SAFe implementation roadmap will guide your organisation to reap the benefits and lay out strong foundations for the future of scaling agile at enterprise levels.