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  • Writer's pictureSaahil Panikar

8 Common Reasons Why SAFe® Transformations Fail (and how to avoid them)

Note: This article was first published on the Icon Agility Services Blog

Agile is disciplined; not reckless.

“That’s not how we do things here.”

“That will never work for us.”

“That’s not our culture.”

Sound familiar? Maybe you’ve heard or even said one of these phrases before. If so, you might be trudging through a Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe) Transformation.

If you think that your SAFe Transformation is doomed to fail because your organization is unique—so unique that industry best practices couldn’t possibly apply to you—then let’s dispel that myth right now. That's not why SAFe Transformations fail. Sure, context matters, but at the end of the day, large enterprises across all industries have the same problems.

No matter your special circumstance, SAFe offers something for you. There are 50+ case studies from complex companies across a myriad of industries that all show improvement in time to market, employee morale, productivity, product/software quality, and more. The benefits of SAFe are real, and if you’re in a transformation or considering one, then there’s something you need to understand: SAFe transformations are demanding, laborious, and frequently expensive. They tend to have significant unknowns with many complex moving pieces, and, typically, leadership expects results immediately.

The SAFe road is not always a smooth one, but the rewards are worth it. To make the journey easier, we’ve come up with a list of 8 reasons why SAFe Transformations fail, as well as suggestions for how to avoid them.

1. Doing too much too fast

Without a basic understanding of Agile and the Lean-Agile mindset, a transformation sets itself up for failure. SAFe encourages you to go all in, but what often gets left out is that there is a certain amount of responsibility, (i.e safety, stability, accountability, etc) required to be successful. It’s common to find yourself drowning in new processes, procedures, and unknowns.

How can you slow down but keep a good momentum? Many organizations find success by launching a single Agile Release Train (ART), then extrapolating learning practices and expanding their agility from there. Here are some questions you can ask to get an understanding of where you stand:

  • Does your organization track metrics that are key to your success?

  • Are your teams effective communicators?

  • Are your teams empowered to make decisions for themselves?

If you answered “no” to these questions, then identify which of these will give you the biggest return in the shortest amount of time (sound familiar?) and go after it. Once you’ve solved that problem, go back and repeat the process.

2. Not providing adequate training

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just send an email letting people know that we’re doing something differently, and then everyone does it and immediate success occurs? Unfortunately, reality is rarely that easy, and people are hardly that accommodating. A successful transformation requires direction and guidance from trained change agents, and you have to provide the training.

Training should be the first thing you do. Identify your Lean-Agile change agents, either internal employees or outside consultants, and have them train executives and leadership on their roles and responsibilities. Once leaders are trained and have identified Value Streams and ARTs, you can create an implementation plan and prepare for the ART launch(es). At this point, you train the people who will be the foundation for your ARTs, including Product Owners/Managers, Scrum Masters, and Stakeholders. Finally, train your Dev teams to ensure complete understanding of their responsibilities to the train.

Check out the SAFe Implementation Roadmap, which identifies “critical moves” for SAFe adoption based on hundreds of other successful SAFe Transformations. See all the training that’s recommended? People need a thorough understanding of their roles and responsibilities before moving forward, so please don’t take shortcuts and follow the roadmap as best you can.

3. Over-reliance on outside consultants

Consultants are essential for a successful transformation. They have the knowledge and experience to help guide you… but they cannot do it for you. So how do you get the most from outside consultants in the shortest amount of time?

To start, make sure leadership is heavily involved. Internal leaders are powerful influencers and ultimately responsible for making sustainable changes. By involving themselves in the transformation, leadership can understand the roadblocks and provide insight on how to mitigate or resolve them. As they show a willingness to work through these challenges, employees stay engaged and committed to the transformation.

Another way to prevent over-reliance on outside consultants is to quickly establish a Lean-Agile Center of Excellence (LACE), which allows for discussion, discourse, and communal problem-solving by change agents. A LACE should be composed of engaged leaders, outside consultants, and full-time employees. Full-time employees will have to continue on after the consultants leave, so it’s important to have them engaged and actively included in the process from the very beginning.

