SAFe Is Not Agile

Many organizations are implementing the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). Turns out it's not agile at

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You know me as a coach, speaker, author and consultant, working with organizations and individuals to build better products and services. This week, I’m adding another name to that list: podcast host.On Tuesday, May 4, I’m launching the Forever Employable Stories podcast!While writing and promoting my book, Forever Employable, I made a video series of some amazing conversations I had with professionals in a range of fields sharing their stories of becoming forever employable.Now with the podcast, I can share those stories more broadly, inspire more widely and continue to share new ideas to build a network and reputation around what you’re truly passionate about. You’re going to love it.

Hey folks --

Ever since the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe for short) adopted Lean UX in version 4.5 I’ve received a steady stream of inbound questions about how, exactly, these two methods are supposed to work well together.

The short answer is, I have no idea.

The slightly longer answer is that all the principles we’ve built into Lean UX don’t seem to exist in SAFe.

Continuous learning and improvement, customer centricity, humility, cross-functional collaboration, evidence-based decision making, experimentation, design and course correction -- to name a few -- are visibly absent from the SAFe conversation. Instead, organizations adopting this way of working focus on rigid team structures, strict rituals and events and an uneven distribution of behavior change requirements depending on how high up one sits in the organization.

In short, SAFe is not agile.

Given the heavy training regimen teams have to go through to become “SAFe certified” it’s no wonder they resist change. They’ve been trained to work in a very specific way -- a way focused solely on predictable delivery, not learning, not course correction and certainly not agility. The activities that make teams truly agile require flexibility in planning. They require alignment on customer success, not a predetermined set of features. They require a continuous discovery process that inevitably leads to unplanned course corrections. These corrections would “derail” a Release Train in no time. (article continues below)

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We're now taking applications for the first batch of free members. We will incrementally open up slots in the program over the next few weeks.

Large organizations seeking agility realize the uncertainty that comes with it and cling to the familiarity of waterfall processes. SAFe gives the illusion of “adopting agile” while allowing familiar management processes to remain intact. In a world of rapid continuous change, evolving consumer consumption patterns, geopolitical instability and exponential technological advancements this way of working is unsustainable.

If you work in a large organization that has adopted or is in the process of implementing SAFe, ask yourself what’s changed during this transition. Are you closer to your customers? How long does it take to learn whether you’ve delivered something of value? Even better, how are you measuring “value?” Ask yourself how easy it would be to pivot an initiative based on a new discovery? Then compare those answers to how things were before you started using terms like “big room planning”, “PI” and “release train engineer.”

Scaling any way of working in a large organization is tricky and uneven. Attempting to apply one blanket process to the entire company, a process that is focused strictly on delivery rather than continuous discovery and course correction, only hardens traditional ways of working. SAFe is compelling because it seems to offer a one-size-fits-all recipe for agility at scale. In reality it rewards predictability, conformity and compliance while providing executives with cover for the question, “How do we become more agile?”

What’s been your experience with SAFe? Have you been successful? I’d love to hear your story.



New on the blog:

Top 10 OKR FAQs from my recent masterclass -- Lots of questions came out of the masterclass I did a month ago on Objectives and Key Results. Here are the top 10 answered in detail."Intuitive UI" is not a feature -- How many times have you heard someone say, "It'll have an intuitive UI" or "a great user experience?" What does that really mean? Turns out, not much. Read more to see why.

Aside from corporate keynotes and webinars on agile, product management, OKRs and digital transformation, I've been expanding my audience to folks interested in discussing the creator economy, the future of work and how building your professional reputation and thought leadership is the future of career growth and continuity. Interested in having me speak at your event? Let me know!

What I'm liking at the moment: 

Listen: Hipster Cinema -- These "alt rock" and "indie" tunes from the past couple of decades make for a great soundtrack walking around your favorite neighborhood or knocking out some creative work that requires a bit of energy (but not too much) behind it.

Watch: The Leftovers -- Imagine what would happen if one day, out of nowhere, 140 million people just vanished from the face of the Earth. That's the premise for this quasi-sci-fi slash suspense mystery drama from HBO and the creator of Lost. I won't lie to you. This show is slow, heavy and depressing at times but for some reason I couldn't stop watching.

Read: How Mind the Product survived 2020 -- In this candid, behind the scenes look, the folks over at our favorite product management organization share how their nearly 100% in-person business nearly collapsed in 2020 and what they did to save it. Good, quick read on agility and product management at work.

As always, if you want me to work directly with your company on training, coaching or workshops on the topics of organizational agility, digital transformation, product discovery and agile leadership, don’t hesitate to reach out.Like this newsletter? Forward it to a friend.

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