Steve Denning’s recent Forbes article, “How To Make the Whole Organization Agile,” had some excellent commentary on corporate cultural dynamics and the headwinds produced when change is attempted, especially in the case of Agile.
On the whole, the article is about how easy it is for Agile to fail because it requires a commitment and a new way of thinking, not just from the Agile teams, but from the entire organization. This is largely because the top levels of an organization care almost entirely about making money – and command-and-control reinforces this belief down the lines of the organization. Agile, however, is about creating value for the customers (increased profits will come as a result).
Denning’s statement about a top-down management approach is spot on. He claims that in this environment, implementing Agile is tricky. When the manager is boss, “adoption of Agile is limited to the team level, [and] it risks being incomplete and dysfunctional, producing little if any improvement for the organization.”
The article then becomes a focus on how to create an Agile environment throughout the organization. Denning is quick to introduce – and dismiss – the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) as a solution. So far as we understand his point, this is because he sees SAFe as an attempt to align Agile teams with corporate goals (that is, to make money), which is ultimately not fostering an Agile atmosphere and is not focusing on increased value for the customers.
He asserts that, “In the process of ‘aligning’ Agile teams with corporate goals, such as making quarterly profits and pumping up the stock price, SAFe destroys the very essence of Agile.”
We struggle with this assertion for two reasons: First, SAFe is very much built on lean and Agile principles. Second, the alignment of which Denning speaks is not a sell-out accommodation to existing corporate authority structures. It is a negotiated agreement between management and Agile teams regarding value streams – and yes, that means value to the customer. That very discussion should be a catalyst for basing corporate goals on achievable customer value. This “alignment” between management and the teams is actually what has been missing in most development, resulting in a high rate of project failure.
Denning is right that making Agile work requires change within the entire organization, but we disagree with his belief that SAFe doesn’t meet this need. Indeed, we believe that a deeper understanding of SAFe shows that it facilitates such a change. SAFe is not the only workable way to scale Agile, but it is a realistic one.
SAFe Program Consultant