Ideally, outside consultants will educate you and guide you as you implement your own transformation. You will be doing yourself a disservice if you expect your external consultants to do everything for you, since you are responsible for keeping the ship upright after they leave. Remember the old adage from Chinese philosopher Laozi: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

4. Giving up because the road is too bumpy

The brain likes what it already knows. As we stated before, a SAFe transformation is not easy, nor can it be done quickly. You are essentially changing the way your company functions. If you’ve never had the chance to watch The Backwards Brain Bicycle, then please watch it now before reading on.

As you go through your SAFe transformation, you will run up against policies and processes that don’t seem to make sense for your company. Any disruption will negatively impact the performance of teams in the short term, but we encourage you to power through. Remember that transformation is inherently disruptive. People will hate it, and something critical will likely go wrong, and that’s okay. Just recognize that you’ve fallen off the bicycle and get back on.

No one gets it right the first time. You know who succeeds? The people who learn from their mistakes and try again. One of the core tenets of agile and SAFe is the concept of iterating quickly. There is no reason a transformation should be any different. Give your people a venue to voice their questions and concerns, and make sure they are visible to everyone so you can source ideas and solutions together.

Another solution to the bumpy road is to showcase short-term wins and celebrate successes often. Figure out what metrics you can track and measure your progress towards your goal. Make progress visible to empower your teams. If you want to stack the deck a bit, track metrics that you know will improve quickly.

5. Lack of a guiding coalition/transformation team

We cannot stress enough that transformations are complex. One or two people cannot guide or lead them. An effective transformation requires the coordinated efforts of multiple people, including directors, executives, and outside consultants. It is also necessary for this group to include members who are not part of senior management. This may be awkward at times, but it is imperative that everyone has a voice.

According to Dr. John Kotter's 1996 book Leading Change, the key to leading change is the creation of an influential guiding coalition, and that influence must be predicated on credibility and respect. This guiding coalition should be composed of strong leaders at every level to ensure that communications and initiatives are taken seriously.

As you build your guiding coalition, you may find yourself very dependent on outside consultants (see reason #3). Make sure that your transformation team learns from, rather than relies on, external coaches so that you can sustain the implementation after they’re gone.

6. Forgetting to create short-term wins

People love to win. They need to see short term victories, or you will likely lose support for a transformation that typically takes a year or longer. Hoping for a win is not enough—you have to create it.

Change takes a long time; if short-term wins are not acknowledged and celebrated, then people naturally fall back into old habits. The key is to not obsess over long-term goals, but to understand that large goals are made up of smaller ones. The most effective means of generating progress is to deal with the immediate needs in front of you and understand how those needs tie into the larger picture.

Dr. John Kotter describes a short-term success as a milestone that the entire team would agree is indicative of progress towards a goal. Identifying possible short-term goals is one of the first things you can do in a transformation. Work with leaders and teams to identify achievable realistic goals, and then work towards them together. Create metrics that can be tracked to measure your progress along the way.

7. Expecting transformation to be inexpensive

We’re going to take this moment as a golden opportunity to remind you of SAFe principle #1: Take an economic view.

As we said earlier, Agile Transformations require training, leadership engagement, and organizational support for collaboration and alignment before maximizing utilization. Training is expensive, leadership’s time is expensive, and time spent collaborating does not directly create revenue; ergo, we can safely say that Agile Transformations are expensive. Anybody who tells you it’s not is probably trying to sell you some consultants. Trust us, you’ll likely be paying for more expensive consultants to come in later and fix the mess created by cheap ones.

One of the biggest challenges you’ll have to face is shifting the way you think about budgets. Waterfall entails project-based, cost-center accounting. SAFe allocates funding to value streams within a portfolio. When you pair this funding model with a strong Lean Portfolio Managementgroup, you’ll find that the right people have the control and authority necessary to move money around inside the portfolio.

