I started writing this post as a gut reaction to the style of the language I found in SAFe – https://www.scaledagileframework.com/ as I have been trying to learn what I can, and I find connecting/comparing new things to stuff I already know to be an effective memory aid.
I’ve spent the last few weeks dipping in and out of SAFe – my current employer has adopted it “in a big way” and as it’s one of the few agile scaling frameworks that I know relatively little about, I figured I might as well see what the fuss is about.
Disclaimer: I’ve known about SAFe for a while now, and the early versions were shall we say, “limited” in my opinion. But SAFe’s had a lot of content updates over the years, and having listened to a few SAFe people talk/defend SAFe, some of their language reminded me of some of the things the RUP lot were trying to say as they tried to explain RUP to a hostile audience.
I’ve mostly structured the comparison along different abstraction levels
The Strategic Lens
SAFe: Business Canvas, Portfolios and Budgets
SAFe borrows heavily from Lean thinking and uses a Business Canvas (extended to become a Portfolio Canvas, but the underlying concept is the same) as well as thoughts on Lean budgets for Value Streams. These are wrapped up in some structured guidance, using McKinsey’s Horizon Model and support mechanisms & tools for SAFe Consultants. I’d expect senior management to be comfortable with this degree of “formality” and structure.
DAD: Disciplined Agile Enterprise
DAD is far lighter in it’s approach to guidance. There’s an underlying assumption that organisations are more sophisticated than simplistic models could describe, and so it’s more appropriate to provide thoughts and principles for the major Departments (e.g. HR, Sales, Finance etc) to be used as the client organisation sees fit. The lack of significant cross-organisation structure will require greater experience from an Organisation’s Agile Consultants to be able to evolve these Departments to being more compatible with an Agile Mindset.
The IT Delivery Organisation
SAFe: Managing Change
SAFe has a lot of content all focused on “managing the environment”. From role titles (“Product Management”, “Solution Management”, “Lean Portfolio Management”), standardisation instructions across teams within a bounded context (e.g. all user stories are sized relative to the same baseline story for all teams) as well as a structured model for requirements (Epics -> Capabilities -> Features -> Stories), the sense I’m getting from the SAFe guidance is that of Management / Senior Leadership setting boundaries to operate within. This is much more closely aligned (at least when looking at the narrative) with most organisations. The overall SAFe diagram also has a very structured feel to it:
That suggests to me that there’s a general feeling that changes are optional – that you can say “no”, or at least “not yet”. At least for some types / categories of change. What’s interesting to me is this is a managerial style of thinking – “I will make a decision”.
DAD: Goal Driven
DAD has a different feel when navigated. A lot of the content is structured around “Process Goals” and the various options that could be chosen in order to achieve a degree of progress towards these goals. While there is some “structure” from an organisational perspective, it’s very lightweight. The visual style suggests a more team-centric bias (“Solution Delivery” is in the centre-ish). Though be warned that is just my gut response when looking at the visuals:
The visual style also suggests to me that there’s a general feeling that changes are mandatory – that as a team you have to operate in a way that is flexible enough to deal with whatever comes your way. What’s interesting to me is this is more of a “DevOps cultural” style of thinking – “How do I cope with this?”
No comparison would be complete without comparing the two stances on DevOps (at least at time of writing…).
SAFe: Continuous Deployments, Release on Demand
SAFe describes Continuous Delivery as a four stage pipeline – “Continuous Exploration, Continuous Integration, Continuous Deployment and Release on Demand”. Basic descriptions are provided, and a CALMR acronym features as an aide memoire for the approach [Culture, Automation, Lean Flow, Measurement, Recovery].
DAD: Disciplined DevOps
DAD is rather more thorough in it’s description of DevOps, showing how more operational and non functional concerns (e.g. Security and Data Management) fit into the larger picture, admittedly by pushing the boundaries of portmanteau-decency (DevSecOps or DevDataOps anyone?). The sensible combination of these facets is simply called “Disciplined DevOps”, fitting in with the high level naming strategy.
One of the few things that every single Agile Scaling Framework has in common, is the reliance on empowered, self sufficient teams producing high quality output (e.g. Scrum+XP) as the basic building block.
SAFe: Alignment using Planning Incremments
SAFe uses both cadence and synchronisation to keep all teams working towards a common objective in the ART (Agile Release Train) aligned. Teams are free to pick either Scrum or Kanban as their team execution pattern, however, the Kanban variant used isn’t “vanilla Kanban” (or whatever textbook version would be called), as the teams using Kanban would still be expected to align and coordinate with the overall iteration heartbeat used by the ART. Kanban teams would also be “forced” to plan in batch, just to allow them to operate within the PI Planning event. The PI Planning event is essentially a big room planning exercise to plan about three month’s worth of work. I’ve seen commentary that suggests that the PI Planning Event is instrumental to the successful use of SAFe.
This is an example of a Program Board that also serves as a “Big Visible Information Radiator”
DAD: Lifecycle Models and Program Maturity
One of the DAD Lifecycle Models is the Program Lifecycle
The DAD Program Lifecycle also integrates key elements from the Risk/Value Lifecycle, making explicit the need to get a stable base in place before scaling the program up to several development teams.
Other Perspectives – Agile Transformations
Warning: Many large top down transformations fail. Many bottom up transformations never make it out of the teams.
SAFe: Playbook for the Agile Transformation Consultant
SAFe includes John Kotter’s work on Leading Change [link is to slightly older material than the current view on kotterinc.com], albeit modified slightly, but maintaining the original premise – leaders should lead the change, enabling their teams to act on the Vision.
One thing to bear in mind is how integrated the SAFe training courses are in this Transformation Roadmap. When using the shu-ha-ri metphor, I’d say this is good for Ha levels of Transformation Consultant (if you’re Shu level, then being an Agile Transformation consultant is dangerous IMHO). The availability of coherent reference material will also make the Executive Engagement activities a little easier, so it should be easier to start larger scaled transformation endeavours. This feels more like a top-down transformation initiative.
DAD: Structured as a Reference
DAD on the other hand, doesn’t really have anything like this – it’s structured as Reference Material. You’d need to be a Ri level of Transformation Consultant to get maximum advantages of the DAD framework. If you’re at Ha level, then you’ll still get value, but it may be a more nerve wracking experience as you’ve not got a specific playbook to use. The DAD books (e.g. Choose Your WoW! ) are aimed at filling that gap, giving teams support to help them evolve their ways of working. This feels more like a grass-roots / bottom-up transformation initiative.