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.

9 responses to “SAFe: the infantilism of management”

  1. Andy Wootton says:

    A PERT chart was always a dependency map. They were largely discredited in the 1980s in the ‘Software Engineering Journal’ for use with software projects, due to concerns about use in complex problem domains 🙂 though a couple of days ago, I discovered that the idea of ‘Software Engineering’ was already being challenged by Edsger Dijkstra in the late 1970s. He proposed replacing it with the idea of ‘scientific design’. Sounds like real agility to me. We should have pivoted earlier.

  2. Eric Le Rouge says:

    Hi Dave, we are 5 years after this blog post and it seems that “SAFe” is winning (and making ravages).
    I’m trying hard to battle this one.
    Arguments regarding SAFe being updated, pragmatic and more “flexible” are still current and growing, and it is difficult for exexutives to not fall for the “recipe out of the box” appeal of SAFe.
    What would be C-suite counter-arguments you would provide regarding the adoption of SAFe ?
    I am mostly trying with the same approach as the Spotify guys are trying to tell everyone : “it worked for us, don’t try it at home, try your own agile, from within”. But that doesn’t have enough “weight”.
    Thanks for your insights.

  3. Dennis van der Spoel says:

    Let me enlighten you a little before you start jumping to conclusions again 😉

    • Dave Snowden says:

      Again? I’m always amused when people offer me enlightenment, and even more amused when I find they call me a fundametalist. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt about your motivations for putting the link here; that is to say I will assume you are not simply promoting or seeking to defend the various SAFe courses you provide. I and others have spoken and written about this issue over the past five years and if anything that has confirmed my initial reaction to SAFe. Todate with one exception, everyone I respect in the Agile community has to some degree or another come out against it and we are in a post-enlightment age anyway. SAFe always seems more again to a belief system than anything assocated with rationality.

      • Dennis van der Spoel says:

        Then how is it that I see so many misinformed statements here? And yes, I do provide courses in various frameworks, one of which is SAFe, but I have 30 years of experience as a senior manager and boardroom consultant. I usually find that this adds perspective to the vision of many agilists with a background as a software developer.
        But it helps that you point out the timeline here. Some years ago, SAFe had more flaws than merit. But from version 4.5 onwards, the balance swayed the other way.
        Anyway, the point I am making is that the success rate of agile in larger organizations has been poor. I believe this is caused by insisting on simplicity in an inherent complex system. This only works well when you can identify and leverage the singular constraint (ToC). Since the singular constraint in agile transformations is the mindset of senior management, agile as you promote it will hardly ever work in huge organizations.

  4. Tor R.C. Ganslandt says:

    Don’t use SAFe if you don’t need to scale. But if you have a value stream where more than 50 people or so are trying to get new features to work across a few plattforms, I think it is great tool. Mind you, SAFe combines practices from LEAN and Agile and it forces management (if conveyed correctly) to rethink the command and control principles. I think you are using a lot of adjectives without substance Dave. What is it actually that you reject/object to? That the framework looks to big to comprehend? It isn’t as complicated as it looks. It just describes a few things that you probably already now if you’ve worked agile before.

    • Dave Snowden says:

      The point is that is that it doesn’t force management to change, it allows them to say that they have changed but stay the same. If you know anything about complex systems and scaling then one look tells you it is mistaken in conception and wrong a priori. You don’t scale a CAS by aggregation or replication. Its pretty clear what I object to and your final sentence – sorry that is almost comical but I assume sincere

      • Tor R.C. Ganslandt says:

        As all the change management theories state, management must lead the change and BE the change. You need to teach management to understand the principles behind SAFe before trying to implement it. I agree, otherwise it will just become another facade. But that goes with any change regardless of the magical methods or abbreviation behind it. My last sentence is sincere since SAFe might look grand and terrifying but it is quite simple and pragmatic. To me your objections sounds like change is futile since we can’t change management.

    • EmigratedUK says:


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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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