Are you limited by your Agile Coach Sourcing Strategy?

This is about a revolving door programme of hiring coaches. One of the things I’ve observed regularly, is that these kinds of hiring programmes create an implicit timeframe by which improvements must be “delivered”. In itself, that’s not necessarily a problem. What is a problem, is that the timeframes are nowhere near long enough (IMHO) if the aim is to change the culture.

How you measure your coaches also has an obvious effect on your outcomes. Procurement plays a big part here. I’ve seen a lot of coaches who have their success defined by some variation of how much effort they expend. Training courses run. Numbers of teams “coached”. Amount of collateral documented in a wiki/repository/etc. It’s even worse if that’s also what the coach genuinely believes is a measure of success.

It’s easy to buy the visible stuff. However, the visible stuff has no sustaining ability – that comes from the hidden stuff. Agile’s a culture, but how do you buy a culture? It’s much easier to buy a new set of processes, dress code, office layout, stationery, reporting templates etc.

By buying the visible stuff, you easily get to a set “maturity” of what-to-do (because your coach has implemented this a million times), but you might lose the learning-about-why and your ability to improve at some point comes to a crashing halt when your coach runs out of instructions to give you (or they leave). You’ve substituted thinking for doing what you’re told because an expert tells you.

One of the things that could lessen the likelihood of this happening to you is longevity. Although that does bring its own set of challenges. Longevity can come from humans, or guidance that’s respected enough to be followed (or at least attempted) – e.g. the guided continuous improvement advice from Disciplined Agile Delivery’s collateral.

Longevity can increase the chances that the underlying factors get some attention – beliefs, culture, mindset. But longevity is hard. When things go wrong (and lets face it, things always go wrong), it’s easy to blame the changes that are being attempted. I’ve often seen blame being thrown about as a precursor to the environment becoming more toxic. In those environments, unless there’s sufficient emotional investment, coaches leave.

In my view, the most effective counteracting force against that toxicity, is leadership. Your senior leadership must have the trust of the members of the organisation. However, trust doesn’t come from great speeches but from credibility. That means the senior leadership must also evolve and adopt a more collaborative/open/trusting/etc culture. They must behave differently. And they also need to provide regular, ongoing and consistent reassurance that the environment is safe so that teams can evolve to a more agile culture with no repercussions for steps that don’t quite make it on the first try. I think that works because humans emulate leaders. If the leaders are open and collaborative, then the teams are more likely to also become more open and collaborative.

Courageous Executives – Coping without one

The notion of a “Courageous Executive” is not a new one. However, what is changing, is the awareness of how significant this organisational pattern can be when it comes to disruption and innovation. Here’s a link from mid-2017 from one of my former employers on the topic.

Relying on a courageous executive to solve all of your “agile transformation” related problems only really stands a chance of working if they have enough authority/persuasiveness to be able to get their way in the CxO arena. That might be fine for forward thinking / dynamic / exciting / other-superlative organisations, but what if your organisation doesn’t have that open culture? Or you don’t have access to someone willing to stick their head over the parapet? What if (like a large percentage of the working population), you work for a late-majority or laggard organisation?

I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing recently. Mostly because many of the bigger problems I face in my work life these days are all around how my large bureaucratic clients can work effectively with large, bureaucratic suppliers and partners, when everyone states they want “to do agile” [sic] and yet are afraid to change anything about their operating or engagement models.

I’ve been trying to organise my thoughts around “difficult conversations that are simplified/made trivial if a courageous executive existed”. I’ve also been trying to organise any messaging I deliver to my clients to make it easier to convert an existing executive (perhaps with a courageous bias) into someone who can be labelled as a Courageous Executive [massive disclaimer: I’m in no way going anywhere near a formalised definition, just pushing the boundaries of what my gut feels like]. I’ll write up as I go and link to this post.

Agile Maturity – Getting past “Shu”

Why am I writing this? I read this post a little while ago and I wanted to revisit what I thought about Shu-Ha-Ri.


My current employer (very large IT Consultancy) has gone through a significant sheep-dipping exercise. It’s an extremely large organisation (employee headcount isn’t that far away from the population of Edinburgh) and has placed an organisational big bet on “Agile”. So pretty much everyone is being trained by a combination of classroom and online learning modules, backed up by an internal certification scheme, with employee targets and financially significant objectives (e.g. a small part of the performance related pay element is only accessible with certification).

