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This post is from the CollabNet VersionOne blog and has not been updated since the original publish date.

Last Updated Jul 11, 2018 — Enterprise Agile Planning expert

Agile Q&A with Scaled Agile Expert Dean Leffingwell

Enterprise Agile Planning

For years VersionOne has taken its role seriously in furthering agile research for the betterment of the software development industry. The State of Agile Report is one great example. For 12 years straight we’ve surveyed practitioners, IT leaders, executives and everyone in between to find out who is using agile, how they are using it and why. This is just one way the company has historically contributed to the software development community.

In order to deliver products or services that will truly benefit our customers, we have to do a lot of listening. We listen to customers and non-customers alike. We want to know, what are the challenges of software teams? Where is agile bringing benefit and where is it falling short?

One of the best ways to learn, however, is to talk to the experts. Talking to leaders within the agile community who have changed the industry landscape through inspiring thoughts, helpful innovations or challenging the status quo is incredibly worthwhile.

CollabNet VersionOne recently had a conversation with Dean Leffingwell, SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) creator and chief methodologist, at Scaled Agile Inc. CollabNet VersionOne platforms are designed with SAFe in mind because we have seen how many enterprises achieve success using this methodology.

Let’s hear Dean’s thoughts on some of the State of Agile Report findings, learn more about his experience joining the agile movement and ask some questions about what’s important for our industry.

Question: How did you first learn about agile and what about the practice appealed to you initially?

Dean: “I first learned of Scrum and XP in the late nineties. But I was working with large enterprises, those with 200-500 or even thousands of developers. I saw how XP and Scrum worked well for small teams, but it didn’t seem like something for me because I was dealing with really big teams building really big systems. So it didn’t influence my thinking much at that time.

Later, from 2001 and on, I began advising startups and spent time learning Agile staring with XP. Frankly, I was blown away by the discipline and code quality that resulted from XP practices. I was tipped. I also attended a ScrumMaster class and was impressed by the simple Scrum paradigm and the roles of Product owner and Scrum Master. At that time there was quite a method war between the two, but I saw them as being optimized for different things, the yin and yang, if you will, of team agility. So I adopted both methods and built a hybrid process that I used to coach a number of software startups. The results were truly amazing. It was the biggest improvement in the software development I’d ever seen. I was convinced there was only one way to develop software from them on, and I have been an Agile champion ever since.

Looking back now, there was a time when Agile seemed so new. But by now, I’ve been using it for almost half of a 40-year career. We use SAFe here at Scaled Agile, Inc., and of course the framework team operates as an Agile Team. Now my personal mission is to allow people in larger enterprises to reap the benefits of these Agile methods, so the power of the methods is not relegated solely to just small companies and small teams.”

Q: The 12th Annual State of Agile report reveals that 29 percent of respondents use the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) and it is the most popular scaling method used. Why is this method continuing to grow in popularity?

Dean: “The simple answer is, it produces outstanding business benefits. We have more than 40 published case studies on the Scaled Agile Framework website and another 40 or so public references to what companies have achieved with SAFe. The results these companies achieved are unbelievable.

There are records of significant productivity gains, quality improving by 3 or 4 times, time-to-market increased by 70 or 80 percent, and most importantly, people enjoying their jobs more. They report much higher levels of employee engagement. SAFe is basically Agile on steroids with a lean substrate, but as applied to large enterprises. Business get outstanding benefits from SAFe.

Also, Scaled Agile Inc, which owns SAFe, is a rock solid company. We have an outstanding entrepreneurial team, experienced executives, the leading framework, professionals in learning development, and certification, very effective sales and marketing, over 175 worldwide service and tooling partners, etc. We have a community platform that supports hundreds of thousands of users, a customer success team with a less than 24 hr. response time to questions. And we have the development and support infrastructure necessary to implement and share the framework globally. We are in a strong cultural, thought leadership, distribution and financial position.

Success scales. SAFe is generally not an approach that managers ‘need to be talked into’, they see the benefits and decide for themselves if the efforts are worthwhile. Usually, the answer is yes.”

Q: The 12th Annual State of Agile report cites the ability to manage changing priorities as the top benefit of agile. In your experience, what is the greatest benefit?

Dean: “I think that managing changing priorities is certainly one, but the collected benefits of creating a persistent way of working, lean thinking and relentless improvement, are important too. Agile isn’t a state of being, it’s a journey that can always be improved.”

