In today’s episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast, host Dan Neumann is joined once again by Christy Erbeck. Christy is a principal transformation consultant at AgileThought and a Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator. She has over 25 years of experience in domestic and international consulting, training and coaching, and working in both software development and non-product-focused environments, including manufacturing (discrete and process), distribution, and sales and marketing.
On top of all of Christy’s licenses and titles, she is also a Certified SAFe® Program Consultant—which is also the topic of today’s show. There are a lot of horror stories around SAFe implementations because, in many cases, the original intent has been corrupted. So in this episode, Christy is breaking the SAFe Framework down for listeners. She’s busting the myths that have given SAFe a bad rap and then providing her tips for a successful and effective implementation of SAFe.
Transcript [This transcript is auto-generated and not completely accurate in its depiction of the English language or rules of grammar]
Intro: [00:03] Welcome to the Agile Coaches’ Corner by AgileThought, the podcast for practitioners and leaders seeking advice to refine the way they work and pave the path to better outcomes. Now here’s your host, coach and agile expert, Dan Neumann.
Dan Neumann: [00:17] Welcome to this episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner. I’m your host Dan Newman. And today after the holidays, happy to be joined by Christy Erbeck who among her other licenses and titles and certifications is a certified safe program consultant. And that is the topic of today’s episode. Thanks for joining Christy.
Christy Erbeck: [00:37] Thanks for having me.
Dan Neumann: [00:38] So you recently attended a safe certified training and you were relaying to me before we got on here that there were kind of three big beliefs that you had about safe before you went into the training. And now those beliefs have morphed into busted myths. And so that’ll be what we’re going to, uh, what we’re going to be doing without getting too far into the Mythbusters infringing on their copyright. But yes, let’s bust some myths.
Christy Erbeck: [01:05] All right, sounds good. Yes, I did walk into the training, um, a little with a little bit of trepidation actually because of the beliefs that I’d held based on stories that I’d heard from other people who had directly experienced a safe implementation either at a previous company or had been part of it with, uh, another organization or even with one of our implementations. And so I was, I was hesitant. I was, you know, curious, but probably more questioning and probably even a little bit judgmental about what was going to happen and whether or not I would could buy into and believe. And then, except to the point that I could consult and train this program. And it was so, I was a little nervous going into this training. Uh, but in the end I walked away with a really good understanding of the original intent that Dean Leffingwell had for the scaled agile framework as well as concrete examples that busted the beliefs that I had.
Dan Neumann: [02:31] That’s good. Yeah. And I know the framework has continued to evolve over time. We were looking at safe version five is the current one now. And so it’s continued to evolve over time too. And I may or may not be guilty of sharing some more stories of safe implementations that I have been in and around are part of. And um, I suspect much like a Scrum Framework implementation, there are things that happened that are suboptimal and could easily kind of taint one’s perspective of Scrum, let’s say as just a, you know, a thing that’s, um, a new project management methodology as opposed to the framework. And so I suspect there’s some parallels to, uh, to safe in that way where the intent is sometimes lost with specific implementations. And uh, it’s good to know for sure what, what the intent was and what some of the practices are. They can lead to better outcomes.
Christy Erbeck: [03:35] Absolutely. And that actually goes along with the very first belief that I held walking into the class that I had to put aside, which was, I believed it was waterfall disguised as agility. And I didn’t think that it was a framework. I thought it was a prescriptive, step-by-step process that you absolutely have to do all of these things in, in this way. And in truth, it is a framework. And while the framework has certain events and certain cadences and certain things that it recommends, much like Scrum or even the Kanban method, there’s some elasticity in that framework in how it’s implemented.
Dan Neumann: [04:27] Are there some examples maybe that come to mind on that? Cause I think when I think of safe, um, it used, I don’t know if it’s still called the big picture and with previous versions there was just a big picture. And now there are, there’s a safe essentials and at least four different kind of, uh, maybe the frameworks or four flavors of the framework that are used. And I think my perception of the big picture was that it was fairly prescriptive or it was perceived as prescriptive and people were, um, Oh, I dunno, trying to implement it wrote or by the book with out the elasticity without the flexibility or the local context.