It’s had a degree of success. It’s certainly helped provide an air of confidence for the sales teams and a degree of comfort for potential clients (especially those categorised as Late Majority or Laggards, who are by nature sceptical of new things. And yes do have to stifle the odd smile or two whenever I use the word “new” to describe “Agile”).

The Problem

My problem with this, is it sort of misses the point of “agile” (this in itself is a poorly worded sentence, as agile was never really the point, but it’ll do for now).

What this sheep-dipping exercise seems to have done (from what I’ve been able to observe), is install a new set of practices to be employed religiously. Some of these new practices appear to be little more than a branded re-skin (my “favourite” example of this is the use of the User Story to contain all the requirements documentation, and must be written and signed off before it’s given to a development team to deliver).

If I’m being optimistic, the installation of new techniques (mostly the visible ones such as a stand-up) have increased the overall delivery quality by a small amount (I vaguely recall one presentation by Mark Lines that quoted a 6% improvement for teams that only adopted the mechanical aspects of Scrum, but I’m happy to be corrected).

If I’m being cynical, it’s the fight back of a hierarchical command and control culture against the invading collaborative and flat and open culture.

Not all bad news though

There are glimmers of hope though. There is more recognition of the need for greater levels of autonomy and empowerment, however limited the concessions may be. That is what the rest of this post will focus on.

Why “Shu Ha Ri”?

Simply because I found the “Learning to cook” analogy along with a catchy (ok, catchy is pushing it) slogan to be one of the more effective memory aids I’ve experienced. It also gave me an extremely lightweight structure on which I could help a “continuous learning” mentality to take hold.


This was clearly our starting position. As “Trainee Chefs”, the most favourable outcome from an intensive training programme, was the awareness of a lot of pieces of jargon, with perhaps the basic knowledge required to use a “standard configuration” of rules and practices.

One of the big “shorter term” goals for new recruits is to develop the equivalent of muscle memory – the imprinting of the basic rules and practices such that they can be performed without a great deal of cognitive effort (the cognitive effort would be reserved for the actual work being done). In food terms, these folk can now make a respectable standard lasagne.

In theory, as teams become more comfortable with the set of practices, they’ll begin to experiment, and vary some of the specifics, in an attempt to test the boundaries of their practices. In theory.

So what prevents nature from taking it’s course?

I think a big contributing factor is a belief, reinforced by authority (e.g. the hierarchy) thinking that the agile stuff is all about the work. Better quality software, more aligned with user needs etc. In other words, it’s about what you do.

That perspective misses (IMHO) a more valuable element of this agile culture. I think the stuff about the quality and alignment is valuable, but for me it’s a side effect of having an entity (i.e. the team) that is very adaptable and can adjust itself to be able to cope with any scenario it finds itself in. I think a key trait needed for adaptability is to always be curious about why you do something. And then do something with that insight.

At least, that what seems to be happening in pockets at my employer. Newly formed teams are given runbooks to operate (the what), but little in the way of support to help nurture the curiosity about why those techniques work, or even what the tradeoffs associated with those techniques are (all practices have tradeoffs, even the “blindingly obvious everyone should be doing this” sort). The vast majority of the coaching support accessible to the team is optimised to roll out the runbook and maintain compliance to said runbook.

Why? I think it’s a return-on-investment calculation made by authority figures. The biggest percentage gain per unit coaching effort is the gain that takes you from zero to non-zero. Installing some basic agile practices into a low maturity team will have a significant effect on their Velocity (story points per iteration) in a fairly small timeframe. A few coaching interventions later and their Velocity is likely to have improved significantly. But then the gains become harder to find. Improvements become more marginal. Sometimes a seismic shift is needed, but that would have short term detrimental effects on Velocity. And for environments that believe that output is the important thing, then getting less stuff per iteration is a BAD THING and must be avoided.

It’s also a pattern that can be reinforced by the having a revolving door policy on your agile coaches (IMHO. I think I’ll have a go at blogging about this, if nothing else to help me crystallise my thoughts on the topic).

Is there anything we can do?

Assuming there’s enough truth in the hypothesis to be worth doing something about it, what can/should we do about it?

The aim of whatever-we-do-to-improve-matters has got to be to increase the ability of a team to question why-it-does-something along with an intrinsic confidence to be able to invent a change to their process. The ability to invent will dramatically increase the self sufficiency of a team.

