SAFe: the infantilism of management

March 25, 2014

I gave the opening keynote at the Agile conference in Brno today. A good audience in that they paid attention and were thoughtful. I tried a slightly different approach to the subject starting with some of the biology and cognitive stuff, dealing with complexity in a simplified format and majoring on SenseMaker® as a way to create continuous feedback loops between users and developers with the intent of enabling both co-evolution and exaptation. The slides and podcast are now loaded so readers can judge for themselves on the value of the approach. One interesting side effect of getting fit is I have more breath available and I hear reports that my voice has changed as a result. its not clear if it is for the better though!

Keynote over I packed for the trip to Hong Kong later in the day and then settled on attending a track session on SAFe. Now I have heard of this particular new approach, generally in derogatory terms from various people I respect in the Agile community. However I had not had a chance to hear an advocate present it before so I took it. It is only fair to see that I was appalled by the retrograde nature of the approach. To be honest the criticisms I had heard were mild compared with some of the tweets I launched during the session. One comment makes my overall point SAFe is to Agile as sick stigma was the BPR . BPR in its early days had clear utility, it drove a needed change to horizontal product and customer focus in contrast with the previous hierarchical models. But then it got applied inappropriately and finally taken to nonsensical excess with the sick stigma obsession with measurement.

Put brutally SAFe seemed to be PRINCE II camouflaged in Agile language. SCRUM as an approach was emasculated in a small box to the bottom right of a hugely overcomplicated linear model. The grandiose name of a dependency map was applied to something which is no different from a PERT chart and in general what we had is an old stale wine forced into shiny new wineskins. At the end of the session I decided to ask the speaker what explanation he had for the rejection of the technique by most major figures in Agile. His response was to argue that it worked for him and had utility. Given that was avoiding the question I asked it again in a discussion which carried on for some time after the session.

Under pressure the speaker fell back on two arguments which always irritate the hell out of me. The first was to say that he didn’t take the overall approach to seriously but used aspects when they were useful. Now that is pathetic. If he had put up SAFe and a few other approaches he had drawn on that might have been credible. But instead SAFe was front and centre, presented as the overall approach and solution. Personally I think he was simply seeking to jump on what is a successful marketing money generator, but try and retain some personal integrity in the process. That he did not achieve. The second was to argue that he was above religious splits within Agile. Under pressure got him to switch from his pejorative use of religion to an acceptance that different philosophies were at the core. My strong and increasingly passionate argument was that SAFe is not only a betrayal of the promise offered by AGILE but is a massive retrograde step giving the managerial class an excuse to avoid any significant change. OK its a obey making machine but the same applies to snake oil salesmen and the South Sea Bubble. People will get damaged by this nonsense and it needs to be hamstrung at least, garrotted at best.

Such excuses abound and allowing these false linear models to perpetuate themselves is a form of infantilism, a failure to carry through on the need for change. In particular the failure to realise that software development needs to be seen as a service and as an ecology not as a manufacturing process.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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