Christy Erbeck: [05:08] And that’s where I think, no, I totally agree. And I think that’s where people go have gone astray or awry in that they’ve taken the intent of the implementation roadmap where it definitely is clear. Let’s do this first. Let’s do this second, let’s do this third. And as we learn and grow along the way, we’re going to gain more information. We’re going to learn more about how this works. There’s still the, it’s underlining, uh, and, and underpinned by principles. And those principles are underpinned by The Agile Manifesto. So even though there is this overarching framework and that they lay out for how to go about doing this in a sequential way, the fundamental mindset underneath this is agility, is the lean systems thinking. And that if, if we take away that, then yes, it is wrote and it is step-by-step and thou must do this. And then in this and then that. However, when you couple it and go back to or, or peel away the plan and the roadmap that will help organizations implement agility at scale. Underneath all of that is the core concepts of an agile mindset, The Agile Manifesto, and then the nine principles of SAFE. I knew nothing about that and I feel very ignorant and have really, um, been grateful for the opportunity to learn SAFE from a wonderful instructor. It was just phenomenal. Um, and, and not, not just wonderful because he understands safe so deeply, but he’s also a Professional Scrum Trainer and so has such a fundamental understanding and deep understanding of Scrum and how to apply it at scale. It was just fantastic.
Dan Neumann: [07:38] No, that, that’s wonderful. I think a couple things you touched on there, you know, not just taking the picture and trying to implement it, but really getting curious about the lean systems thinking and the principles behind it. So the analogy there for me, for folks who are more familiar with Scrum would be, Oh gosh, we stood up for 15 minutes every day and nothing changed in the organization. What’s going on? You know, we’ve, gosh, we did Scrum and we have all these meetings and well, there’s not very many events in Scrum. What are all those other meetings? Well, they’re Scrum buts and they’re not based in the principle. They’re not based in the framework. And I think I could see that being the case as well with safe, where people are trying to follow the rules but not really understanding the principles and the latitude and lean systems thinking that underlie that.
Christy Erbeck: [08:29] Exactly. And if you understand that Mr. Leffingwell created SAFE for the enterprise to scale predictability and you just start thinking about that, then you start to understand why we need these steps and this roadmap and these events and how we can incorporate agile methods or agile frameworks like Scrum, like Kanban and where they apply and how they work together. And it’s a brilliant application of the, all of these things related to agility. And I don’t want to over speak about SAFE and say it’s, you know, Nirvana because it’s not. In the end, this is the one of the most difficult implementations and bodies of work that you will ever attempt. And that’s why I believe there’s so many war stories of a SAFE implementation is because the original intent has been corrupted and they are absolutely bad implementations because the organization didn’t have the fortitude, the consultant didn’t really understand what needed to be done, whatever variety of reasons stuff got got in the way, right. Life and the business got in the way. And so the implementation got interrupted because this is all about endurance. This is about scale, this is about longevity. It does not happen overnight. Right?
Dan Neumann: [10:16] Yeah, no, for sure. And actually going way back to, I think the first episode of the podcast was Sam and I talking about doing agile well before scaling. And I think that’s where I’ve seen things go horribly wrong with SAFE. Um, I don’t want to say complicit, but is around safe was there was not much agility there to start with. And then it was, Hey, here’s the Scrum thing, here’s the agile training. We’re going to scale by the end of the week. And that makes for a really rough go. And so scaled agile implies that there’s some agile to start with and to scale going forward. And I think that’s keeping that in mind. We’d be curious to know how many implementations go sideways because they’re trying to go from um, a fairly planned driven, gated approach to one that’s a scaled agile approach and not um, taking the time to do the change that really would support that well.
