People over principles

The last month of my life has been a nosedive into the Scaled Agile Framework, i.e. SAFe, as a new member of the Nitor Delta team. I admit, I was initially suspicious of a systems-thinking heavy framework that gets sold to executives and managers alongside slogans like "only managers can change the system" and "leadership is imparting excellence into the organization".

But the best way to approach SAFe is through the SAFe principles: a list of nine principles which act as a kind of step-by-step logical induction of the Lean-Agile philosophy that underpins SAFe. Through them, I was convinced that correctly applied SAFe is not a tool of control but liberation, and I'm happy to share with you how I came to that conclusion. Below are the nine SAFe principles rewritten to emphasize their ability to distribute authority and agency in your organization. 

1. Use a shared measurement of success

In order to be sustainable and beneficial, everything a business does should be guided by the creation of value in the most effective way. This simple idea should be present in everything an organization strives for: which user pains do we address, when do we launch, how do we organize customer support? An economic view that runs through a system empowers actors to make their case across functions and roles at all levels of an organization and to take initiative in consider the economic impact of their decisions. 

2. Encourage people to look beyond their immediate surroundings

"You need to look beyond the immediate when considering consequences." Such a simple idea that is the root of all thinking in organizations: it's not about your interaction, it's about the team. It's not about your department, it's about the company. it's not about the company, it's about the ecosystem. Systems thinking does not tell you which level you should consider at any decision, just that you're probably looking at it too closely.

3. Allow your people to react to changing conditions

The SAFe principle of "assuming variability" means that you don't want to stop everything and start over when your inputs vary or if the  requirements change over time. In knowledge work, you often don't want to create the exact same thing as before, so you shouldn't aspire to the same predictability of process as a chemical plant. To fully take advantage over this, people should be encouraged not to nail things down before they have to under perceived pressure to "get things done".

4. Insist on completing small things to foster learning

The most commonly  recognized aspect of Agile is completing large undertakings through small tasks. There are  a number of advantages to this approach but to foster learning and a sense of agency, completing small things allows your people to get early feedback on their whole process from end to finish - not just the early planning phases. When iterations go through all phases of delivery, you are not only able to iterate to improve the product, but also allow people to iterate on their process and practices.

5. Set milestones on value delivered

Don't set milestones based on your preconception about how the phases a solution will be developed in. Instead, insist that every iteration be made as a viable solution and measure progress in terms of value delivered - whatever definition of value fits your solution. The team will find the best way to make headway and stakeholders can be involved over the course of development.

6. Visualize everything

Visualizing helps your team focus, handle stress and understand how they work. Increasing flow by setting WIP limits, reducing batch sizes and managing queue lengths is important and useful, but up-to-date visualizations help your team understand what they are doing. Most importantly, the key driver of stress is often not working too hard, it's working with too little visibility.

7. Structure work to build routine and collaboration

SAFe is literally "Agile, but scaled". This is most apparent in teams working in parallel to one another but also in how work is anticipated over "scaled-up" (i.e. long) stretches of time. Having all teams working on cadence creates routines that buffer uncertainty: "'When do we overview work across team?' 'Next IP sprint, in 4 weeks.'" Having all teams and even teams of teams work on the same cadence creates opportunities for cross-team collaboration and problem-solving.

8. Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers

This I didn't have rephrase at all, which makes me even more confident that SAFe has empowerment and respect for people built deep into its core. Instead of monetary incentives to exert control over your team, understand that the teams are already motivated. You only need to overcome the obstacles to their sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose. In best case, you can communicate a clear intention that your teams can pursue under minimal constraints. Good things come to those who allow.

9. Make less decisions

Once you have established and communicated a shared method of evaluating decisions (principle 1) in a system with maximum visibility (principle 2) and awareness (principle 6) where your people can adjust for changing conditions (principle 3), you are the last person who should be making any decisions for these people. And you won't.