SAFe: The Prescriptive Mirror

April 10, 2019

There are two attributes of SAFe that I think have really been instrumental to the success of SAFe as a framework. The first attribute is The Big Picture. You’ve probably seen it before. It’s the great big diagram of the SAFe process that illustrates where and how teams, programs, and portfolios relate to one another. To me, The Big Picture is a mirror for any organization that is looking for a better framework or better process. The minute they look at The Big Picture in SAFe, they see themselves. That’s what a mirror does, it shows you your best self. It shows you the flattering view of what you might look like. It gives people in large bureaucratic organizations a pretty picture of what they might look like if they were agile. It’s flattering to them, and seems achievable.

It may not be flattering to everyone, but to many organizations that are struggling with how to adopt agile, The Big Picture is really an attractive portrait of how they might start down that path. I think that was my first reaction the first time that I saw The Big Picture. I was working in a very large bureaucratic organization and after seeing The Big Picture I could envision the next steps that we needed to take toward becoming a more agile organization. And just like when I look in the mirror every morning, I just see my 18 year old self (true). I don’t see the love handles (ha!) or the receding hairline. For some reason or another, it seems that when we look in a mirror, we only see the best bits. I think that’s exactly what you get with the SAFe Big Picture, and it’s one key element of SAFe’s genius.

The second attribute that has been instrumental in the success of SAFe has been the very prescriptive nature of the framework. SAFe has done a better job than literally any of the other competing scaling frameworks out there in terms of documenting and providing prescriptive answers for all of the processes that are described in the big picture. It’s exhaustive and that is exactly what these big customers want. They want a prescriptive checklist on how to achieve that Big Picture vision that they have fallen in love with. And so that’s exactly what SAFe has done with their documentation. It’s really quite impressive when you dive into it, and it continues to expand and evolve.

So given all of that: The Big Picture used as a mirror and the prescriptive nature of the documentation, together they are kind of a one-two punch that’s really killer for big, bureaucratic organizations. As such I have no complaint about that (and more than a little admiration for an organization like SAI that truly understands their customers). There are a few things that we need to keep in mind. For instance, when people look at The Big Picture what they see is an attractive end state. However, there are lots of different end states in the real world. There are lots of possible outcomes for organizations. When people look at the SAFe big picture they only see one outcome. To some degree SAI have addressed that concern. They have created the different packages (Essential SAFe, Portfolio SAFe, Solution SAFe, Full SAFe) acknowledging that not one size fits all.

However I think we can go further. I think what we are going to see is that SAFe is going to continue to evolve over time. So what I’d like to see is a hypothetical SAFe 8.0 where, we haven’t gotten there yet, but this is what SAFe might look like down the road. It might be something that has many alternative paths. I think if we can start to provide those future scenarios or pictures then we can start to give guidance beyond the first big picture. We need to move from the path TO SAFe, onward to the path FROM SAFe to whatever is next. We can start to help guide organizations on the evolutionary path toward a more agile future.