Christy Erbeck: [11:15] I don’t know what the numbers are on that, but I would assume there is a high percentage of failure because we didn’t start small. And another myth that went along with or belief that got busted was my belief that SAFE stopped at train the leaders about velocity. Just train the leaders and then get started. And that’s all you have to do and nothing could be further from the truth. And again, the original intent and the implementation and everything that we learned in the class. Um, yes, that is one of the first things that we want companies and organizations to do is to train the leaders because so much organizational change has to occur in order for a safe implementation to be effective and successful. That if we don’t get the leaders on board up front, help them understand the, how their role is going to shift, what they’re going to need to do differently, what the manager situation is going to be, all of that. If we don’t do that first and they don’t really want and have a compelling why they want to do this, we’re implementing a failed roadmap from the get go.
Dan Neumann: [12:43] Yeah. The move to agility does not eliminate managers. And we’ve talked about that. Uh, we’ve, we were actually talking about that before we clicked record and I know the episode I did with Esther Derby, we were talking about the disservice the agile community’s done in, um, kind of alienating managers, functional managers or project managers or those types as some of the stuff that happened historically with the agile community. And so yeah, the managers are still there and if you don’t give them compelling whys and new tools and new ways of thinking or viewing things, uh, they will use what they’ve done traditionally. And presumably that’s not agile. If they are going to a scaled agile approach and you have that, that disconnect right in the middle of the organization between the teams and the leaders and it gets ugly fast.
Christy Erbeck: [13:34] It does, it doesn’t. So one of the first things they also, um, that’s on the roadmap is to create a lean, agile center of excellence where you can bring these folks together to help identify the system level items and issues that are going to need to be addressed as we move through the implementation roadmap. And it sets people up for success and busts a myth that Dr. Brené Brown talks about in her work Dare to Lead™ relative to, um, you know, uncertainty and discomfort being the, um, you cannot, you can just put aside vulnerability right when you have, so you can engineer the uncertainty and discomfort out of vulnerability and you cannot. It’s going to be there. So let’s get in front of that. Let’s break down those walls. Let’s talk about the uncertainty and the change and the discomfort that’s going to be in this new system and get out in front of that versus hide behind that or put her armor up to guard against that or push against that.
Dan Neumann: [15:03] It’s interesting that the, not software related example that comes to mind is I was uh, I get on tangents with sporting things and one of them was triathlon for a number of years and I had a swim that went very bad. I tried to swallow Lake Michigan and ended up hanging off one of those, one of the rescue kayaks and, and coughing up a bunch of water. So freaked me out. Like it was a very long mile swim after that. And then I was getting ready for another one and I stumbled across an article that was talking about, it was a professional triathlete and he was talking about the anxiety he had about the swim. And I’m like, Oh, this is totally normal. I thought, I, I mean I thought I was a freak, you know, and just defective in some way because I, the anxiety about getting in the water with that many other people and all the activity, it’s, it’s a fairly intense thing. It’s not your, uh, it’s not your lap swim in the pool and uh, in the software world it’s the same thing, like understanding that this anxiety’s normal. Here’s some ways you might be able to cope with it or address it or move forward in the face of the uncertainty and do it in a, in a safe way. So I think it’s very valuable. You mentioned, uh, in the first, um, belief that you had had that was busted. You’d mentioned, um, safe focusing on predictability and I think that is super valuable for the managers to understand. And one of the things that came to mind was a, um, we were doing one of the, the, the planning events. So it was the, you know, we had roughly six or seven teams in a big room and representatives from the other, you know, six to seven teams that were there and they were planning out their program increment on the, the wall with flip charts and that a forecast of velocity in their, they had a budget velocity and I think a forecast. And so some of the teams would put up like, Hey, we think we have a capacity of 50, but you know, in order to achieve the goals we think we can do about 60 or 65. And, um, they were building a plan to fail right in the room. And some of the managers began rejecting the plans. They were like, no, that’s, that’s not okay. What needs to get cut? Or what are their priorities or what else can we do to bring down the load the team thinks they’re going to have to have in order to achieve the goal. And so managers rejecting bad plans was a wonderful step towards getting more predictable deliveries because it was clear they were building a plan for 15 teams to fail on delivering the increment. And so having the intestinal fortitude to say, no, that’s not okay by the managers went a long way.