In practice, this means that budgets are not earmarked for a specific piece of work, leading to flexibility in your strategy and funding model. You’ll still have a cap on how much money your portfolio can spend, but in this model, the money is not allocated to specific line-items. You can do whatever you need to inside your Portfolio in order to be successful. This shift alone will enable your Enterprise to be more responsive to changing priorities and market conditions than any organization that is committed to annual budgets and project plans.

8. Forgetting that Culture Change comes last

Change is hard. Changing an organization’s habits and culture is monumentally hard. People resist change. You cannot begin to change until you acknowledge the possibility that things can be done in a better way. For some, a SAFe transformation challenges their deeply held beliefs. Others become immediate champions for change. Scaled Agile says an organization must reach its “tipping point,”the point at which the organization wants to change, as opposed to resisting the change.

A successful change involves a lot of trust, preparation, perseverance, and patience. The results will not be immediate. Some questions you should answer as you try to change include:

  • Do your people understand why change is necessary?

  • Do your people fall back on what they know when confronted with something new?

  • Are your people actually on board or are they going through the motions?

  • Do you have the policies in place to support people through a change?

  • Are you measuring the right metrics to ensure progress is being made?

With those questions in mind, there are four things an organization can do to help facilitate a culture change:

  1. Clearly enumerate the benefits of undergoing a change

  2. Utilize an outside force to motivate your own people

  3. Leadership must be vehemently onboard

  4. Identify what metrics can be tracked to measure progress towards your desired goals

Final Notes

If we can leave you with a final takeaway, it’s that transformation is hard, but that doesn’t mean it's not worth it. SAFe Transformations take time and effort. You cannot just decide to fundamentally change the way established workers process information, or structure their work, and expect them to immediately succeed. You need experienced change agents and engaged leadership to work together. Constantly level-set expectations so that frustrations don’t boil over. When things go wrong, understand that it’s part of the process and they will get better with time, provided you learn from your mistakes.

If you've derailed and need help getting back on track, consider reaching out to us. By ensuring that you fully understand, contribute to, and own your transformation, our coaches prepare you to sustain and succeed on their own.

Written by Saahil Panikar and Saajan Panikar

Saahil has been a leader in transforming organizations and teams by helping them master Agile and Scaled Agile best practices for over 10 years. He is a passionate Agilist whose thirst for continuous improvement led him to his first Agile Transformation in 2013 and has caused him to push the envelope ever since. Saahil has led multiple SAFe and Agile Transformations, some internationally, providing portfolio, program, team, and leadership coaching and training. Throughout his career, he has launched 40+ ARTs and Solution Trains. In addition to being a Scaled Agilist and SPCT Candidate, Saahil is a certified Enterprise Business Agility Strategist and is determined to help organizations extend their Agility beyond IT.  He has degrees in Mathematics, International Business, and Design Thinking, and he started his career as a Data Scientist, so Saahil is still passionate about DevOps and the metrics behind successful transformations. As a former collegiate rugby player for the University of Florida, Saahil bleeds Orange and Blue and is a die-hard fan of Gator Football. 

Saajan is an effective Lean-Agile coach and dedicated servant leader with 7+ years of experience guiding and building teams, managers, and executives, often taking them from forming to high-performing. From small start-ups to Fortune 100 companies, he has utilized Lean-Agile methodologies and tools across a myriad of industries, including Food and Beverage Retail, Banking and Financial Services, Personal Security, Healthcare Education, and Virtual Reality Services. Saajan’s resolute belief in the effectiveness of collaboration, communication, and facilitation support the inevitable growth of self-managing, self-directing teams in any environment. He has led multiple SAFe and Agile Transformations and has provided team, program, and leadership coaching and training. Saajan holds several SAFe certifications and the biggest lesson he’s learned is that Agility is for everyone, not just IT. Saajan has a BS in Wildlife Biology (ask him about how he used to wrestle alligators) and holds a Masters in Business with a focus in Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

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