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.

Slowing Down

February 12, 2013


Last week I led a session at Agile Open Northwest called, “Slowing Down”. The idea for this session was inspired by my own struggles with becoming quite over-committed to a variety of things (my job, my hobbies, etc.) and the resulting stress and crisis it has created for me. You see, the funny thing about it all was that even though I was perfectly aware of what I was doing by over-committing like crazy, I couldn’t seem to stop.

The Introduction

So I came to this session, not as an expert selling a solution, but rather as a novice seeking help. Since I really didn’t know where things were going to go, I simply started with the session title. I wrote “Slowing Down” on the whiteboard and introduced myself to the small group of people who had joined me for the session. I started with a story of my own. It was a bit like what I imagine an Alcholics Anonymous conversation starts like, “Hi, my name is Tom and I can’t slow down…”

Fortunately for me, many in the audience had a similar story. Since we are a bunch of software development types, it didn’t take long for the concept of sustainable pace to be mentioned. Of course we all knew full well what sustainable pace means. It is a term that I originally encountered in Xtreme Programming. I could ramble on for hours about the importance of keeping the pace and duration of your work under control so that you can sustain your creative energy and not burn out. Easy. But I can’t seem to do it worth a damn. That’s the interesting bit. Why? Why is it that, even knowing the importance of maintaining a sustainable pace, I and others like me seem to struggle so hard with it?


A few interesting ideas for why we get sucked into this dynamic were suggested during the session:


Ownership – Feelings of ownership can make it hard for people to let go of tasks and delegate them to others. For example, it is very easy for project leaders to feel a very strong sense of ownership and commitment to the success of projects that they are working on. This can be quite normal – often our organization want this kind of commitment from us. However, like many things, this can go too far. The undesired dynamic plays out as a feeling that you and only you are personally responsible for the success or failure of the project (what happened to the team?). When challenged, people who struggle with ownership issues will often look with incomprehension when asked to give up some part of a project, “If I don’t do it, who will?” I think that in some cases this inability to give up ownership can also manifest as heroism (ownership + adrenaline junkie). Perhaps at its heart, ownership issues are tightly tied to ego. They seem to manifest as a very selfish view of project success or failure.


Bad Habit

Habit – We form all sorts of bad habits that contribute to the stress in our lives. For example, I’ve gotten into the habit of checking my email compulsively throughout the day. Often even when at home. Habits like this that tether us to the office and constant communication serve to raise our overall stress levels. Other examples include habitually taking home the laptop with you every night and carrying the work phone with you wherever you go.

Culture – One major reason for difficulty with slowing down is the work culture you live in. People shared many different stories of how the expectations at work made it hard or almost impossible for them to escape the pressures of the office. Everything from evil bosses that demand attendance over performance to co-workers who make snide comments when a colleague dares to leave the office at 5:00. Some places even provide rewards for those who make decisions that put work above any other activity. Examples of these sorts of influences in the workplace abound.

All of these influences are very common reasons why people find it hard to slow down. It is no wonder that there are many who struggle to maintain a sustainable pace of work at the office. Understanding why you are feeling that pressure is critical to understanding what strategies to use to manage the problem. The strategies where where we ended up going next.


As we moved along in our discussion, people identified strategies that could be used to deal with slowing down and establishing a more sustainable pace. We captured and expanded upon those strategies as we wove the narrative of slowing down.

Setting Boundaries


The first strategy that came up was setting boundaries. Setting boundaries is fundamental to establishing control over your own schedule and pace. Fail to do this and all the rest really doesn’t matter. People told many stories about how they managed to establish meaningful boundaries in their work lives that helped them to keep a meaningful sustainable pace. Some made their 9 to 5 work hours non-negotiable. They never offered the longer hours that many fall into. You get me for 8 hours a day, and the rest of my life is not for sale. It was remarkable to hear the strength of some of these voices. Others refused to take work home or turned off the cell phone after 5.

Basically, what I heard were people establishing a service level agreement for their participation. One benefit that I noticed from this sort of boundary was that it made visible to everyone just what they could and could not expect from you. Visibility is a strongly held value in the agile community and it struck me that making my boundaries more visible would be a uniquely agile way of dealing with the issue (I’m closing the door now…). Another way of making my boundaries and limits visible would be to use a personal task board mechanism like personal kanban in order to not only make my existing commitments visible, but also to review them myself and keep tabs on how the work load is balanced (or not).


Diana Larsen did a great session last year at Agile2012 on personal retrospectives. As team facilitators, we are pretty well versed in running team retrospectives, however I never do them by myself. That is exactly what Diana proposed: do self-retrospectives on a periodic basis in order to reflect on your progress toward your goals, and where you want to go next. I think this would be a useful tool for many, whether it is only at the end of the year or much more frequently. I know that my own responsibilities feel like they have changed quite dramatically in the last year. Stopping to assess those changes might just give you the opportunity to recognize stressful trends and start to do something about it. You can start to do it now, or wait until a crisis imposes that reflection. Your call.

This is just my summary of what I saw and heard during our talk. Looking at the sheer number of topics that we covered it’s quite apparent to me that we covered a broad number of subjects. Many of them are worthy of deep investigation. Perhaps, as the mind map suggests, we have created a map of the terrain of the topic of slowing down. Others may have different take aways. I certainly hope so. I appreciated everything that the group brought to the conversation and I hope that I was able to serve as a reasonable scribe for what was said.