ACC US Session: How to Practice Agile Scaling w/o a Condom: un-SAFe Agility

I held a provocatively titled session to explore some of the issues surrounding SAFe, DAD, and other Agile scaling frameworks that prescriptively define the structure in how they work.  I personally don’t feel it useful attacking frameworks, but understanding the context around them so that one can judge for themselves whether they will apply or not.  The path I took was to explore the problems, then the why we are scaling, then finally the assumptions these hierarchical and rigid frameworks make.  I did this through time boxed brain-writing portions and then discussion on the results.  This was to eliminate the possibility for undo influence between participants.

We had several people come and go, but my core group was Karen Spencer, Kristen Tavelli, Dave Rooney, Brett Palmer, Susan Strain, Diana Wiliams, Darren Terrell, Sameli Zeid, Patrick Wojtak, and myself of course.  Brett in particular stated he found the session useful; he had just completed his SPC and was struggling with some of the rationale behind how to apply it.

Problems created when introducing SAFe (or other hierarchical scaling approach)

The following are the problems folks have seen when implementing these hierarchical approaches. (NOTE: we are talking about actual implementations seen and/or the way the framework is being prescribed to apply.)

  • unknown needs for why certain measures or metrics are required – most of the metrics these frameworks seem to roll-up seem to be to ensure that the same items are measured across teams and not necessarily what may be needed for the individual team itself
  • these metrics also seem to be used to compare team performance in a negative manner (and thus lead to team’s gaming their metrics to keep from being viewed negatively)
  • it also seems to prescribe the same process across all teams (mostly around Scrum rituals)
  • often times the organization begins implementing SAFe without executive buy-in, in particular from the business side of the organization
  • it tends to make too many decisions upfront with the product management/program level making decisions around how work will be done and not just about the how, sometimes well before any team(s) will begin solving it
  • it also removes decisions from the team around cadences and architecture, and constrains what improvements or experiments a team may do
  • after getting agile teams to drop formal roles and promote T-shaped people (generalizing specialists); most of these frameworks and SAFe in particular, introduces unneeded roles again
  • SAFE seems to focus at driving a release (train – get that damn train off my runway says the aviator!) at the team level; they are still left to simply struggle on their own (in fact there seems no one that they can truly turn to for impediment removal either)
  • with all these new roles and early decisions, this introduces unneeded coordination overhead
  • it reintroduces big upfront requirements again, sometimes using lighter models, but sometimes favoring back towards heavier ones
  • it reinvents Gantt charts with post-its
  • for teams starting their implementation of this sort of framework, it begins to force common processes and tools onto teams that may have evolved to a different set
  • also when beginning implementation, there seems ot be a lack of communication to the teams why such changes are needed, it just begins to impose them without explaining the rationale behind them
  • and there may be some possible unsound assumptions being made as to the need to scale in the first place

Whew! That’s a lot of problems, but there must be a reason for scaling?

Why Are We Scaling? (What do organizations want…?)

So we turned our attention to why we are doing this in the first place.  Understanding the reason(s) may help us make more useful decisions on approaches and such.  Here’s our take on the why’s organizations we’ve encountered are doing so…

  • there’s a silver bullet mentality; there must be a one right way to getting consistent result from all teams
  • there is a desire to help large programs adopt Agile across the enterprise with an approach that can be easily visualized
  • the above two reasons also seem to be a means for simply trying to organize a large number of teams and the people within them
  • for programs with large technical products, it can help them coordinate their activities, dependencies, and constraints
  • there may be multiple teams with multiple dependencies
  • often ‘programs’ are defined by the organizational structure that already exists or the budget that is provided to fund the work (it’s easier to sell large programs for large budgets that will produce large benefits that than a collection of smaller products that may collectively and more loosely accomplish the same results)
  • there is a belief it will remove impediments more easily (remove an impediment for one team will remove it for all teams)
  • there is a desire on management’s part to see consistency and predictability across all teams
  • and lastly in many Agile approaches, middle managers don’t see where they fit; they feel a loss of power – these hierarchical approaches show where they retain power and control

In particular, we discussed how some of these desires to retain hierarchy for coordination produce results that follow Conway’s Law.  The resulting development may have rigid and brittle interfaces.

Underlying Assumptions

So lastly we turned our attention to the assumptions these approaches seem to be based on…

  •  belief that management has limited insight into what teams are doing; our discussion on this revealed two parts to this – management expects information to be pushed to them as opposed to pulling for it and secondly management has a belief all data coming to them should be identical for easy consumption
  • a fundamental belief that process is more important; essentially it is process that helps interactions between people
  • a belief that this is how one should scale/coordinate Scrum teams and not through simpler mechanisms such as Scrum of Scrums
  • along with the organization and budget above, BIG Budgets = Importance = Easy Approval over having to ponder each smaller need/budget request on its merit
  • that management believes they will be able to see better productivity and identify where teams need to improve their performance
  • there is a fundamental belief that all development work is the same and thus should follow the same process
  • it assumes that organizations will customize the approach and not adopt it as-is
  • for organizations where they have removed these roles, introducing new roles will be easy (or having people swap from one role to a new one will be easily done)
  • it assumes all teams can standardize on a cadence
  • it assumes we must manage complexity from a central location; I mentioned that a wonderful book that explores where complexity can be managed in a decentralized fashion is Organizing for Complexity by Niels Pflaeging
  • there is a belief that effectiveness is derived via consistency or that efficiency yields effectiveness (or that they are the same)
  • the trade space (trade-offs being made) between autonomy and measurement around effectiveness is (are) obvious
  • management should be able to continue as-is; as Agile moves out from teams, management should not be expected to change in its role
  • the architectural stuff that needs to be done does not equate to business value or is too hard to equate to business value, so we’ll manage it as separate items of work
  • and lastly hierarchies are a natural way for people to organize; people coming together for common purpose would naturally choose it as their preferred structure
  • one I mentioned at the end was that organizations (management) must start with an end structure in sight and that they don’t need to just evolve to a structure

Sameli also had an item that came up that organizations can easily change their structure to match what SAFe has.