Both of these elements – asking “why” and being able to invent, require a team to have a significant degree of psychological safety. Creating the conditions for the degree of psychological safety to improve is a core function of leadership.

With sufficient psychological safety (a subjective term), comes the capability for changing. What it doesn’t guarantee, is whether or not change will occur, or whether the direction of change is a “viable” one or not. This is where additional support is helpful, potentially using some form of expert. Agile coaches can be helpful here, especially if they’re working in the open (e.g. via using some variation of a guided continuous improvement strategy).


Something a good Agile Coach is well placed to do, is help their team understand the underlying models that underpin the team’s ways of working. That would help the teams get to that deeper understanding of why their techniques work, the pros and cons etc. That can create the conditions for much more interesting process changes to be created by the team. These highly context specific and tailored techniques are likely to be more effective than more “generic” equivalents.

To me, that sounds like the beginnings of Ha.

Evolving beyond SAFe using the DAD toolkit

Intended Audience

So you’ve bought into the SAFe brand, adopted it pretty much wholesale. You might even have had some successes after the initial adoption. But at some point, you’ve hit a plateau (or a major problem that you simply can’t get past with just SAFe’s guidance). Perhaps you need a shorter time to market than a quarterly planning cycle gives you. What do you do?

The rest of this post is structured very loosely as a set of steps. They generally make sense as a progression, but the reality is that for even remotely complex contexts, if you attempted to follow this line through just once, you’re likely to end up with more pain. There are feedback loops all over the place, and artificially trimming them into a single line is a waterfall-esque strategy for complexity management, which is suboptimal.

Step 0 – Don’t Panic!

You’re already on a transformation journey (Before SAFe -> Adopting SAFe -> Using SAFe -> ?). This is just the next step.

Step 1 – Start where you are

There’s no sense ramping up the psychological harm by saying you were wrong. Elements such as the Prime Directive of Retrospectives also echo the underlying fact that at the time, you made the best decision possible given the data you had access to. Now that you have more (or perhaps just different) data, it’s time to make the best decision possible today.

Step 2 – Take Stock

Look at what you have (in this case, SAFe) and focus on the mindset, and principles, as those generally remain valid. What will change is the practices, techniques and strategies that you use in order to sustain that mindset and deliver value continuously. For example, “Alignment” is great. SAFe’s implementation strategy for achieving alignment is generally by starting from the Portfolio level and “working down”. Other strategies include starting from the team and “working outwards”. Changing the scale of programmes of work (e.g. by picking an architectural style that facilitates this) can change the relative importance of alignment from being a pre-requisite into more of a side-effect. Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) has an Enterprise Aware principle that can be used to facilitate a discussion about Alignment.

Step 3 – Visualise The Implicit

Visualise your Ways of Working. (WoW). If you’ve adopted SAFe, then the SAFe “Big Picture” is probably it, or very close to it. DAD has a Program Lifecycle, which bar some label changes is very similar. Once your WoW is visual, overlay it with DAD terminology. This is a form of gap analysis and it should help you turn implicit process knowledge into explicit knowledge. The biggest insights would come from the associated “Process Goals” for the practices you are using. That’s a big step towards understanding why a practice is used. SAFe’s guidance is very good at telling you what to do and has some coverage of why it’s worthwhile. What is lacking though, are alternative approaches for achieving the same objective. That’s where DAD can offer significant advantages.

Step 4 – Target Process Improvements

With a map of process goals, now it becomes possible to target improvements to struggling areas. The areas to target will be highly context specific, and it’s worth using some root-cause-analysis techniques (e.g. 5 Whys or Ishikawa diagrams) to find them. Using a process goal as an anchor, you are more easily able to explore alternative strategies to solve the problem you’ve got. For example, if your current processes struggle with effective delivery of complex non-functional-requirements, then something like could help.

Step 4A – Have Meaningful Conversations

An interesting side effect of making your process goals visible, is you can engage your teams and stakeholders in a more meaningful discussion about the approach to the work. This can create space for highly innovative and inventive strategies for problem solving and value delivery to emerge.

Or in other words, instead of only relying on your team to think-outside-the-box, you get to redefine-what-you-mean-by-box.

Step 5 – Rinse and Repeat – Ad Nauseum

Don’t forget one of the pillars of the (SAFe) House of Lean – Relentless Improvement. Your drive to improve shouldn’t end. One of the challenges with adopting SAFe (or in fact any other branded framework that has a relatively prescriptive nature) is the illusion that there’s an End State to reach, and once you get there, you win the game.

