Most of the agile coaches I know are not big fans of Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). The standard claim is that SAFe is just an excuse to keep the old command and control approach to management without letting on. Before continuing, I must admit that I have no experience working in an organization that practices SAFe, so all I have is second-hand experiences.
Having interviewed quite a few agile coaches who have worked in a “SAFe” environment, the hazards are not lost on me. Nonetheless, I decided to revisit the SAFe documentation to find the inherent flaws in the practice.
As I read through the documentation describing the practices, I was reminded of some of the typical abuses of the agile manifesto. For example, “people and communications over tools and process” is an area where I have seen teams run afoul
of the intent. They misconstrue the word “over” to mean “instead of.” Of all the words in that principle “over” would seem to be the least important, but it is actually the most important.
I saw signs of this same thing throughout the SAFe documentation. Seemingly unimportant words are critical. So, when SAFe documentation says, “Enterprise Architects promote adaptive design and engineering practices…” the word “promote” is critical because it doesn’t say “dictate.” There are so many examples of words like “recommends,” “facilitates,” and “coordinates” that can easily go unnoticed in the frenzy for middle managers to maintain their traditional control and authority over the process.
It’s easy to see why large organizations breathed a sigh of
relief when SAFe was introduced. Unfortunately for them, if they practiced SAFe free of shenanigans, they would not be so SAFE (big “E” intentional). Their authority stripped, they would be forced to be servant leaders who are there to support and facilitate teams and otherwise stay out of their way.
SAFe provides a layer of coordination needed in large enterprises which wasn’t well-defined by Scrum. That coordination would manifest itself organically without SAFe, as I have seen for myself in organizations that don’t practice it. But, for those who like a cookie-cutter approach, SAFe is just the medicine. Just don’t skip those little words that make all the difference.