Go Agile or Play it SAFe?

MISO recently hosted the “Agile Indy” monthly event with a featured discussion on MISO’s transition to the Scaled Agile Framework. The lessons learned directly from an organization adopting the framework attracted one of the largest crowds so far this year!

First, Elizabeth Friend and I introduced MISO to the crowd.  We’re not soup!  MISO (M eye so), or Midcontinent Independent System Operator, 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. MISO was approved as the nation’s first regional transmission organization (RTO) in 2001. The not-for-profit organization is governed by an independent board of directors and is headquartered in Carmel, Indiana.  Although people don’t typically spend a lot of time thinking about the electric power grid, there is a lot of knowledge and technology required to make it all work efficiently.

For over 15 years, MISO has focused on growth and large projects to meet the needs of members and our vision to be the most reliable, value-creating regional transmission organization. Our traditional approach to technology delivery was a classic waterfall model that moved methodically through requirements, design, development, testing and deployment.  Over time, MISO grew from a start-up into a mature organization with a large number of tools and initiatives.  The complexity and volume of solutions created an environment that became more difficult to support and change.  Business leaders didn’t have enough transparency into the progress of the technology group.  The organization struggled at times to align prioritization, budget, and resources – the same challenges faced by many medium and large size organizations.

Preparing for the Future

The growth into a larger organization created interest in approaching prioritization in a new way; however, changes to the industry also encouraged MISO to consider a new methodology. Economics and new technology have already created a diversified fuel mix including hydroelectric, coal, gas, oil, wind, and nuclear.  Currently, bulk electricity can’t be stored, and our sophisticated systems calculate how to provide just enough to ensure reliability without being wasteful.  As storage, wind, and solar technology become more cost effective in the future, the complex calculations required to operate the power grid will become even more challenging, and the volume of data will increase exponentially.  Preparing for the next day’s demand will increasingly become more sensitive to accurate solar and wind forecasting – and the meteorologists don’t always get the amount of rain, shine and wind exactly correct!

Incremental Agile Delivery at Scale

Agile delivers value by focusing small, dedicated cross-functional teams on implementing solutions. These teams are empowered to make decisions that will deliver value quickly, and they conduct many small experiments to discover the best path to deliver solutions.  When I joined MISO last year, I had experience helping several large companies adopt agile at scale.  I knew this agile approach could help MISO to improve transparency and prioritization.  At the same time, the constant feedback and continuous improvement mindset would inspire and motivate the delivery teams.  Some of the software development teams had already started to experiment with some of the principles of incremental delivery.  But how would we engage the entire enterprise to embrace something new?

Start Small & Deliver

One approach that consistently works is to start with just a few teams and help the business and delivery teams demonstrate early success. The surgical approach at the beginning is important because you can resolve issues before they become significant.  You have time to build the infrastructure necessary to support Agile at scale, such as test automation and training.  You’ll identify and solve the points of resistance while they are more manageable at an early stage.  Once you have applied what you’ve learned with the pioneer teams, you can roll out an effective larger scale framework.

As I was introducing myself across the organization, I repeatedly mentioned to everyone that I wanted to introduce agile principles. I also encouraged five employees and managers in both the business and technology areas to take a week long intensive training on the scaled agile framework so that they could help train the pioneer teams.  I didn’t have budget and widespread support at this early stage, so this ground-level approach was necessary – but also different from how I had approached agile transformation at previous employers.  In the past, I typically used a relatively high number of consultants to initially pair up with pioneer teams.  At MISO, I almost exclusively deployed employees at the launch– and I discovered this approach to be much more successful!  I selected employees who had relationships with their peers and managers, and they could more easily persuade other employees to try something new.  And these employees enjoyed high levels of trust – when problem or issues cropped up, everyone knew these employees would still be here to help iron things out.  There were no disappearing consultants off to the next engagement.

As we organized the pioneer teams, we did bring on a very limited number of coaches to provide perspective and experience guidance. The lesson here is not to avoid consultants completely – instead the lesson is that the primary role and the face of transformation should be other employees with consultants strategically available to coach and mentor.

As we stood up our first release train of pioneer teams and planning events, the business and delivery teams started applying the agile principles. Soon they successfully applied what they learned and delivered results.  The reward for a successful small start is that other groups and divisions witness the positive results, and they ask to join in with the “cool kids” working in the scaled agile approach.  This is a natural way to transform an organization at an effective pace.  This approach also avoids some of the natural resistance that emerges if you pursue a mandatory large transformation.  Instead of forcing people to try something new, you are creating an environment where people are asking you to help them transform instead!  In fact, you may find yourself turning some groups away or asking them to be patient while you create the automation infrastructure necessary for successful scaled agile delivery.

Another critical component of transformation success is communication. Our transformation team worked closely with our MISO corporate communications group to send our email updates, blog postings and videos to explain our progress and inspire others to learn more about agile.  We like to joke that we’ve gone viral with more than a thousand views on YouTube and recognition on the official scaled agile framework website earlier this year.

In the next section of the presentation at Agile Indy, I described some of the specific approaches MISO took to engage senior executives, our primary vendors, and our accounting and finance peers to support and adopt the scaled agile framework. I’ll share those specifics in my next post … to be continued…


Like what you’ve read? You can also find Kevin on LinkedIn.

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