Just because you hate guided tours doesn’t mean you need to hate SAFe!

(This post is based on content which originally appeared in an interview I gave InfoQ for Lean Kanban France 2014)

A pattern I recognized on enterprise agile transformations is the difference between the guided tour and guide book approaches to change management.

This pattern basically talks about this choice that people have to make between following big, organized, prescriptive framework or basing their decisions on principles and then choosing the different practices that make sense along the way.
Let’s say you go and visit Paris or London or Moscow or Tel Aviv, how do you run your visit? Some people would take a guided tour that goes through all of the highlights and does all of the thinking and decision making for them and doesn’t give them any options. Some other people would read some guide books or use Yelp or the local time out in the city or ask friends or even make decisions along the way, have some plans, some options that they would like to look at. For example, I use bookmarks in Yelp or a Google Map with the things that I’d like to do but they don’t tell myself what would happen in each day. I don’t make those decisions up front. I come to the city, see what is going on, and choose from the options along the way.

Now, let’s try to apply this thinking to the world of Scaling Agile. Let’s look at SAFe™ (The Scaled Agile Framework™) for example. SAFe can be seen as a classic guided tour aiming to satisfy the need of the mainstream masses for minimal choice and maximum safety by following in the footsteps of others (“Best Practices”). When seen as a guided tour SAFe is well-designed for the purpose and does its job well. Maybe too well, because as the ecosystem around it grows there are more and more people practicing/preaching SAFe that ONLY see SAFe this way. This is actually a turnoff for people that want a guidebook rather than a guided tour. I’m seeing more and more of those people that are turned off of SAFe by this perception.

I think SAFe can be used as a great guidebook as well. And that is how I typically use it on my AgileSparks engagements. The most typical use these days is bringing in some great ideas from SAFe into an engagement. Growing in popularity is looking at SAFe for inspiration and using its key aspects as a skeleton for how agile is going to look like in the organization. And even those organizations that want to “Do SAFe” still go through some customization period that makes sure they are starting off with a reasonable approach. The “Inspect and Adapt” aspect of SAFe anyhow should take care of adjusting the approach based on what happens in the trenches after starting. From a change management perspective all of these approaches have “some” ingredient of fair process/engagement of people in deciding how they are going to work (rather than management/a central change agent mandating the practices to them — see here for some more discussion of the value in inviting people to agree on practices to try rather than mandating the practices)
One of the things I am realizing is that as a change agent, what makes it complex is that what you should consider is not just your own personal preference for guided tours or guidebooks. It’s even more important to figure out what would be more effective for the client. Sometimes the thing that they actually need is the guided tour despite our preference for the guide book. And vice versa. And in most cases the right answer is a middle-ground or a mix. Like that time we took a short Architectural Walk of Barcelona which was one of the highlights of our otherwise unstructured getaway there last year…

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