Wednesday, November 2, 2016

I hate SAFe ...

".. because it focuses too much on management, and too little on teams." - this is what I hear many times from agile coaches who have very strong opinions regarding SAFe.

Let me just ask you a few questions about your own experience, before getting into SAFe:

  • Whom do you find more difficult to convince of agility: developers - or managers?
  • Where do more organizational impediments arise: development - or management?
  • Who will have more effect by changing something they can control: developers - or managers?
  • Who is less likely to change their ways of working during an agile transformation: developers - or managers?
  • Who needs an answer to the question "What will I do in an agile organization?" more urgently: developers - or managers?
  • Who do we spend more time with during an agile transformation: developers - or managers?

Where agilists failed

Agility has a sad history of neglecting, ignoring and even badmouthing managers. Statements ranging from "Management is optional" to "You don't need managers in an agile organization" all the way down to "Impediments tend to have a job title ending with 'manager' or starting with 'head of ...'" alienate management.

People fail to see that every existing company has a management structure - and that managers are all highly skilled individuals who got into their position for what they can bring to the company. Structure has rendered many of these people ineffective or counterproductive. You have bright heads with brilliant ideas doing nothing except filling powerpoint slides and spreadsheet reports, attending a gazillion of meetings. I don't think that many who hold a managerial role consider that "This is what I went to university for!"

The SAFe answer

SAFe is a framework that does not go out on a limb with a "Let's fire all the managers!" declaration of war. 
Instead, SAFe does what agilists have neglected over decades: Finding an appropriate answer to the question "What is the role of a manager in an agile organization?"
The answers provided in SAFe are not surprising at all. They are based on what the reality of agile transformations in the past has already taught us.

Managers are still valuable in an agile organization, with two important constraints that need to be clearly understood:
  1. Engineers aren't "resources". You can't manage people like resources. We respect people.
  2. Engineers don't work on an assembly line. Tayloristic management doesn't transfer into knowledge work. We assume variability and preserve options.
 As a consequence of these two, the role of the agile manager undergoes a radical transformation. A traditional manager must un-learn many behaviours and adopt new behaviours to adequately serve an agile organization. 

How can a manager know which behaviours are detrimential and which are desparately needed? 
Well - you don't learn that in a Scrum Master class. 
Managers desparately need clear answers to the questions I asked initially. The Scaled Agile Framework takes a shot at the question "What is the role of a manager in a large, agile organization" by first digging into the question what an agile organization looks like - and from there explaining which changes management role need to live through - and why these changes in roles are essential.


I don't hate SAFe because it has so much to say on management. I love it for what it has to say regarding management. It provides a perspective for some of the most skilled and crucial knowledge workers a company has. 
A manager in a SAFe organization will finally be what they always longed to be: valuable. And SAFe gives managers a solid set of "baby steps" to outgrow their past.


  1. Hi Michael,
    I do not know a single person in the agile community, that said such a sentence.
    What I usually here is "a blueprint", "keep old roles, introduce additional ones and nothing changes" or "long cycle (cadence)"
    What I can usually see is a lack of leadership in middle management and you have to work on that first. That is framework independent.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Nils.

      I do agree that when we sell SAFe as a new painting for the same structure, there will be no change. SAFe can be a game-changer only when used as one: The same players in the same positions will play the same game even in new shirts.

      SAFe makes "working on middle management" a high priority from very early on - *in parallel* to creating an environment where they can not continue their old behaviours.

      In my opinion, "creating understanding" helps nothing until the environment changes. Please join my discussion on that exact topic on LinkedIn: