Have You Heard That One About SAFe?

And why I’m going to stop telling SAFe jokes (for now)

(Note: If you don’t know about SAFe, please learn more here. “SAFe synchronizes alignment, collaboration, and delivery for large numbers of agile teams.” )

SAFe is an easy target. It’s like laughing at sunburnt package tourists on the beach, saying Velveeta isn’t artisanal cheese, ridiculing friends with Cross-Fit injuries, and grumbling about autotune in popular music. SAFe is the Creed of the Agile echo chamber (it’s trendy to hate Creed. It’s like Nickleback. You’re supposed to hate them).

“How can anyone fall for this bloated, over-processed, and overly-prescriptive bullshit?” “You’ll never become Agile by doing SAFe!” “[It] avoid[s] the very basics of agility and complexity!”.

I’ve cracked a couple of my own SAFe jokes, and chatted about SAFe with unwinding speakers at the conference hotel (evangelism requires sustenance). Here’s a question and challenge — to myself, as well as others. Why do we even care? Why do we waste our breath? What does this sniping say about us? Some pondering for the consultants:

  • How good is the service design for your alternative “way” ? Is it accessible? It is actionable? Can it be taught? Outcomes?
  • So what? Is it our job to save all companies? Why expend the energy? Ever act of creation is an act of destruction, no?
  • Imagine you were hired as CEO for a large organization (as an alternative to them adopting SAFe). What exactly would you do?
  • So what if the bagel store down the street doesn’t make real bagels. People will discover your store and buy real bagels. Right?

Some introspection. Every minute I spend steaming and sniping is a minute NOT spent on offering an alternative. There will always be autotune, industrial farm-to-table, paint-by-numbers, and David Hasselhoff albums. And maybe these things need to exist to enable alternatives. The instinct of any craftsperson is to freak out when someone butchers the craft — OMG, that is NOT fucking al dente Pasta! But, then it is back to work.

This may be a stretch, but I also wonder whether the current state of Agile is unsettling to longtime practitioners, and that SAFe represents the most convenient scapegoat. It’s easy to blame corporatization, packaging, and pyramid schemes, but perhaps more difficult to ponder the accessibility and fracturing of the movement itself. Yep, the Manifesto is still there, so there’s that… as perfect as ever of course. “Uncovering better ways” is the Try…Catch that lets us claim Agile lineage to anything tried in software development since 2001 (and earlier, during a 30 year Agile gestation).

But still, something feels a bit adrift.

Whenever I read “that’s not Agile” or “you don’t do Agile” or “lowercase vs. uppercase Agile” or “DevOps IS Agile” … I feel like I’m stuck in that nebulous end of Part 1 in a three part trilogy … where the merry band is drifting and bickering, the path forward is obscured, some want to turn back, and some want to swallow the magic potion. Or arguing over 80s music with friends. I really applaud Joshua Kerievsky ‘s work on Modern Agile… for at least trying to move the conversation forward.

Maybe it is the echo chamber? There are very few people voicing the perspective of non-consultant full-timers. The narrative is primarily driven by consultants and “thought leaders”… all with something to sell, and with some vested interest in guiding the perception of the market, closing deals, and getting their foot in the enterprise door. This isn’t bad but it is what it is. Thoughtful comparisons of approaches would benefit everyone.

(Side note. OH: “The real money is in the enterprise, doing org-design, and dealing with scaling. Just do the math. That’s why everyone is jumping on that.”)

Here in Hamburg (I spoke at Mind the Product Engage, which was great fun) I had the pleasure of speaking to someone about their multi-year effort to scale their organization. It was wonderful, detailed, rich, story-filled, and informative (and lacking any pretentious jargon). We desperately need more of these stories.

There’s something weird about the sniping and joking, and I can’t exactly put my finger on it.

I think for now I’m going to shut up about SAFe, “that’s not Agile”, “you can’t just copy Spotify”, and “Scrum is childish” (this one will be hard). There’s more I have to learn here … both about myself, and this crazy domain I find myself in. I can be more humble and outcome focused.



Multiple hat-wearer. Prod dev nut. I love wrangling complex problems and answering the why with qual/quant data. @johncutlefish on Twitter.

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John Cutler

Multiple hat-wearer. Prod dev nut. I love wrangling complex problems and answering the why with qual/quant data. @johncutlefish on Twitter.