I hope you found what we discussed useful and that it will help guide you in your decisions on whether SAFe is right for you and/or how to customize it.  Start with this latter assumptions part to help you avoid the problems that may arise, regardless of whether you use SAFe or a similar approach, how to customize it, or decide on another approach altogether.

Game Mechanics Session – ACC Games Day

At Agile Games Day, I hosted a session where we took various game mechanics (mostly from boardgames, but some from video games) and then explored where these might be used to simulate or improve various things done in software development.

Here are the mechanics we explored (not exactly in the order we explored them):

Worker Placement

First was one I have explored extensively; the Worker Placement mechanic is useful to represent anytime people or some form of resource is being assigned to do something. It is a fairly hot mechanic in the boardgame world.

I’ve seen this played out as specifically in good stand-ups where people state they are committing to work on specific stories or tasks. A few others noted that it could be useful for other commitment actions. I’ve used this is in several of my simulation games; the most meaningful one is my OPTIMUS Prime game.

Event Deck

We also discussed that during a game/simulation we may want to have specific events occur (either positive or negative). These are best captured with some randomization (shuffling for example) or if a specific order is needed, these can be ordered (see deck building). A form Doug Alcorn mentioned was cards that are used to alter the rules – much like Fluxx; this could be useful for the effects of say a CI server or automated tests being put into play (for a positive effect) or management interference (for a negative effect).

Some events may only take effect if a player has a specific knowledge (or lacks a specific knowledge).

Another person mentioned (didn’t catch who it was) that the 8 Lean Wastes as temptations may be able to be incorporated into a deck and used as an event deck… I’m planning on noodling on this as this sounds intriguing.


Another analogy I like to use is that software development is like a (cooperative) role-playing game. Team members are like characters with certain skills. From release to release is like playing a campaign, while each individual release itself is like an adventure. In these release ‘adventures’ you learn new skills or acquire new special ‘gear’ like CI, automated tests, etc. that will help you along future releases.

There seemed to be some common agreement that having character sheets might be a fun way of gamifying learning.

Power Ups

You can view these new skills or gear as Power-Ups also; a common element in video games. Mostly these are permanent in nature (which is similar to levels). Some temporary power-ups could be the temporary removal of constraints or impediments or the use of swarming to temporarily increase capacity.

Tech Tree

Much of the ‘gear’ acquired by teams that improve performance follow in a progression of sorts; this is similar to what is known as a Tech Tree in board games. An example, a team needs a source code repository and build scripts before a CI server can effectively be used.

Variable Player Powers

Where each player has a different set of powers or skills is known as variable player powers; again this is something that could be useful to simulate. The GetKanban game does this in reverse by allowing team members to work in different swimlanes, but reducing their ability to do work.

Role Selection

When you want to allow people to consciously choose a role or job they are doing that is distinctive from others, this is known as role selection. This could be useful for example when a person takes on the role say of a tester, even if they may be a developer. I personally could see using this mechanic (combined with power-ups) in a game to help show the usefulness of developing T-shaped people and we discussed developing an awareness of other roles. We also discussed using it along the lines of 6 Hats Thinking.

Simultaneous Action

Where people make decisions at the same time is known as simultaneous action or selection. If one is playing Planning Poker, the team is selecting the story point values across each member and revealing them simultaneously to see where people think complexity is. Effectively when people state what they are committing to work on during stand-up this is also a simultaneous action (of worker placement).

Other ways this plays out on Agile teams is when using a Fist of Five or Roman Vote to gauge commitment or understanding. Or silent brainwriting exercises so that people aren’t biased by answers being given (often done in retro spectives). Simultaneous surveys to people also simulates simultaneous action.

Hidden Information/Perfect Information

Some information is hidden (example: secret orders in Diplomacy) and some information is available in plain sight (example: Chess). In most cases we want to help make hidden information become perfect information; particularly if it is important to the team (known as transparency). Some areas we explored are the discovery of acceptance criteria or developing people’s journey lines or journey maps to further understanding of each other. We also discussed that this may be able to be combined with an event deck to expose additional information as events unfold.


Deck-building is creating an ordered deck for play; this is very similar in nature to creating prioritized backlogs.  We also discussed where this may be useful for ordering strategy actions to possibly counter risks.

Dice Rolling

When you need to simulate a random element, rolling dice can be an effective means to do this. Multiple dice will produce average probability curves while singular dice will given discrete possibilities with the same probability of each occurrence. If you plan to use dice in a game, I recommended the highly useful site

Quest Mechanic

Last, either Doug or Ryan Ripley (I forgot who) mentioned that the Quest mechanic is very useful for the actions decided from a retrospective.

Let me know if you have either useful analogies or uses of mechanics!