10 Tips for Putting People First in SAFe

The Scaled Agile Framework® (pronounced SAFe) and scaling in general were two of the most widely discussed and hotly debated subjects of 2013 in the agile community. Questions like, “How should we scale agile?”, “Should we even attempt to scale at all?”, “What is with all this process?”, and “Where are the people in all of this?” were frequently heard.

These are expected questions from a community born on the idea of “individuals and interactions over process and tools.” And all of these are valid questions worthy of continued exploration. Admittedly, I shared similar questions and concerns upon first looking into SAFe.

So, as an agile coach, I decided to give empiricism a shot when it came to SAFe. That is, I wanted to experience it and see for myself.

What I’ve found thus far is a framework that can be used well to great benefit or can be misused (most often unintentionally). In that sense, it is like any other framework or tool – the results are ultimately in the hands of those who wield it. Granted, the enterprise scope of the framework could lure the less experienced into a focus on process minutiae thereby forgetting about “individuals and interactions”. For me, though, striking a balance between people’s needs and “just enough process” to accomplish enterprise-wide goals has not been difficult with SAFe.

With that in mind I would like to share some of the techniques I have found helpful as a coach for putting people, their needs and interactions, first in SAFe. My focus here will center on SAFe’s release planning event as it is the primary mechanism for achieving alignment of people and teams to a common delivery goal and is at the heart of SAFe. However, many of these techniques are applicable beyond the release planning event.

1.  Team Preparation is Key

Helping people and teams be successful with SAFe starts with helping them prepare prior to their first release planning event. Two days may seem like a lot of time for release planning, but in actuality, with multiple teams collaborating on a release plan, two days passes quickly. Help teams prepare then by ensuring they have a solid understanding of the program backlog of features, have started breaking down their features into user stories and have estimated their user stories prior to the event.

2.  Establish a Supportive Environment

Help people focus, collaborate and be successful by creating an environment that supports these goals. Start by engaging management to help everyone clear his or her calendar for the two-day event.  Next, don’t book conference rooms without first reviewing them in person. Are they large enough? Do they have enough wall space, proper lighting, tables and chairs, power outlets, etc.? Finally, provide all of the supplies people will need – big stickies, small stickies, colored sharpies, planning poker cards, and more. (Bonus Tip: the day-to-day team workspaces are supportive environments too, right?).

3. Don’t Miss the Forest for the Trees

Watch out for the trap of “getting it right” when it comes to using SAFe and the recommended process and practices. While all of the SAFe materials are valuable and rooted firmly in lean and agile thinking, the point in release planning is to help people and teams align around a common delivery goal for the next two-three months. The larger point is to help people deliver working, valuable software. So use what works. Know your context, tailor your approach accordingly, and inspect and adapt. And if you do tailor things, share with the SAFe community what you’ve been learning.  Oh, and don’t worry – in my experience, there are no “SAFe gods” that will brandish you a SAFe heretic for experimenting and learning.

4.  Feed Them and They Will Come

Take the time to break bread together. When release planning, help people by providing food for them throughout the two-day event. Free food, especially when provided by the management team, never fails to perk people up just a bit and help them feel appreciated. Additionally, bringing food in will help teams that may need some extra time in their breakout sessions.

5.  Emphasize Safety

This tip is particularly important for teams in their first release planning event. As people are learning, they need to hear a clear message from management at the beginning of the event that they are safe to try this new process, safe to make mistakes, safe to learn. Additionally, ensure management is involved and engaged throughout the whole event, not just the management-specific sessions, as this will help the teams feel like they are supported and that management is in it with them. Beyond release planning, be sure to explore the related topic of Tech Safety.

6.  Use Powerful Questions

Given the timebox for the release planning event and each session within, it can often be tempting to ask teams “yes/no” questions and to answer all of their questions directly so they can move forward quickly. Don’t miss out on opportunities to coach with Powerful Questions though. You want to encourage people to answer questions for themselves when they can. This will help them reduce their dependency on coaching experts, as well as begin owning the process for themselves.

7.  Encourage Observing

A two-day release planning event that pulls together so many people and teams will be noticed by others in the organization and will intrigue them. Encourage their attendance. Invite them to observe and learn. Not only does this model transparency, but you will also have the opportunity to learn about other aspects of the organization that may be valuable in your planning and execution. Be sure to introduce observers to the teams during the initial welcome on the first day and don’t forget to set some boundaries for observers too. If you’re not careful, they can inadvertently disrupt the flow of the event.

8.  Pull Away From the Machines

Spreadsheets, E-mail, documents, IM…tools!  The glow of the laptop screen beckons us all. As it sucks us in though, our communication and collaboration can begin to suffer. So temporarily put away the laptop, pull out the stickies and sharpies, say hello to the person next to you, and start painting the wall with meaningful data and release plans. Later, when you present your team’s plan to the wider audience, everyone can “walk the wall” to quickly observe and understand your proposed plan. And if you are using tools, I recommend updating these at the end of each day.

9.  Pair up as Coaches

When teams are new to agile and SAFe, it is not uncommon for one of them to struggle during their release planning breakout sessions, especially if they are a newly formed team. In these situations, I have found Pair Coaching to be helpful. The different styles and skillsets of the coaches can help a struggling team see things differently and find their path to a completed release plan. But don’t wait for a struggling team to start pairing. Consider pairing and moving around from team to team. This provides the pairing benefits to teams, plus it allows teams time to self-organize and work without the all-too-easily-referenced expert in the room.

10. Have Fun!

Bringing so many people together to plan for two days adds a level of seriousness to the event. And if people are new to agile and SAFe, they will be all the more serious in their efforts to “do it right”. So help them by bringing some balance to things and finding ways to have fun! Laugh at your mistakes, smile, joke with each other, show some enthusiasm and excitement, and add random gimmicks into the event like cowbells or random cardboard cutout figures. Whatever works in your context, use it to let people know it’s ok to have fun.

Again, these are just some of the techniques I have been using. A more exhaustive list could be written. Have you been exploring SAFe too? What have you found when it comes to individuals and interactions in SAFe? I would love to hear about your struggles and successes and continue the conversation. Comment here or find me @joshfruit on twitter.


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