How Pivotal Works With Customers Who Use SAFe

May 1, 2019 Bruce Strong

Some of Pivotal’s customers have adopted the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) to manage hundreds or even thousands of agile teams across their enterprise. They use SAFe to ensure that these teams, and most importantly teams of teams, are all rowing in the same direction in order to meet the strategic goals of the organization.

Customers ask if Pivotal’s practices are compatible with SAFe. We say yes—not just compatible, but beneficial. Working with Pivotal, organizations can make their SAFe adoption more effective.

How do Pivotal’s practices and SAFe complement each other? SAFe’s focus is on the planning, budgeting, and architectural issues inherent in large XP and Scrum-based processes for teams larger than 50 people. It doesn’t go deep into how individual teams are practicing agile—SAFe assumes that this is already happening. But as those who have implemented agile at the team level know, this is a big assumption! A major mindset shift is required to reap the value of lean startup, extreme programming, and user-centered design. This is why customers use Pivotal Labs and Agile Practice Leadership Enablement to mentor teams to be truly agile. Leaders also work with Pivotal to ensure that related functions—HR, finance, operations, security—provide an environment that promotes agility.

So if SAFe is about scaling agile, and Pivotal’s practices are about helping teams be agile, how do they work together to help large enterprises?

1. Pivotal helps SAFe deliver on its agile brand promise

2. Pivotal helps customers rigorously measure the business value of agility

Helping SAFe deliver on its agile brand promise. SAFe clearly states that it wants users to abide by agile principles. But in our experience, SAFe implementations can sometimes emphasize process and tools over people and interactions. For senior and middle managers who have yet to fully embrace agile, SAFe can provide familiar mechanisms that may be misused for command and control purposes. Already wary of agile team autonomy, these managers use SAFe processes to reassert authority. This results in a SAFe process that is heavy, slow, and bureaucratic.

For customers who have experienced this tension between control and autonomy, Pivotal has helped to tailor SAFe to ensure that the process is true to agile principles. For instance, a customer came to Pivotal with a challenge: their Program Increment (PI) Planning sessions weren’t sufficiently productive. This is a big problem, because two-day PI Planning sessions are expensive (all members of the Agile Release Train, or ART, attend in person) and central to SAFe. Pivotal facilitated a workshop with the goal of making the PI Planning sessions leaner and more focused on creating business value. The result was an updated process that enhanced both the connections the enterprise required to ensure that the teams’ efforts were coordinated and the autonomy that the product teams needed to be agile.

Helping customers rigorously measure the business value of agility. Is transformation bringing business results commensurate with the effort? SAFe offers that the enterprise should see increases in productivity, improvements in quality, faster time-to-market, and increased employee engagement and job satisfaction. But how does an organization measure this in a granular and credible way?

Pivotal looks at IT processes through the lens of what we call the 5Ss: stability, security, scalability, speed, and savings. We use the 5Ss to instrument SAFe so that the enterprise can effectively measure IT process progress. Pivotal has leveraged our own code development experience as well as customer engagements to design and implement these types of measures.  Some examples from each category:

  • Speed: Time to value, frequency of customer feedback, the time between bug identification and fix, customer net promoter scores.

  • Stability: Product teams stability (whether teams are kept together to provide a consistent level of quality and performance). The volatility of team output. Mean time to failure. Mean time to recovery.

  • Scalability: Speed at which resources can be scaled to address increases or decreases in demand. The investment ratio between software development and operations.  

  • Security: The fraction of operator time spent on security configurations. The number of disruptions or suspensions due to security concerns.

  • Savings: Development, deployment, and operating costs, and whether they are in line with industry-best standards. Operator to developer ratios. The number of apps per operator. Degree of automation for provisioning, build, test, change approval.

And, Pivotal goes beyond measuring IT efficiency. Lean budgeting requires that organizations measure business value so that they can invest their dollars productively. Pivotal animates SAFe practices so that the organization can measure business value creation at the team, ART, and portfolio levels. To ensure agility, Pivotal helps organizations create hypotheses about how much business value each incremental investment will create, and then measure whether the hypothesis was validated. Based on the results of these experiments, management can decide whether to pivot or persevere.

Pivotal helps organizations create business value metrics that are granular and actionable, ensuring that leadership has a constantly updated view for how to most productively direct resources.

In conclusion, SAFe is a rich process for ensuring many agile teams stay aligned on business goals. Pivotal helps organizations ensure that SAFe’s processes are always congruent with agile principles and practices. We help optimize both autonomy (which agile teams require) and connection (to ensure that strategic goals are being met). And we help customers instrument the work done under SAFe to ensure that it is providing measurable business value.


About the Author

Bruce Strong

Bruce is a senior consultant with Pivotal’s Innovation Strategy Team. He has worked in the area of organizational and digital transformation for the last 15 years. Bruce has published articles on the topic for the Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review. He is also co-author of Strategic Conversation: Creating and Directing the Entrepreneurial Workforce a book published by Cambridge University Press.

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