Looking at the Twitterverse, I’ve seen a few people talk about SAFe being potentially a good way to start getting some agility into your large scale programme delivery – mainly because can be perceived by senior-management-buyers as a Tangible Thing, which is easier to accept than a grass-roots-hearts-and-minds-campaign-led-by-developers. However, at some point, a continuously evolving organisation will evolve beyond it. That said, the subset of SAFe that’s Don Reinertson’s work on Economics and Flow will remain relevant long after the SAFe practices are abandoned for more lightweight alternatives.

Making sense of System/Design Thinking

(or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Thinking)

Why I’m writing this

I have a new client. They’re a large Financial Organisation, therefore operating in a highly regulated market, with heavy compliance etc. requirements. The sorts of things that end up creating a paranoid organisational mindset, with a significant audit theme running through everything that they do.

The nature of this client is such that new ideas take a while (if at all) to establish. That pace isn’t helped by the fact that organisations like these generally are flush with cash – they can afford to overspend as well as maintain “death-march projects”. This is a functional characteristic and is neither good nor bad. It does, however, mean that delivery techniques that are radically different culturally to the prevailing winds are unlikely to be welcomed with open arms (i.e. there is no urgency to change). One such idea, is “User Centric Design”. This is a premise that the right thing to do is design services specifically for your Users. This cultural anchor (the Customer is central to everything) is more prevalent in front office teams (e.g. for a Bank, those might be branch staff), but isn’t necessarily the case in back office teams (e.g. the “IT Department”). User Centred Thinking may lead to better bank accounts, savings accounts, or interest rates, but is less likely to be adopted to improve the systems that an actuary might use.

Enter the labels “Design Thinking” and “System Thinking”.

What is “Design Thinking”?

The term has been gaining popularity over the last few years. I currently believe the term “Design Thinking” that represents a design thinking process (with terms like empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test) was popularised by the likes of Tim Brown and others at IDEO. The term Design Thinking might have been coined in the seventies, but ancestor terms such as “wicked problems” are far older. Even older are a lot of the concepts – divergent thinking to gather options, followed by convergent thinking to make a choice, test, learn, rinse and repeat – must have been around for about as long as humans have been experimenting. The Double Diamond process was created by The British Design Council for example. This a sketch:

How about “Systems Thinking”?

Disclosure: My introduction to “systems thinking” (lowercase, not branded, definitely not a Proper Noun) came from my undergraduate degree. Except I learnt about this under the banner “Systems Engineering”. Well, more specifically, when in a Mechanical Engineering lecture, my professor got us all to play a heavily modified version of Mousetrap (I’m sure other games are available). That was my first introduction to stock and flow diagrams. That also made me realise that I’d been using a system thinking mindset for a while leading up to that lecture. It turns out that my dad and I playing with Meccano and Dominos at the same time – building mechanised arms to tip dominos over is surprisingly good fun for most of the time, although the clean-up at the end is a royal PITF (pain in the foot) – is a good way for me to begin to work out how to build models in my head to predict the future, especially complicated when there are multiple events occurring simultaneously. That Engineering thing carried on into my Electronics and Control Theory (academic) life.

In business, the term seems to have more than the abstract analytical mindset that I learned about at University. The work that Deming did with Japanese manufacturers during the ‘50s and onwards started with a very basic model:

Image from

In this diagram, the customer (consumer) is another component, interacting with everything else. “Frameworks” such as Vanguard and books such as The Fifth Discipline etc. have moved the customer to be far closer to the centre of the system model. More precisely, in order to better define the purpose of the system. In itself, that’s not a problem, but it did take me a surprisingly long time to reconcile my perspective (systems-thinking-is-an-analytic-discipline) with the customer-centricity that I was seeing. Mostly because, I was seeing that human-centricity aspect as “Design Thinking” (rightly or wrongly, probably wrongly).

My View of the Differences between Design Thinking and Systems Thinking…

One of the things I find helpful for my focus when learning (or even just thinking) about a topic, is the ability to detect when I go off track and get distracted. To help me reason about either Design Thinking or System Thinking, it helps if I can create some space between the two concepts, just so that if necessary, I can also think about what a concept is not. It’s a form of abstraction and an aid to my thinking.