Christy Erbeck: [17:40] That’s a wonderful example of implementing the events within SAFE well and, and safely for the people so that they can be set up to succeed.
Dan Neumann: [17:53] Okay. Yeah, for sure. For sure. So managers focusing on setting people up to succeed is a big part. And understanding those principles behind it, understanding the lean thinking goes a long way.
Christy Erbeck: [18:07] Yes. And the, you know, within SAFE there’s a lot of training. They emphasize tr tremendous amount of training for all roles within the, the roadmap within the organization. And, and not just educating them about the mechanics, but educating them about the why we’re doing this. And so to me it so nicely ties to other things that I love. Like start with why was Simon Sinek and, um, understanding how safety within the organization within the team is critical to building trust and allowing for that experimentation mindset to come forward so that we can deliver value continuously and we can fail in a safe way or learn from our experiments. Um, you know, so there, there’s a lot of value I think that goes on again throughout the roadmap. And I think I had said earlier that this is all about endurance. This is the marathon as you so well know. It’s almost more like your uncle and the 300 marathons.
Dan Neumann: [19:20] He, he’s, he’s, he’s only at like 260 something. His bud buddy Bill’s at 300 something. Yeah, no. And it’s a long end. Uh, and injuries happens. Stuff breaks. You know, when you’re, when you’re doing, even in endurance events, stuff goes wrong. Um, and you, you adjust along the way, you know, having a, what’s the phrase? Having a plan is important. Planning is essential. Plans are useless. All those kind of a tongue in cheek, little, little sayings. Um, yeah, we need to be able to adjust as we go through. So whether it’s a safe program increment or within a Sprint or an iteration along the way, or you know, what other, whatever other kinds of learnings and adjustments need to happen, it’s important to stay nimble.
Christy Erbeck: [20:04] Right. And just like within Scrum, there are events throughout SAFE that allow for the, the group as a whole, the program as a whole to inspect and adapt and retro and get better and improve. So again, when, when it’s implemented well, it can be incredibly valuable to an organization at scale to understand their predictability, to understand the value that they’re delivering to their customer. Um, it all does start with that why. The compelling why, why are we doing this? Why and understanding how to loop in and bring in that customer. Um, but let’s, let’s go onto that third belief that I walked in the room with that I had to set aside and got busted, which is that SAFE is this amorphous thing that, and I’m using air quotes always goes wrong, breaks people and is, goes completely against an agile mindset. And again, thanks to the training, you know, that myth got busted and I’m really glad that it did because it’s not that SAFE as a framework does this, it’s the consultants and the organizations that don’t fully commit to implementing it and holding true with rigor, discipline and heart and courage to implementing it that allows for these things to happen. So have things gone wrong with SAFE implementations? Yes. Have people got gotten broken as a result of being hurt within the system? Yes. Have, you know, have they gone against the agile mindset when they’re implemented poorly? Yes, but that doesn’t have to be the truth of the next implementation.
Dan Neumann: [22:04] I think, you know, it, it brings to mind the responsibility that the, the people leading the transformation have. And in this case, I don’t necessarily mean within the company because they’re typically relying on an outside, uh, person or an outside company to guide them through and when that person, whether it’s a lack of skill or lack of mindset or a, um, a lack of willingness to do the hard thing, which sometimes means telling your customer they can’t have what they want, they can’t have all the stuff they were hoping in this program because it just doesn’t fit or whatever the case might be. And you have to make tough decisions and say no to something in scope or you know, whatever the case may be. I think that’s where a lot of the responsibility is on the people implementing the framework to um, to do it well and to do it in a, in a kind way that does not break people along the way.
Christy Erbeck: [23:06] That’s true. And that is a tremendous responsibility. And you know, there’s a, almost a burden in a way as consultants to be full of care when we’re talking to clients about this, that there needs to be careful consideration on the organization side as well as the consultancy in, in having a real clear why. You know, if we tie all of this to some other tools that we use, like the OKR objectives and key results approach, if we don’t have a clear objective that we’re looking to achieve as a result of or and how a SAFE implementation can help us get there, SAFE may not be the right way and that’s okay. We as consultants have to be willing to say it. You know, when we’re brought into a client and we’re talking with them and they say, well we want SAFE and if if through our discovery we’re able to discern that, well what they really want is something else. They just know this name or this phrase, then we can help guide them and we should help guide them to the right framework, not just this framework because that’s what they say they need. They don’t necessarily know what they need.
