Agile with SAFe: How Can a Real Transformation Be Achieved Successfully?

Detecon Gold has been a partner of Scaled Agile Inc., the provider of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), since September 2020. Today, more than 70 percent of the Fortune 100 companies as well as more and more large European companies rely on SAFe to build structured and sustainable agile organizations. Still, the discrepancy between wish and reality often remains great. This is no less true when it comes to the subject of agility. During preparation of its Future Organization Report 2019, the Institute for Business Informatics at the University of St. Gallen asked companies (among other points) whether they used agile methods. The majority said yes, but at the same time admitted that an agile mindset was often not yet firmly anchored in the minds of employees and in the organizational culture. Marcus Heuser and Michael Spiller, Detecon consultants and experts for agile organizations, believe that one reason for this is the wrong approach during the introduction of agile methods. This is not just a simple matter of flipping a switch to change from a classic, hierarchical corporate organization into an agile one.

The results of the St. Gallen study are rather sobering. Haven’t companies long since made greater progress along the road to enhanced agility?

Marcus Heuser: First of all, you should be careful about looking at the results of only one study. There are in the meantime innumerable studies on agility, scrum, or kanban. And what strikes me is how much the results differ. Thanks to our practice as consultants in agility projects, we can confirm the results of a Kienbaum-Stepstone study called Agile Companies from February 2020; it reveals that fewer than 10 percent of German companies are truly agile. One good point is that more than two-thirds of managers and over half of specialists are familiar with at least one agile method. That's a start.

If you consider the hype surrounding the topic of agility, however, which has become even more pronounced during the coronavirus crisis, you might think that agility has long since become standard. Why are companies still lagging?

Michael Spiller: Because there is a huge difference between launching one or two agile projects in a company and changing the entire organization over to agile methods. Agility represents a profound departure for companies that have been classically structured for decades and in which there are managers who know nothing other than the previous hierarchical understanding of roles, including a management philosophy based on instruction and control. During the conversion, it quickly becomes clear that a fundamental change of the entire organization is required, including a change in the way managers and employees at all levels think. It is not enough to just pick out a project, put together a team, and then tell them: “Please make this all agile somehow.” You might get away with that once. But the probability is high that this type of approach will fail. Major reasons for failure are the fear of loss of power often felt by managers as well as the belief that money can be saved by carrying out this type of transformation in abbreviated form. Nothing could be farther from the truth; it’s about less hierarchy, not less leadership and structure. On the contrary, agile organizations need strong leadership in the form of servant leadership and the transformation must result in clear structures; otherwise, people run off blindly in all directions and the business collapses.

But how should companies proceed if they want to become more agile?

Michael Spiller: You can’t be a just a little bit agile. This is nothing less than the transformation of an existing classic organization into an agile organization, the implementation of a completely new operating model. Once the first steps have been taken – in a test project, for example – it quickly becomes clear that the full potential will be realized solely if agility is introduced company-wide. Taking a self-designed approach to scaling often leads to cherry-picking of agile principles and methods, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Marcus Heuser: No one should ever ignore the experience of other companies that have already successfully implemented agility and fed the knowledge gained back into agile frameworks. We are fully convinced – and practice confirms this – that the world’s best-known framework for agile scaling, the Scaled Agile Framework (abbreviated as SAFe), is also the best one available. According to an academic study from the University of Koblenz that appeared in May 2020, more than half of the more than 600 respondents use SAFe. However, just over one-third of them uses any framework at all.

What are the advantages of using a framework?

Marcus Heuser: SAFe is a comprehensive and clearly structured toolbox that is continuously evolving. Since SAFe is already being used successfully in many companies worldwide and Scaled Agile Inc. feeds experience back into the framework, the risk of failure of an agile transformation is minimized. The framework consists of a set of basic principles, processes, and best practices that can be used to introduce agile methods throughout the organization. The focus is not on the implementation of a single, small agile project. The structure has been designed for the conduct of complex projects, programs, or entire business divisions where a large number of agile teams work together productively on different levels. The Scaled Agile Framework addresses several core competencies that make an organization agile. Among other aspects, it speaks to managers with a lean agile leadership approach, because only they are in a position to drive change, and the transformation must also have their support. There must be certain skills within a team, and lean and agile methods must be applied. The teams need a methodological approach that is more generally oriented towards development work. And lean portfolio management that blends a coherent corporate strategy with relevant financial considerations, portfolio management, and compliance aspects is also required. These elements constitute the foundation that ensures the success of agile transformation with the Scaled Agile Framework.

Detecon has been a Scaled Agile Gold Partner since September 2020, one of the few in Germany. How do clients benefit from this?

Michael Spiller: First of all, this partnership – for which we had to meet extensive qualifications – authorizes us to introduce the framework to clients more holistically than in the past. We were required to have a specified number of experts for the introduction of SAFe, so-called SAFe program consultants, who work at all of Detecon’s international locations. We are now allowed to offer worldwide both project-related and general training programs from a comprehensive training portfolio, and as we are trusted advisors for large transformation projects, the quality of our experience has been verified by Scaled Agile Inc. In the meantime, we have carried out major SAFe implementation projects for companies in sectors such as automotive, logistics, energy, public administration, and telecommunications.

What concrete advantages does SAFe offer companies? Just being agile is surely not enough.

Michael Spiller: At Deutsche Telekom, for example, we were able to introduce successfully SAFe in several areas, and based on this experience, Telekom is now rolling out SAFe throughout the entire company. The time-to-market of products has been significantly and verifiably accelerated in the Telekom divisions in which we have introduced SAFe. But faster time-to-market is only one of the goals that a company can set for itself. Other businesses may have a quality problem. Here, too, SAFe can help to improve quality with the aid of agile methods.

Why is making a company more agile so complicated?

Marcus Heuser: Because the first step is to understand in the first place why a company should change the way it works. Gaining this insight requires managers to take a critical look at their current situation. Who is happy to admit that things could be better in some areas of his own company? Perhaps you discover that the development of your own products is out of synch with customer requirements or that they are introduced to the market too late or that they are of poor quality. But people who refuse to acknowledge such truths will see no reason to change how their own organization works.

But agile work affects not only managers, right?

Marcus Heuser: It requires a fundamental change in culture and consequently affects all employees. The hierarchy is turned completely on its head. Those who previously simply carried out instructions are now expected to exercise decision-making competence. They are supposed to contribute proposals for solutions, identify problems. This is new territory for many. And managers must be able to trust the people working for them and give them free rein. In other words, the mentality within the organization must be the first thing to change.

Michael Spiller: If this transformation does not take place and there is no intrinsic motivation, even SAFe will not do any good. SAFe provides structure, offers checklists, shows how teams should be staffed, and what roles must be filled. But SAFe does not change the way people think per se. This revolution in thinking processes must occur during the transformation; otherwise, a company using SAFe will be no more agile than before.

Are the expectations for agility not too high? Agility alone cannot turn a molehill into a mountain.

Marcus Heuser: We repeatedly determine that people have the wrong idea about agility. Often enough, this comes about because management wants to turn economic principles on their head. What management really wants is to accomplish more with fewer people in the shortest possible time. This can also be a goal, but it must be a very, very long-term goal. First and foremost, you have to deal with the transformation. Operational development follows at a later time. This takes time, but management is often impatient. After a couple of weeks, executives start asking questions. What have you achieved? What KPIs have you been able to improve? When the reply is that we have made substantial progress in the transformation, managers are often left feeling unsatisfied. That is when the transformation toward more agility fails.

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