Comparing the different “zones of interest” between Design Thinking (pink) and Systems Thinking (blue)

…and Why it doesn’t really Matter

Assuming that the previous section resonates with you, dear reader, the main reason why I don’t believe it really matters where the precise boundary is between the two concepts, is because you need to incorporate both thinking models into your overall problem solving to genuinely make a difference to your customer. For example, whether you think about User Needs because you’re using Design Thinking or System Thinking isn’t relevant. What is important, is the fact that you’re actually considering User Needs.

Why is my client trying these?

This is an interesting question, and I’ve no real way of getting a completely accurate answer from anyone I’m in contact with, so this is where I get my theorising kicks from.

From what I’ve been able to observe, this client has had multiple attempts at one form of “agile transformation” or another over the past several years. While all of these attempts moved the organisation forward (for some definition of forward), none of the attempts did much more than improve the practices in effect at that organisation. Manager types still managed (although the role names did change a few times over the years). Requirements specialists still produced documents (although the name of the documents and the templates followed changed). Business engagement was still limited – in this case, limited to Product Managers. Product Owners (there is a difference at this client) were more likely to be a subject matter expert or a requirements specialist. In other words, a proxy to someone who more may be more appropriate to “own” what’s being delivered, but has insufficient time away from the day job. A centralised architecture function would determine standards to adhere to, and would be where approvals would be sought when teams wished to implement a design pattern (sometimes quite a low level decision).

The underlying culture appears to be quite resilient to change, and is what I would expect to see in a typical hierarchical, command & control, low trust, low empowerment organisation.  Again, no value judgements from me, but it is a prevailing culture that’s a polar opposite to the empowered, distributed authority, high trust, high collaboration culture that an agile way of working would require to truly shine. I think this underlying cultural resistance is one of the drivers for using these “differently termed techniques”. In particular, there’s a keenness by (very) senior leadership to adopt Systems Thinking, as the term doesn’t match any of the existing organisational silos or fiefdoms. In that respect, “Design Thinking” is a little harder, as one could argue (for example) that “As the Enterprise Architects are responsible for Service Design, that’s clearly where Design Thinking fits in”. Granted, your sanity could be questioned if you argued that point of view, but still, it’s possible. That is one of the strategies that a resilient bureaucracy can use to negate the risks associated with an invading culture – convert the new concepts into existing ones, and thereby eliminate the need to change. In order to stand a chance of converting the status quo, one needs to be careful about the battles that are picked.

Dear Board, what sort of “Agile Transformation” are you really after?

My problem with an “Agile Transformation” as a term, is that it’s not really helpful when trying to talk to people.

OK maybe if I used the definition of an Agile Entity as a thing that continuously adapts and evolves to best take advantage of it’s environment, then an “Agile Transformation”, being pedantic, could represent that first step the Entity takes from it’s Creation State to the first Changed State, with the constraint that the Changed State includes a working mechanism for internally triggered evolution (irrespective of how effective).

However, that’s also an unhelpful definition, as I haven’t seen that interpretation in anyone at C-Level who “buys an Agile Transformation Engagement from a Consultancy Organisation”. And that’s what I wanted to write about here. What I see there is usually something along the lines of “We should be better at our IT Development. Other organisations have used Agile and they seem to be better at IT. Maybe we should get some of that Agile IT to increase our effectiveness”.

Therefore I’m parking that thought, and once I’ve worked out how to clearly articulate what my opinion is on that subject, I’ll link to it here.

In the mean time, this is a list of questions I think are worth knowing the answers to as soon as possible in the life of an “Agile Transformation Engagement”. Or even before one starts.

Agile Organisations have very different cultural styles to hierarchical / bureaucratic / “traditional” (for the defensive clients) organisations. A Transformation Initiative (if such a thing can exist) will be about helping an organisation transform itself culturally into something else, one with more pronounced Agile Characteristics and Traits. I think anything that maintains the cultural status quo (especially if it’s a “negative-in-the-context-of-an-agile-organisation” one) is heading towards the Lip Service end of the adoption scale.

Warning: Some of these questions can be tricky to ask without risking being fired :-). All of these are aimed at either the Sponsor of the Transformation Engagement, or the C-Level Board if it’s broad enough.


Question: Where do you WANT to draw the boundary for the Transformation Initiative?

Question: Where do you HAVE to draw the boundary for the Transformation Initiative?


