Transformation at Scale

When companies recognize the need to scale their team-based agility methodologies it’s easy to forget that the same principles that apply to growing its business apply to how it gets that work done. This may sound obvious but it’s still an easy trap to fall into that an out-of-the-box framework will solve all ways of working challenges. This would be like saying that all a successful startup needs to get off the ground is a great idea. Any Jim Collin book on entrepreneurs can give you a comprehensive assessment on the composition of greatness but three intangibles for me are hard work, a growth mindset and a healthy relationship with failure. Companies can spend countless months analyzing the right framework to leverage, organize teams, establish new roles, create new ceremonies and collect new data in the hopes that it will result in decidedly better results than what preceded it, but what happens when it doesn’t?

All companies that take on a big transformation will inevitably reach a point where the initial bliss fades, the original benefit hypothesis gets challenged and the desire to revert to the old way of working creeps in. We’ve put in all this effort and successfully rolled out a change to our way of working, so why are we still struggling? Frameworks, in essence, establish boundaries and provide tools to successfully operate within a given space. When applied properly a framework provides autonomy and ability to harness the power of failure; when applied improperly they constrain and stagnate. Great organizations differentiate themselves from the rest in how they react to this pivotal moment.

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is an industry leading framework rooted in a Lean Agile mindset (think growth mindset + continuous improvement) that, when applied properly, can provide focus and clarity to help growing companies scale their way of working and achieve “escape velocity” when many companies begin to choke on their own success as they recognize what got them here can’t take them there.

SPS started a transformation to scale its way of working by making the decision to adopt the Essential SAFe framework in 2019. It began that summer by getting leadership buy-in. By the fall we had developed implementation roadmaps and rolled out training for all our front-line staff responsible for leading the transformation. By Q4 of 2019 we had our first Agile Release Train (ART) trained and ready for a pilot launch. By Q1, 2020 we had expanded that pilot to include another ART and implemented a new tool enabling us to capture meaningful data to support our 2020 journey into the world of SAFe. I had a unique opportunity to support this process on the front lines. As I reflect on the journey, I’m still inspired at what SPS achieved in nine short months.

A hallmark of SAFe is the Program Increment (PI) Planning event, commonly referred to as big room planning. PI Planning at its core is the alignment of priorities and commitments across all stakeholder groups including product, technology and the business. It strikes a balance between predictability and agility in an otherwise chaotic environment. By March of 2020 we were gearing up for our first PI Planning event, signaling the official launch for our first two ARTs and the pilot launch of two others. This event was going to encompass virtually everyone within our product & technology organization in one way or another. In short, it was a big deal.

Anyone reading this has a shared understanding of what happened in March of 2020. How people responded to that shared experience is the fascinating part. Many companies hit the pause button, some were forced to because they were not prepared, many did not have that luxury as they suddenly were thrust into the spotlight as an essential business. SPS was uniquely positioned to not only help our customers survive but also helped them thrive in unique and exciting new ways.

SPS’s decision to scale its way of working with SAFe in 2019 could not have been better timed. At a time when there was so much chaos and uncertainty in every aspect of personal and professional lives our SAFe transformation gave us something stable to lean on. Like so many other companies, SPS was thrust into a 100% virtual working model overnight. Few questioned if SPS’s technology could support this (spoiler alert, it did), but many were concerned about how our framework would fare. SPS teams didn’t skip a beat and we even managed to maintain our schedule and held that first PI Planning event, encompassing 30+ teams and over 300 employees globally in April of 2020. There were hiccups for sure, but we didn’t just get through it. We thrived in it and all was right with this tiny aspect of the world.

We’ve now reached the one-year anniversary of our official SAFe launch. We achieved an overwhelming level of success across this period, delivering more value in 2020 than at any other year in our company’s history. We’ve seen vast improvements in breaking down silos and improving communication across teams, geographies, and products. As we gear up for our fifth remote Program Increment and many aspects of our new way of working have become routine it’s clear that we are reaching our pivotal moment within this transformation. In tension with all the successes of the past year is a growing level of frustration as teams have a greater clarity to see the inefficiencies within our framework. Our teams have worked their tails off over this past year and no-one is satisfied with maintaining the status quo which speaks to our growth mindset culture.

This frustration is healthy, provided it is met with an appropriate process to identify improvement opportunities and through a closed feedback loop continuously improve. One additional thing that SPS did last year that is now paying dividends is to establish a Lean Agile Center of Excellence (LACE), which is x-functional group supporting our agile release trains and Communities of Practice (CoP) which are roll-based groups focused on sharing, learning and driving best practices. It is through these established communities that SPS can continue to lean into the third intangible, which is a healthy relationship with failure. To paraphrase from Matthew Syed’s book, Black Box Thinking, it is only through failure that we can make progress because failure opens opportunities to learn and grow by challenging our hypotheses in ways that don’t exist when we succeed.

The real failure is if we do not meet our pivotal transformation moment head on and instead look to explain away our failures or categorize them as one-off unique circumstances. If we do this, we forfeit opportunities to gain new insights and improve our way of working. Failure is inevitable, accepting it as the end state doesn’t have to be. In 2021 I’m excited to be on a team that will reframe our current failures and turn them into insights that will drive tomorrow’s successes and push us through our pivotal moment into a sustainable framework pressure-tested to help SPS achieve escape velocity.

-Tom Sparks, Lead Agile Program Manager

SPS Technology @spstech