SAFe Mix-in’s: The Core Protocols

April 17, 2019


For some organizations that prefer to have things really well explicitly defined or proscribed, especially if they are in a SAFe transformation, they might want to consider taking a long look at Jim McCarthy’s Core Protocols. To me at least, there is a very natural fit between the Core Protocols and SAFe. The Core Protocols define the kind of interpersonal interactions that you have on a team and SAFe defines the interactions that you have at a cross-team level and above. So, to a certain degree, especially for organization that are really seeking a highly proscribed picture of what to do next, it seems that the Core Protocols and SAFe might be well suited to each other. 

In fact, you might find that you can even evolve the core protocols to some degree. So how would this look? Well, Core Protocols specify, step-by-step, how to define major team interactions. An example is the Core Protocols Check In, where at the start of a meeting you will go around the group and have every person tell you what their current emotional state is, in terms of being mad, sad, glad, etc. Simple attributes. By doing this we get an emotional check-in and a starting point for everyone in the room, and we make it visible. So, it aligns with our need to keep things visible and transparent within the team. It also makes it clear where people are coming from. This Check In, could easily be incorporated into any meeting that you are using in SAFe, whether that is a team level meeting, or a scrum of scrums, PI Planning, any of your higher level meetings across the board. 

That’s just one example. There are about a dozen different protocols within the Core Protocols that could be incorporated in a variety of places. Here’s a short list:

  • Pass(Unpass)
  • Check In
  • Check Out
  • Ask for Help
  • Protocol Check
  • Intention Check
  • Decider
  • Resolution
  • Perfection Game (I love this one)
  • Personal Alignment
  • Investigate

Another example of a Core Protocol that we might use is the Perfection Game, which again can be used in many places in SAFe. It’s a wonderful way of providing feedback and you could incorporate it anywhere that you have reviews or retrospectives. Basically, you give feedback starting with a score of 1 to 10 (10 being perfect). Then you provide examples of what it would take for them to make that score a 10. So, for example, I love the new widget feature and I would give it an 8 out of 10. To get to a 10, I would change the widget so that it takes 1 mouse click instead of 2 to perform that action. That’s pretty much all there is to it. You let the person know how it rates, and then you provide the feedback to help them get to great. If you can’t think of anything to improve it, then you should probably give them a 10. I use this feedback mechanism all the time and folks really seem to appreciate it.

The more I think about this particular mix-in, the more I think there is a small bit of genius to it – at least for some organizations. I think there are some places where it might be very popular. We might also discover along the way that there are a few protocols that can be used at higher levels when having strategic discussions and at the portfolio level or solution level in SAFe. My belief is that there is actually a fair amount of room for creative interpretation and mixing of Core Protocols with SAFe.  


  • You are seeking more proscriptive guidance for certain team level interactions

Framework Impacts

  • None


  • More explicit guidance for healthy team-level interactions

Interested in more Mix-ins? Join Ron Quartel and I for a 3 day workshop on SAFe+FAST Agile. Combine the 2 to get max value from your agile transformation. It’s an opportunity to explore the latest scaled agile processes and practices with other agile innovators on May 15, 16, 17. ‪ ‬

Building the Corporate User Interface

September 20, 2014


A while back I did a talk on the subject of “Hacking the Organization”. It was largely inspired by Jim McCarthy’s talk at a local Open Space. Listening to his talk I realized that people who have programming skills AND insight into processes have a unique opportunity to reprogram the organizations that they work in. This reprogramming can be done in a few different fashions:

Changing the processes: Changing the way people work by introducing new methods, practices and protocols

Changing the systems: integrating the systems to make reporting, operations, and other business processes work more smoothly

Blending the processes and the systems: Changing the way people work and the systems that they work with so that they support each other – making people more alive and engaged in the organization. It’s merging the people and the machine to enhance each other.

In fact, in the lean/agile community, we have become very adept at creating relatively high functioning teams using practices that have evolved significantly over the last few decades. Technology has evolved at an even faster rate, with the web, mobile and other technologies creating opportunities for collaboration that never existed just a few short years ago. Modern teams have the opportunity to revolutionize the way people and systems work together.

Those of us who can code and who are interested in improving the process to benefit everyone are the magicians who have a uniquely powerful opportunity to create real change in organizations. That’s not a bad thesis, right?

Well, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that we are not simply trying to change the organization for the pure sake of change. We strive to make the organization more “user friendly”. Our changes aim to make the organization into a place where people can express their work as joy and express passion for what they do. It should enable that sort of engagement, which forms the catalyst for genuine innovation and products that people love.

What would an organization with a good user interface look like? That’s easy:

  • It’s fun to use
  • It has functions we care about and are easy to find
  • We can clearly see how to do what we need to
  • When we take action it is effortless and feels natural
  • It’s responsive, giving users rapid feedback to their actions

What could we do as organizational hackers to achieve these ends? We could introduce ramification to corporate operations. Turn in your timecard promptly and level up! Create electronic systems that make it easier to reward or thank our peers for their work. We could create dashboards that provide visualizations for corporate operations. We can make this information universally available, even omnipresent for everyone in the company from the CEO to the janitor. We can make our work visible so that people can make educated decisions about what the most important work is that they can be doing. All corporate activities should be self serve and provide immediate feedback.

Wouldn’t that be awesome?

We can do that. We don’t have to ask for permission, we can just do it. Link the sales reporting system to a dashboard. Go ahead, do it. Pull in some transaction metrics and do a little simple math to demonstrate the average dollars per transaction. Automate the HR system so that with the press of a single button you can initiate hiring someone – automate all the paperwork. You make the work easier for everyone. You not only save yourself time, but you save time for everyone else who does that work now – from now on! This kind of savings can multiply very quickly.

The coding really isn’t that hard – most back office systems have pretty sophisticated APIs that enable the possibility of this kind integration. All it takes is someone with the will to make it happen. Guess who that is? You.