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Doing the Heavy Lifting of Agility

I was talking with an acquaintance yesterday evening. He works for an undisclosed automaker that is amid a SAFe Agile Transformation. He complained about their many problems and how the Transformation is doing little to address them.

I realized that invoking a new set of business processes and methodologies has little to do with technical issues. Ultimately, being agile requires the technical infrastructure to support it. Rearranging how teams get organized, and function is, at best, the price of admission.

Large corporations typically have large elaborate systems -- systems built over decades. The task of tearing them down is daunting. Corporate bureaucracies are notoriously slow. They are designed with checks and balances to minimize expensive mistakes. Because of this slowness, making significant, far-reaching decisions has been the better option. A typical example is implementing an Oracle or SAP enterprise resource planning system.

These monolithic systems have massive switching costs and are slow to evolve by modern standards. Corporations see the incredible results of newer giants like Google and Spotify and want to be like them. Unfortunately, whereas those examples started with contemporary thinking about systems architecture, older corporations must transform.

To deliver customer value faster, better, and cheaper, the underlying technology architecture of the product must change -- often radically! SAFe, or any Agile practice, is a means to this end. Leaders need to pay more attention to this vital point. Too often, they use SAFe to feel like they are striving for the extraordinary advantages of firms that have successfully implemented Agile practices.

However, if they stand in the way of fundamental architectural changes because they are “too expensive” or “too risky,” they miss the point. Leaders use SAFe to hold onto decision-making power when they should be letting it go.

Team autonomy and decision-making propel agility. When SAFe is used to enable these attributes, it is a force for positive change. The progenitors of SAFe may have intended for it to be a toolbox of practices that will allow agility at scale, but the cottage industry built around it maintains the status quo. Gatekeepers get to keep their decision-making power.

With their history of command-and-control authority and SAFe, they pretend they are transforming, but the baby is stillborn without the heavy lifting of technical architecture change. Agile practices minimize the chaos of such extensive changes but make no mistake; there will be chaos. Leaders without the stomach for risk and its associated failures block the lifeblood of Agility.

Properly implemented Agile practices make fundamental changes possible. Leaders must learn to support foundational changes to reap benefits. It takes courage, persistence, and willpower. SAFe or any other Agile practice cannot substitute.

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