Dan Neumann: [24:36] I think that’s, I think that’s a key thing to, to amplify. So people saying, organizations saying, Hey, we want to scale agile. And so, you know, if you start Googling that, SAFE has a wonderful marketing machine behind it, good search engine options it’s going to show up near the top. It’s got a ton of recognition. Um, and so when people start thinking I want to do scaling and they find SAFE, they think I have to install the SAFE. And then as the conversation goes on, sometimes they don’t actually even need the scale. They just have a bunch of Scrum teams working on stuff and that isn’t a scaling problem. Um, scaling to me, I think of um, the first introduction to it, I had 15 different Scrum teams trying to make the next generation map of the world. That’s a big problem. That’s a lot of coordination from how do you collect the data to how do you interact with autonomous driving cars and, and that, that whole thing. So that’s a scaling problem. We have five Scrum teams and they’re working on different products is not really a scaling problem. That’s, that’s, there are challenges there, but it’s not a place I would think of employing SAFE as the framework. And I think just trying to understand what, what the need is, clarify, clarify the need and help them find the right, uh, solution to that need is a really important, and sometimes it’s going to be SAFE and other times it’s not, but, but it’s just so easy to think I’m going to scale, so I need to do SAFE.
Christy Erbeck: [26:14] Well, and there’s a seductiveness relative to a SAFE implementation right now that we ha we have to guard against in that, well, that means that we’re working with a very large enterprise or we’re doing this or because we’re doing SAFE, we’ve reached a certain milestone in the type of work as a consultant that we’re doing and that that’s a very dangerous route to go down. And so you’re right. Making sure that we are discerning and really listening to what the client needs, not listening to what we think they need or listening to what, listening to it from an ego perspective. Right?
Dan Neumann: [27:03] Yeah. I was curious to get your thoughts on the degree to which kind of um, water falling, if you will. The, the SAFE implementation is one of the, um, one of the paths that might lead to, um, a bad SAFE implementation. So, Hey, we’re going to embrace SAFE. So here’s our, here’s our roadmap for implement roadmap’s not even the right word cause the, in my head it’s much more detailed. Here’s exactly how we’re going to roll out SAFE within the organization. And that can, uh, at least I’ve seen it be done in a very gated kind of way where here’s the plan and we drive to the plan as opposed to inspecting and adapting the implementation of SAFE itself to adjust to things that we hiccup. And so the, in my head, that’s probably one of the things that makes this amorphous, um, amorphous thing, break people and go against agile mindset is when it’s just being driven at. And that doesn’t sound like what you would have been hearing to do as part of the training.
Christy Erbeck: [28:07] No, we didn’t hear that at all. In fact, you’ve all said something that our practice I would say looks for as well. And that is where are the teams that are asking for help? Where are the people that need that are at a place where they need the coaching, they need the assistance to get to that next level of performance. Um, you know, with a particular client I’m working with right now, there are many, many teams involved and we did have a person working on the team that had done that very thing. They were scheduling, okay, so for three months we’re going to work with this team and then we’re going to work with this team and then we’re going to work with this team. And we said, what if we just created an unordered backlog of all the teams and went to them and just said, where are you at? What are you ready for? And then we reprioritize or reordered those teams based on their need, their desire and let them pull us as coaches to them versus pushing ourselves and pushing them through a system that they weren’t ready for. Like, we don’t even know yet. Are they going to work in Kanban? Should they, can they work in Kanban? Could they be a Scrum Team? You know, all of those types of things. And if we’re not willing to think creatively and apply our agile mindset to how we’re going to roll this out, then it can feel very waterfall, very sequential and then becomes very dangerous because we’re not taking time to inspect and adapt after, uh, we’ve started working with one team, we’re just going onto the very next team. And I do not believe that’s the intent of the implementation roadmap. Um, you know, like we like to say start small and nail it before you scale it. And all of those types of things that, that applies here. Now there are other aspects that safe allows for that help plan. Again, remember SAFE as a framework for predictability at scale. So there are things that can be in play at different levels of the organization that allow for movement and progress and starting small. So I think it’s important to understand that we’re leveraging various tools at various levels within the organization to allow the SAFE implementation to be effective and successful. Does that make sense?
