SAFe is becoming more and more robust

(and that’s a big problem)

Few days ago I came across this image shared on LinkedIn by some colleagues, Scrum Masters and other agile practitioners.

I see several statements in that post, some are correct, some others aren’t, but, generally speaking, there is nothing to be excited about. In short, here are few but concise considerations on the topic:

Large enterprises are characterized by complex environments […]

✅ Correct: large enterprises are complex adaptive systems.

[…] heterogeneous environments need a framework to orchestrate software development and delivery […]

❌ Incorrect: an organization is made of people, and people are living creatures, not configurable units, like robots or microwaves.

Now, considering the emergence definition:

Emergence is a phenomenon whereby larger entities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities such that the larger entities exhibit properties the smaller/simpler entities do not exhibit.

In a large enterprise we need high alignment, not orchestration. Looking at ant-farms, flying birds, and cellular expansion we can notice one thing: there are no orchestrators. Alignment is an emergent collective behaviour.

[…] evolved in the real world […]

❌ Very ambiguous: everything evolves in the real world of course, but everything evolves within a specific context. So yes, SAFe evolved in the real world but in a really specific way and for a specific enterprise. One size doesn’t fit all. This is NOT a panacea that we can sell to everyone.

[…] SAFe is a robust process framework […]

✅ Correct: SAFe is robust and this is its own greatest limitation (see next point).

[…] to help to scale […]

❌ Incorrect: sorry guys, but robustness doesn’t help to scale when dealing with a complex adaptive system. In order to scale, we need resilience, not robustness.

What is shown in the picture above is an over-codified, over-structured system. The myth of an organization surviving while remaining unchanged (robustness), instead of constantly changing (resilience) is something that actually doesn’t work.

Informal networks, robustness and resilience

Looking at organizations as interconnected, informal, living networks, instead of rigid, structured monoliths is an huge change of perspective and a challenge we must face.

Informal networks are really powerful, so no matter how much command and control are exerted, no matter which process or structured procedures are used into an organization, an informal network will always organize itself around the bureaucracy, cheating or working around it (the Italian’s law system is a really good example).

An informal network will always organize around the bureaucracy itself

Let’s consider for a moment the difference between a glass window and the bones of the human body. Bones have the ability to recover after a trauma. Think about a boxeur hitting a wall with his own knuckles: whenever the bones break, they will heal to become stronger than they were before, due to the callus formation. Bones are resilient, but what about glass? The more we hit the glass, the more fragile it becomes, until it breaks catastrophically.

The point I’m trying to make is that when an over-structured, robust system fails, it collapses catastrophically under the mammoth of it is own bureaucracy.

Catastrophic barrel monkey collapse

So yes, some of the above statements on SAFe are correct, but we need to adopt a totally different approach in order to create the dispositional condition for leading a successful company.

Let me ask you a question, to conclude this post: looking at today’s most successful companies (Spotify, Lego, Zalando, Google — just to name a few), how many of them adopted such an engineered framework and how many of them are based on a genuine, self-organized, low-constrained, emergent culture?

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