SAFe is like playing billiards

Published on Friday, May 3rd 2019


Working SAFe means working in a non-existing ‘controlled environment’

As rational human beings we want to believe that the world always works through causality. ‘A happens because of B’ or ‘If I take measure C, I will get effect D’. Causality is our primary paradigm when looking at our surrounding realm. We believe in our ratio and thus in predictions. But as I showed in previous posts, predictions rarely work out.

We are not the first to think about the unpredictability of the world we live in. Since time immemorial, prominent mathematicians and physicists like Newton, Euler and Einstein have racked their brains about the unpredictability of systems in which three particles interact. It can be three balls, but also three humans, or two humans and a ball. Let’s be honest: in terms of predictability of behaviour, people are seriously surpassed by balls.

Unpredictability is practically unacceptable for everyone. Especially in business. We refuse to think of it, and for managers in particular the automatic response is to reject it completely. We think we live in a fully causal world and we just need to create the appropriate circumstances. To debunk causality, science came up with a so-called ‘controlled environment’, presuming it is possible to overcome the effects of the three (or more) moving particles.

A controlled environment is a negation of the world as it is; you never have a fully controlled environment! There is no system that shows predictable behaviour. Yet, for the eager manager who wants to be ‘in control,’ smart marketing developers came up with pleasing answers. Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) for instance, is a template for getting your organisation as a whole on three or even four different levels (Team, Program, Value Stream, Portfolio) making the shortest possible steps in delivering business impact within a complex organisation.

SAFe is based on the ‘Agile Manifesto’ but because of the fact that it’s extrapolated on more than two levels it unfortunately loses all Agile’s power and becomes unpredictable. SAFe is making the small steps within Agile big again and introduces high dependencies. So let’s dare to ask ourselves some reasonable questions about SAFe and Agile rules:

  • Is SAFe more predictable than any other methodology? No, there is no scientific proof that it does work, but there is scientific proof it does not, because it does not overcome the three particles phenomenon and therefore stays as unpredictable as any other methodology we have created in the past decades.
  • Is Agile more predictable than any other methodology? Yes, on a small scale it seems to be having a positive impact on predicted outcome. Although there is no scientific proof that it’s because of Agile or the small steps being taken, our empirical experience is very promising. But didn’t we already know that evolution is preferable to revolution?
  • Can we measure how Agile we are when taking Agile literally? No, it’s an abstract phenomenon.
  • Can we measure if we gain in productivity when working according to Agile principles? No, and if we could measure it, then only against our own baseline. It would become interesting if it gave us a competitive advantage. And if that were the case then our competitors will just do the same. This means that the positive margin we gain of measuring productivity is very thin and therefore negligible.
  • Can we measure performance increase when working according to Agile principles? Yes, one of the rules of Agile tells us how to create flow by decreasing wait states. When we talk about the chain of activities to turn around business ideas into IT, then that’s where we really can find performance increase. Again, we need a baseline to measure it and this lies in the craft and knowledge of the sum of all production activities. We are talking about the sum of many small details all together delivering substantive output. This is what we call Theory of Constraints (ToC), which turns out to be a great success factor within Agile.

And the final question: Should we as a complex organisation focus on becoming Agile via SAFe or becoming a high performer according to ToC and therefore being Agile? We know that presuming we can realize a controlled environment is naive and perhaps even deceptive. And as it happens, all models are flawed versions of reality. So SAFe and Agile are still models, fixtures of a world as we presume it is for that moment. SAFe is more like playing billiards and less about cycling. For an organization only one aspect is important and that is to have a High Performance.

Agile means decreasing wait states and making small steps, but still it is not enough because this does not make us a high performer. Next week I will talk about how to become a high performer through cycling by use of ToC and anti-fragility, and elaborate more on the impossibility of a controlled environment.