Go Agile or Play it SAFe? Part 2

This is part II of Go Agile or Play is SAFe. To get the full effect, read Go Agile or Play it SAFe pt. I

MISO Energy is in the process of adopting the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) as part of the company’s effort to achieve our vision to be the most reliable, value-creating regional transmission organization.  Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), ensures reliable operation of, and equal access to, high-voltage power lines in 15 U.S. states and the Canadian province of Manitoba.   MISO also manages one of the world’s largest energy markets with more than $37 billion in annual gross market energy transactions.

As the executive sponsor of the initiative, I’m responsible for the strategy and adoption of SAFe.   One of the key enablers for implementation of SAFe was to engage one of our primary software vendors, GE Grid (formerly Alstom).  We visited our vendor team before the first Program Increment (PI) Planning event and communicated our interest in transforming the software development process.   We also amended our contract to include specific quality metrics to baseline and improve.

Our first Agile Release Train was organized around application and integration points of the vendor applications.  We invited GE Grid to observe our 2nd PI Planning with the expectation that our vendor partner would join the agile release train by the end of 2016.  To our delight and surprise, GE Grid’s entire team joined the 2nd PI Planning in May and fully participated.  The team shared automation approaches to increase velocity predictability and improve outcomes related to quality.  Our certified MISO change agents will be visiting GE Grid this summer to deliver the same advanced training we are providing our internal product owners, scrum masters and delivery teams.

Executive Support

Another key group of stakeholders were MISO Senior Executives.  Our grassroots start at the team level could not scale without the active participation and support of executives.  Our change agents directly engaged them by offering training events customized for the executives.  These training events included specific sections on topics that sometimes derail agile transformation –predictable project and financial results, delegation of authority, and agile expectations.

Agile is often misunderstood as having little planning and no documentation.   Training must attack this head-on and explain that agile is NOT chaos.  We emphasized that waterfall approaches to projects sometimes provide the illusion of feature and financial predictability.   How many waterfall projects actually deliver on time and on budget? The reality is that by adopting a regular cadence of delivery in two or three week increments, executives can see the progress toward an expected Agile roadmap.  And if the return on investment or expected value doesn’t become clear, the team can change direction or the product can be entirely killed.  This type of agile experimentation is what unlocks innovation and prevents an expensive discovery of failure that might occur in an 18 month waterfall project.

Elizabeth Friend, Director of Business Performance, shared concepts with executives that are applicable outside of software development including Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF) and Kanban. The WSJF prioritization method is a mathematical formula that essentially defines which tasks are the “lowest hanging fruit” to deliver value.  By explaining the prioritization method, and then introducing the Kanban approach to limiting Work In Progress (WIP), the process improvement aspects of SAFe start to become clear.  The system begins to take shape where work is done better and faster.  As you plan a transformation, be sure your stakeholders also understand that the secret to agile is self-organized teams and the flexibility to deliver tasks in the order that delivers greatest value.  If executives are unwilling to delegate this type of authority and allow teams to experiment, the agile approach can’t deliver the faster and better results.

Finance and Accounting

Similar to other executives, the Finance Group at any organization wants to understand how to use standard accounting practices to recognize when features are delivered and how to apply capitalized and operating expenses correctly.  Accountants become very uncomfortable if they perceive agile to be unpredictable and chaotic.  At MISO, we focused Curtis Reister, Director of Application Management and Agile Change Agent, to work directly with our finance managers and business owners to help them transition into the initial portfolio of the first agile release train.  These were projects already approved under the classic budget process and translated to the agile process.  Curtis was able to demonstrate and recommend standard approaches to distinguish and track OpEx versus CapEx.  That’s one of the key values of adopting SAFe – it is a standard framework used by many companies.  It is not necessary to invent approaches.  We don’t want to spend time re-inventing the wheel.  Wheels already exists, we simply want to quickly start using them!

Innovate at Scale

One of the criticisms of SAFe is that some consultants and companies judge it to be too heavy weight and that SAFe doesn’t sufficiently enable research and development.  This is a valid criticism and every methodology has strengths and weaknesses.  You will have to make some accommodations to make agile or SAFe effective at your company.

To address innovation, the approach we took at MISO is to reserve one sprint in every program increment for teams to focus on improvement and innovation.  We don’t insist, but we strongly encourage the teams to use this time to find opportunities to innovate, and to share and discuss their ideas with other teams – just like they coordinate features and dependencies.

The takeaway is to recognize that you’ll need to make adaptations at times.  Some consultants and stakeholders may have strong opinions about which agile framework to adopt.  Implementing multiple frameworks or combining pieces of them is typically confused and not successful.  I have implemented agile at scale at many companies and I have found that adopting SAFe as close to textbook as possible is usually the path to success to accelerate transition and avoid confusion.

Jump in with both feet

You can train, discuss, and plan for too long.  At some point, you’ll need to model a few teams working together and launch your first SAFe agile release train.  You need to create expectations that the teams need an opportunity to learn and improve, and you’ll soon find that you are delivering value better than before!

Future Topics

As I continue to share milestones in MISO’s agile journey, in future posts I’ll explore metrics that demonstrate the effectiveness of SAFe adoption, return on investment, and the opportunities for improvement.  We can explore specific outcome of innovation sprints, formation of the product organization, and best practices at MISO and other organizations that have demonstrated value.

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