Question: WHAT do you define as “a Successful Transformation”?

Question: WHY do you think you need “an Agile Transformation”?

Question: Are you “all-in” on this Transformation? What happens if it’s not successful? Do you need a Backup Plan (or Escape Plan)?

Question: If the Transformation results in jobs changing, CAN you update your policy / HR strategy etc to suit? WILL you?

Question: If the transformation results in making some people redundant if they are unable/unwilling to re-train to the target operating model (candidates include middle managers), WILL you make them redundant?

Question: What did you have to do in order to get Board buy-in for the need for “an Agile Transformation”?

Question: When do you “need Demonstrable Results”? Why then? What constitutes “Demonstrable Results”?

Question: Do you have a “Trusted Adviser” to fact-check what you’re being told? If not, what is your level of trust? How can that be increased?


Question: What’s your strategy for sustaining the Transformation Initiative after I’ve left?

Question: What would happen if “after a while” (e.g. a couple of years), your organisation reverted back to the operating model as it stands now? Do you have to prevent that?


Question: How much are you willing to invest? Over what time frame? Is any of that investment conditional on evidence of progress?

Question: Can you tolerate the “Agile Transformation Initiative” as an annual overhead cost to be paid before projects and change budgets are calculated?

Question: Can you tolerate the “Agile Transformation Initiative” as just another project and therefore will need to justify its budget?

Agile Brands

Question: Is there a perception in the “entity-under-consideration” that Brand A/B/C is the right one? Have conferences, articles, experiences etc influenced that perception?

Question: Is there a strategic goal of “Installing” / “Implementing” Brand X? Or is the strategic goal “Adopting” Brand X?

Question: What happens to your Credibility / Authority / Respectability if despite the prevailing “Brand X Bias”, an alternative Brand is Implemented / Adopted?

Janus and the art of partitioning

Why Janus? Well, not only is he the Roman God of Beginnings and Gateways (or doors, transitions, journeys, that sort of thing), he’s normally depicted with two heads, one looking to the past or beginning and the other looking to the future. Seems to resonate with what I try to do with my clients – help them along a journey.

Why this post? It was triggered by me reading the book Unlearn by Barry O’Reilly. The book helped me crystallise or make explicit something I think I’ve been doing often enough to be considered “typical behaviour” – the act of unlearning.

I’ve been thinking about how to use this new found explicit conscious awareness to help my current employer (as well as my current and future clients). My typical role on an engagement is some form of…no wait, this link might give you a sense. Alternatively choose any number of words from the following set and arrange in any order to give you my title (naturally, duplicates are encouraged) “agile/ninga/coach/therapist/comic/beer-buyer/disruptor/transformation/hygienist”. The key thing about my clients (and my current employer) is  that their overall delivery maturity is nothing worth writing home about. They’re certainly no bleeding edge delivery outfit, constantly testing hypotheses by using practical experiments, with unicorn tendencies.

So who hires me? Mostly Laggards and Late Majority organisations (See Everett Roger’s book Diffusion of Innovations).

What does that mean for me? Generally, the mental models I have in my head for how “software delivery should work” are two or three decades(*) ahead of the executives and senior management types that I spend time with. That means that unless I take great care, I’ll end up using language that’s incongruous with the recipient’s world view. And there are enough snake oil salesmen out there to replace me, making it easy to put lipstick on a pig – see the Internet on cases where “agile transformations don’t work” or “agile transformations not delivering on orders of magnitude improvements” or variations on the theme. For me, that’s Janus looking forwards.

How am I trying to solve this? I learned a foreign language. This one’s called “Management from Yesteryear”. I learned it because if I was to stand any hope of working out if something I say is being misinterpreted, then I need to understand how it’s interpreted. Some people could call this empathy, but I disagree. It’s more a model of a person from the nineties (say), to help me understand how a real person would behave. For me, that’s Janus looking backwards.

So how does Barry’s book fit into all this? Well I realised that if my client needs to evolve by 20 years, they’ll need to go through an awful lot of unlearning and relearning. That’s assuming that if someone is going through that much evolution, they’re able to skip a few of the intermediate states. If that’s not possible, well that just increases the amount that needs to be learned and unlearned in a comparatively short space of time.