Q: If you had to make one prediction for next year’s State of Agile report, what do you guess the new findings will reveal about where agile is going?

Dean: “The trends will likely continue. That’s why they are trends. But one of the things that the State of Agile report doesn’t cover extensively enough is DevOps. DevOps is different from agile, as it’s focused more on code to cash than concept to code. But it’s part of the continuum.

Agile is mostly about the front end of the product lifecycle and DevOps takes the industry further down the lifecycle. These two communities — agile and DevOps — see things very similarly. These movements need each other. You’ll see that folks scaling agile need DevOps to support rapid release of new value. And those heading down a DevOps path will say, ‘We can’t do it without agile development delivering smaller batches just-in-time.’

I’d anticipate that these trends will continue to show that these worlds are converging. Agile has always been mostly about ‘development’ which helps on the front end. But we haven’t yet optimized the full continuous flow of value. To get releases out quicker, agile and DevOps must be married in the middle. And as SAFe integrates DevOps and agile, I’m also confident that SAFe will maintain its leadership position. ”

Q: Have you seen the greatest agile success when teams take a grassroots approach or when management leads a top-down approach?

Dean: “I think that misses the larger piece of the puzzle. In an enterprise, what C-level executive doesn’t want faster time-to-market or the ability to respond faster to market needs? Will the CEO believe Lean and agile are good? ‘Yes and can I get ice cream with that?’ So I’d say it’s relatively easy for a CEO to get on board. Executives get it.

Then, at the ground level where the work is done, what developer doesn’t want to be on an agile team? Most do because this means getting their voice heard and getting the psychic reward for doing the right work in the right way, with a minimum of nonproductive overhead. And seeing their work solve real problems for real users quickly and expeditiously. So there’s usually very little resistance in the executive suite or at the practitioner level.

The challenge can be in the middle. Only these managers and leaders can change the systems which control the way the work is performed. It turns out that they, not the executive or the developer, hold the keys to the kingdom. And in the larger enterprise, there are a lot of them and they are talented and largely responsible for the success that’s been achieved to date. It’s hard to argue with what they have achieved with the existing way of working.

But there is a new, and better way of working available. At Scaled Agile, we always start by getting in front of these people, to show them a new way of working and to directly address the pockets of resistance that can be there. We teach these leaders first so they can teach others. These are the champions we really need to effect change.“

Q: Are there instances where software teams should not employ agile practices and other methodologies such as waterfall are fitting?

Dean: “I haven’t found them. I just don’t know of any material initiative where, we’d really like to wait until the very end to find out how I’m doing. The scientific method says, ‘I don’t know the answer, I need to find out with a series of small experiments.’ Perhaps it’s the thrill of leaving all the risk to the end of the program that still drives waterfall: ‘I can hardly wait for that surprise!

But there’s just no way you can begin knowing everything 100 percent up front. Considering the business case up front is important, but Waterfall, for example, starts with the assumption that the requirements can be known fully up front. But if that were truly the case, then the system’s already been built.

It just doesn’t make sense when we build systems of complexity. Waterfall got us where we are, so it is not by any means a stupid process. But we’ve learned better ways.”

Q: In the 12th State of Agile Report, 90 percent of respondents indicated they participate in a daily stand-up meeting at their organization. Why are standup meetings valuable for software teams?

Dean: “Simply, programmatic communication and collaboration. And it’s not just for software teams. At Scaled Agile, our teams are spread out throughout a 27,000 square foot building — plus we have folks on the road, and we have people around the globe. But if you walk around our building between 8:30 and about 11 AM, you’ll see most every team doing a daily standup.

Now honestly however, if your teams are distributed you’ve got to have some work-arounds. For the framework team, because of our distribution, travel, and classroom training and consulting schedules, we do not have a daily stand up. But we try to make up for that by running one week iterations inside our two week company sprint cycle. But we are thinking about starting one. In any case, the point is you have to have steady, routine communication.”

Thanks so much Dean for taking the time to chat!

If you’d like to learn more about SAFe from Dean, check out this webinar, “Driving Innovation in the Enterprise with Lean Thinking and SAFe.” In this webinar, Dean Leffingwell illustrates how seemingly disparate practices — like Agile, Scaled Agile, Lean Startup, Lean UX, DevOps and Continuously Delivery — need not be separate initiatives, but rather a continuum that helps enterprises deliver more innovative solutions at a velocity they could only imagine before.

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