Dan Neumann: [31:05] I think it makes sense. We all look for feedback from the user, from the listener. I think it makes sense. No, no. We love feedback always. And so unless we, um, thus we blow our time box here. Heck no. It’s good though. So that’s good. So the three beliefs that were changed, the first one was SAFE as a waterfall disguised as agility and then SAFE stops with train the leaders about Philocity was busted and the third one was SAFE as an amorphous thing that always goes wrong, breaks people and it goes completely against an agile mindset. So good. Three beliefs shattered.
Christy Erbeck: [31:43] Yes. And a couple of things that I’d love for leave behinds or as part of the podcast would be, um, the seven areas of competency that SAFE, um, addresses the principles of SAFE and probably a couple of other things that we can put together for the audience that would help them have a, maybe a different understanding of SAFE and have whatever. I would love to hear what are their myths, what are our audiences myths that they believe are beliefs about SAFE. And can we answer them and say, Oh no, that’s not true. Or okay, so that is true and here’s why. And um, because it is all about understanding and helping them, you know, I guess adjust or shift what they believe to be true and see where that, see where that goes.
Dan Neumann: [32:36] Super cool. Yeah. So we’ll put the resources on AgileThought.com/podcast and then people can let us know if they’ve got myths at email@example.com or tweet it with the #AgileThoughtpodcast. And so we’ll look, look forward to hearing that. Did you read anything over the new year that has you inspired or what’s, what’s on your course of study these days?
Christy Erbeck: [33:02] Over the holiday I spent, uh, I spent a lot of time with my family and I disconnected from social media. I disconnected from electronics. I spent some time on a horse farm with my grandmother who is 101 years old and just had a wonderful time with my husband. Uh, and I my family as far as reading? Um, I’m wrapping up a book called Master of One, which is something that we talked about the last time we recorded and I still love that book and it’s been a wonderful way for me to end the year and begin 2020. And I have, I have my list of books for 2020 that I’m reading and uh, we will see how we get through that list this year.
Dan Neumann: [33:57] That’s awesome. Yes, no, it’s good to do the shutdown over the holidays. And I finally finished a book called relentless forward progress, the guide to running ultra marathons. There’s a lot of inspect and adapt that goes on when you’re doing a distance over the marathon, whether it’s 50K or a hundred miles or longer than a hundred miles. So I’m aspiring to a 50 mile race at the end of the month of August. And so I’m looking for that reassurance and the little tips and uh, apparently suffering is just part of the thing. And so just getting into it doesn’t that sound fun? And then, and then how to measure anything. Um, still cause one of the things, like you said, train the managers on velocity is one of the beliefs that was measured beliefs that was busted, but there’s still an interest in what can we measure, what do we measure, how do we know about performance? And so that’s got me uh, barking up this, how to measure anything book. But it’s long. It’s going to take me awhile.
Christy Erbeck: [34:55] It is. I have that book and the companion workbook and it is, it is a textbook. It is not a simple, easy, breezy read at all.
Dan Neumann: [35:05] Yeah. I think it will be valuable but it’ll be a grind. I’ll get there. Just relentless forward progress on the book too. Well, thank you for joining again, Christy.
Christy Erbeck: [35:14] Thank you for having me, Dan. It’s been great, as always.
Outro: [35:19] This has been the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast brought to you by AgileThought. The views, opinions, and information expressed in this podcast are solely those of the hosts and the guests and do not necessarily represent those of AgileThought. Get the show notes and other helpful tips from this episode and other episodes at agilethought-staging.ectfh4-liquidwebsites.com/podcast.
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