So what I need to do, is help them get starting along that journey, and supply the occasional nudge if they start going too far off track – say unlearning something that’s still relevant or learning something that isn’t helpful. That’s harder than it sounds, as it’s tricky to understand what off-track actually means, not to mention how on earth I’d be able to observe this. What would be ideal, is if they themselves could work out how to tell if they were going off track. A more realistic scenario is that I’d have a sense of how they’re thinking and try to use that to gauge the degree of discomfort they’re feeling and from that attempt to infer the degree of off-track-ness. That said, sometimes it’s helpful in the longer term to learn something, realise it’s incorrect and fix that. All adding yet more uncertainty into the “are they on track or not” overly simplistic question.

That’s where my internal-model-of-a-person-from-the-nineties comes in. I fancy myself in (very) amateur dramatics circles, as someone of the method acting school of thought. When working with someone, and I’m asking them to go through cycles of unlearning and learning, it seems only fair that a part of me goes along that journey with them. It’ll help me build some empathy. It’ll also help me spot when things aren’t going well, because in addition to seeing their expressions, I’ll be feeling similar things too. It’ll help them trust me a little more than otherwise. It’s a great way for us to discover potentially exciting new things that neither of us would have foreseen. And finally, that shared experience is also a good foundation for building some psychological safety.

A brief segue into psychological safety.

I’m trying this approach with my current client, and so far it’s been proving to be an interesting experiment. I’m not too clear about how cleanly I’m partitioning the me-from-now and the virtualised-me-from-the-nineties, but if nothing else, I do appear to have more empathy and connection with my client. So that seems to be positive. I’ll keep trying this approach and see if it gets any better or give’s me something different. Might even blog about this later.



(*) I know that sounds harsh, but for example organising teams by components and architectural layers for efficiency reasons is just so nineties. And not in a cool retro way.



The Importance of Psychological Safety

It’s vital for making mistakes and learning from them.

It’s not a new idea.

Hard to give. Easy to take away.

Children have a lot. It’s usually drummed out of them at school.

Adults don’t have much. People who do are seen as “brave”, “courageous”, “bold”.

It’s infectious. People who work with those with a lot of psychological safety, begin to feel safer.

  1. Managing the risk of learning: Psychological safety in work teams – Amy C. Edmondson Associate Professor, Harvard Business School
  2. Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct
  3. High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It –

Learning SAFe by comparing it with DAD

I started writing this post as a gut reaction to the style of the language I found in SAFe – 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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

DAD Poster Image
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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].

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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.

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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 Increments

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”

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DAD: Lifecycle Models and Program Maturity

One of the DAD Lifecycle Models is the Program Lifecycle

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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], albeit modified slightly, but maintaining the original premise – leaders should lead the change, enabling their teams to act on the Vision.

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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.

Name: Victor Frankenstein. Subject: Data Warehouse

Data Warehouses are slightly different from my typical project past (I’m far more au fait with custom software or package configuration / implementation gigs).

However, there’s an interesting aspect of Data Warehouses that can make them very suitable for more experimental/research oriented delivery techniques. To set that sentence in some context, I see two main categories of advantage to having a Data Warehouse:

  1. Regular Reporting that’s more insulated from changes to operational systems that feed the reporting (this is an Efficiency type of advantage)
  2. By aggregating multiple data items, it is possible to increase the probability of discovering previously unexplored patterns and relationships (this is an Insight type of advantage)

It’s this second advantage (see something like ), if a little hard to quantify, that I’m interested in.

Running an Experiment

Assuming the data already exists somewhere in the Warehouse, the high level end to end flow is fairly straightforward

(With the usual complexity that running A/B or multivariate or blind etc. tests give)

Delivering “The Tech”

The analysis and transformation work seeks to create information by transforming the underlying data into useful structures. It is sometimes impossible to predetermine exactly what structures would be useful, leading to the need for experimentation / trial-and-error or other uncertainty-reduction-strategies. The transformation efforts can be split into two parts (if necessary). Converting a source system data model into a logical (or canonical) model is a useful step, as it allows the Data Warehouse users to decouple themselves from the inner workings of a source system. This canonical form is typically in 3NF. Converting the canonical form into a Facts and Dimensions model is a useful step to improve the reportability characteristics of the data. However, this step can often only be performed once there is enough insight into the sorts of questions that the datasets need to answer.

The aggregation work seeks to combine potentially related sets of information to be able to reveal additional patterns and trends and create insight. This insight is where the value is when using a Data Warehouse (or more precisely, these insights can be acted upon to generate additional value for the business).

