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Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe): when you don’t have the guts to do Scrum
Imagine you are at a birthday party. You walk over to a group of your best friends. You hear them talking and the whole group seems excited.
You join the conversation and listen to them talk about rock climbing. One of your friend says: “For me, the mountain with the most beautiful view in the world has to be El Capitan. Nothing beats the experience of standing up there, hands still hot with exertion, taking a breath of fresh air and enjoying the view of what you conquered.”
All other rock climbers nod in unison and start telling why it’s so magnificent. The top of El Capitan gives you a mesmerizing view over one of the most beautiful parks in the world: Yosemite National Park. Their personal climbing stories are riveting and you become captivated.
Then and there you decide you want to climb El Capitan. It is located in California. You realize the climb will be tough and a lot of practice will be necessary.
Reaching the top of El Capitan is the goal. The purpose of that goal is experience something great while putting one’s experience, stamina and abilities to the test.
You start practicing rock climbing. After heaps of practice you feel like you are ready for the challenge.
You hop on a plane and after a long journey you arrive at the foot of El Capitan. It looks as beautiful and magnificent as you imagined.
You see ‘El Cap’ and start to feel scared. The mountain looks daunting and dwarfs the surrounding landscape. It’s a little bit over two thousand meters tall.
There is no step-by-step path that will bring you to the top. To reach the peak you need to forge your own trail.
While you are pondering the big challenge and unknown path ahead of you, a guy taps on your shoulder.
He says the following:”Hello my friend! I have a helicopter that can fly you to the top of the El Capitan for a good price. Why risk your life? I can bring you there safely. You will be there in less than 5 minutes. We won’t be able to land, but the view will be even better as we will fly from up high over El Cap.”
What would you choose? Would you still climb the mountain or would you take the helicopter?
Scrum is like trying to climb a mountain
A rock climber is lightweight and carries just the bare necessities. If you carry more than you need, it will hinder your rock climbing.
Just like a rock climber, Scrum packs nothing more than the bare necessities. If you need more, it’s up to you to add.
It takes guts to climb a mountain, just like it takes guts to do Scrum. Rock climbing is scary, messy, uncertain and difficult.
There is no step-by-step guide to get to the top. You need to figure the path out as you go along. But if you keep going on that path, the reward of trying to reach the top of the mountain is high.
When you use Scrum, you may never reach the top of the mountain, which represents a high state of agility.
As Gunther Verheyen explains agility:
There is no substitute for hard work. There are no shortcuts. You need to keep chugging along a difficult path to find your own way.
If you don’t take the difficult path, then you won’t reap the rewards of carving your own way and discovering what really works.
SAFe is like flying a helicopter to the top of the mountain
SAFe is like a helicopter. Big, loud, complicated and impressive. It’s very enticing to take the helicopter.
The promise of the helicopter is that you will achieve the same result as climbing a mountain. It offers a shortcut to the top. No need to make life difficult, just hop aboard! We’ve got all the details figured out.
This is the deception of flying with the helicopter. You never really reach the top. You don’t experience the struggle of climbing the mountain and learning from the journey.
By not climbing the mountain you won’t discover and solve the real problems that exist when trying to reach the top.
The helicopter offers a safe way to enjoy the illusion of reaching the top of the mountain. Just like SAFe sells the illusion of agility.
The illusion of agility as coined by Gunther Verheyen:
It is not a transformation if it doesn’t change how you work;
It is not an Agile transformation if it doesn’t simplify how you work;
It is not an Agile transformation of Scrum if it doesn’t increase the actual collaboration of people (customers, teams, stakeholders).
Now let’s just take look at a picture of SAFe for a moment.
SAFe provides a complicated blueprint for changing your organisation. No need to discover your own way, just copy-paste elements from the blueprint.
Granted, there is also a simpler version of SAFe available called ‘Essential’ (pictured below). It still is something complicated you need to do on top of Scrum:
SAFe creates the impression that if you copy-paste this blueprint in your organisation, you will be agile. This is misguided.
You can also copy-paste Scrum in your organisation, without really understanding why. This results in cargo cult or zombie Scrum. All the rituals are performed, but nobody understands why. It is Scrum without a beating heart.
The difference with SAFe is that Scrum is so lightweight that there is almost nothing to copy-paste.
When you copy-paste SAFe, you are introducing a big bloated beast in your organisation. You will try to solve problems you may not even have and introduce unnecessary organisational overhead.
Scrum battles complexity with simplicity. SAFe fights complexity by adding more complexity.
The alternative is to start with something simple like Scrum and figure out what you need by solving problems as they appear. You may even use practices from SAFe, as long as the Scrum Teams choose to adopt those practices to try and see if they will solve problems they are having.
Just don’t start with doing full-blown or essential SAFe. It may be vastly more complicated than what is actually necessary to achieve your goals.
Scrum provides a simple canvas to discover what you need. Scrum does not provide a complicated solution blueprint like SAFe, which is exactly what makes Scrum so powerful, simple and elegant. You only solve problems when you encounter them.
The empiricism that underpins Scrum shows that no blueprint to agility exists. That’s why you need to discover your own way. There are no shortcuts, but Scrum is there to support you in finding the answers you need.
If you don’t have the guts to Scrum, then don’t Scrum
Mountain climbing is scary, messy and uncertain. It takes a lot of effort and practice to do well. It’s understandable that people give up and decide mountain climbing is not for them.
If you are scared of climbing mountains, then don’t go mountain climbing. Please take the helicopter instead.
Feel free to talk about how amazing it was to fly the helicopter, but it will never offer the same experience as climbing El Capitan yourself.
When you want to climb the mountain there are no shortcuts: you need to do the work and figure it out as you go along. There is no blueprint to follow.
People who use Scrum are like rock climbers. We are used to scary, challenging, messy and uncertain problems. It takes guts to face these problems headfirst. We know there are no shortcuts and keep moving towards the top. Very little can be copy-pasted across different organisations.
This is also why many Scrum practitioners believe SAFe is doomed to fail. It is impossible to come up with a blueprint or toolbox that provides a clear path to agility.
There is no substitute for doing hard work. We try to figure out solutions to difficult problems as we go along, using Scrum as a canvas to illuminate the way.
The path to agility is taxing, but well worth the effort. Just like climbing El Capitan.
Special thanks to Willem-Jan Ageling for suggesting to change my rock climbing example from Kilimanjaro to a real one. I also extend my gratitude to Max Heiliger, Paddy Corry, Ansh K and Sjoerd Nijland for their feedback.