A continuous delivery model can work well in this context, particularly if there is a strong desire to create differentiation in a mature market. Work can usually be delivered quickly as in these scenarios there are usually no new architecturally significant requirements that need to be met (mainly because the Data Warehouse already exists, is operational, and has been sized to also cope with a reasonable degree of ad hoc reporting).

Mind the Gap

There are scenarios that don’t easily fall into that model. One significant one is when the raw data to be used does not yet exist in the Data Warehouse.

The solution to this problem is to introduce additional steps in the value stream, moving it left to also include ingesting the new data source as well as integrating (e.g. cleansing) the data and storing it in a coherent manner.


Filling the Gap

The Ingest & Store activities can be performed with a couple of different strategies.

  • The first strategy is to only Ingest & Store what is required by the downstream work (i.e. the Analyse and Transform work identifies the specific data gaps. Those are filled)
  • The second strategy is to Ingest and Store everything that is available from the data source, regardless of whether or not it is needed

The main benefit of the first strategy, is that only valuable work will be carried out (more just-in-time and less just-in-case). The main disadvantage is the time/effort it takes to build or change an Ingest process (this is typically an architecturally significant piece of work). An interesting side effect of only ingesting what is needed, is that it’s much slower to “just explore data and discover new insights”. In other words, serendipity is far less likely to work for you.

The main disadvantage of the second strategy, is that it can take more time (and money) than the first strategy to get to the version-one-dataset (i.e. the dataset known to be needed). The main advantage is that it is more likely that unforeseen relationships can be discovered, and those insights could be a source of a competitive advantage. However, there are no guarantees

The Client Specific Problem

There is a lot of advice and guidance that’s applicable to evolving “established” Data Warehouses. There is comparatively little advice and guidance on how to bootstrap your Data Warehouse and start generating value from it even when there’s extremely little data contained. A lot of the latter guidance uses tangible outputs (e.g. a report or a dashboard) as a way to bound the early work.

The initial ask of the project team (more accurately a platform team, but that’s a topic for another day) was to produce two reports for two business units. These two reports represented a significant piece of value. These were both fairly mature reports, having been developed and enhanced over a number of years. This was the strategy for being able to unlock value from the Data Warehouse at an early stage.

However, as the work progressed, it became apparent that there were significantly more data sources involved in the production of the complete reports (only discovered when new outputs were compared to the existing reports). In this environment, the work required to Ingest a new data source has significant architectural requirements to be satisfied before the data contained is accessible for use. The initial planning assumptions that led to the selection of these reports to be the first business use of the Data Warehouse were proven to be false. Seeing as all of the reports / dashboards that were deemed to be valuable were of similar ages (i.e. have been evolved and refined over a number of years) it was reasonable to assume that similar deal breakers would emerge unless far more thorough data analysis was performed.

A different strategy was needed. Instead of “trying to deliver a pre-defined thing”, what would happen if the focus shifted towards “get datasets into the Warehouse ASAP”? The ability to deliver a specific thing would suffer. However, the ability for the business to explore their data and attempt to derive meaning and insight from it would be improved. It involves a reframing of the ask. Moving from “Recreate X” towards “Try to make use of Y”. It gives the business users a chance to stretch their creativity muscles.

This proved to be a bridge too far. The rest of the “Change Organisation” had been optimised for projects. Or perhaps that should be “had evolved to make Projects the easiest vessel for money to effect changes”. Asking that organisation to switch to what is essentially a far more open ended “Research” mode of working wasn’t feasible in the short-medium (and I’m not holding out much hope for “long” right now) term.

So we found a halfway house. A Frankenstein-esque mesh of “push oriented work” and “value/pull driven work”. Development efficiency was the main driving force behind the sequencing of the Ingest/Store/Analyse elements. Datasets would be pushed onto the Data Warehouse in as efficient a manner as possible. Experimentation and “Product Development” was the main driving force behind the Analyse/Aggregate/Trial/Adopt elements. The most valuable reports and KPIs were targeted first, and experiments would be run to work out viable ways of delivering the insights using whatever datasets were available at that time. Interim solutions would be accepted, knowing that when additional datasets were delivered onto the Warehouse, it offered the chance for refactoring and redevelopment to occur.

It’s not pretty, but it’s a huge step forward from where the team was when I joined. Hopefully this one remains benevolent…