The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe … the “e” means nothing…) is the industry leading framework for scaling agile in a business or business unit. It’s used by some pretty big names like CVS, American Express, and FedEx.
The Scaled Agile Frame work (SAFe) incorporates methods, events, principles, and roles that agilists are already familiar with from Scrum, Lean, and XP. But SAFe is also novel, with its own unique concepts, roles, and events like the Inspect and Adapt (I&A), a reflective all hands event that happens every quarter featuring a problem solving workshop.
The thing about SAFe events is, even if you know a bit about them, they can still be super mysterious. It’s like a nursing student who’s only read their textbook or a rock and roll fan who’s never been to a Grateful Dead concert. You really have to be there to get it.
Lucky for you, I have been there! Over ten times as both a participant and a facilitator! Here are a few misconceptions.
People often use the term I&A to mean just the problem solving workshop. Though that is the main attraction of the 4-hour event, you’re missing some of the context setting that happens earlier in the agenda.
First, there’s a demo of the current state of the product, highlighting work done in the past quarter. Next, the group reviews select success and predictability metrics focusing on areas to improve. Then, some do a retrospective during the event time-box to brainstorm and form problem statements. And finally, we get to the problem solving workshop!
An Ishikawa diagram, also known as a fishbone diagram, is recommended for small groups to use to visualize potential contributing causes of the problem to be solved. The group then explores the causes of the causes using the five whys technique to get to a root cause. (Say causes of the causes five times fast). Though it may seem excessive to some, going deeper helps ensure that we're tackling the disease and not just a symptom of it. The group then diverges and converges on a solution set.
This fishbone visualization combined with the described technique is recommended because it is effective and theoretically sound. But fishbone quarter after quarter can leave teammates uninspired and asking, “… is there anything besides fish on the menu?”
I’ve seen a few other approaches to keep things fresh and keep morale up. My first I&A problem solving workshop was unlike any other. They gave all randomly assigned groups this prompt: “You have all the money and resources you desire… How do you take our company down?" Let’s just say the room was buzzing! Though not traditional by any means, this alternative method still met the purpose of the event: to reflect and identify ways to improve.
With a name like “problem-solving workshop,” you’d think you solve problems. A more accurate name would be “problem exploring and solution proposal workshop,” but that really doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Let me explain. In the problem-solving workshop, the problems proposed should be experienced cross-team and are usually systemic. Their root causes often lie in culture, process, or environment. They’re big problems! Realistically, some could take years to properly solve.
The vast majority of the time-box in the workshop is allotted to identifying these root causes. Even with less time, groups tend to brainstorm multiple possible solutions and present their top ideas to the whole group. Since problems are big, often the first step in the solution is to explore the problem more.
So, what’s the point? In my opinion, the problem-solving workshop raises problems to the surface and gets the conversation started. The “solving” often takes some more time, coordination, and prioritization.
…. because they facilitate! Scrum masters, coaches, and other volunteers are usually necessary to guide small groups through a typical problem solving workshop. Why? To avoid the chaos that can often occur in group discussions:
• dominating the conversation and others not feeling safe to share
• Groups getting off topic due to confusion or boredom
• Skipping “less exciting” steps like problem exploration to get to “more exciting” steps like solutioning
Still, knowing some teammates aren’t engaged in problem solving can feel like a disservice to the whole group. Everyone has experiences, knowledge, and context to add to the collective pool of knowledge which would contribute to a more holistic and, therefore, successful solution. My advice? Rotate facilitators every quarter when possible, especially if they aren’t in a dedicated coaching role.
Though many will just show up, listen, and problem solve with their teammates at the end of the quarter, the I&A event requires several people several hours to prepare for.
Product management is usually accountable for the demo though may get some support from scrum masters. They usually connect with teams, team leads, and feature-owners to coordinate a demo (ideally live and not death by PowerPoint) of the holistic product, highlighting new features delivered this quarter.
Good data doesn’t just happen; it’s quite intentional. Success and predictability metrics should be agreed upon and defined before the quarter, ideally as a constant to compare quarter to quarter. Once collected and visualized, it needs to be presented in a way that is concise and motivating regardless of the results. Not an easy task.
Running a 30-minute retrospective with 100 people on identifying and defining systemic problems experienced across several teams in the last 3 months is a tall task. With the teams I’ve been on, usually we’ve taken the extra step ahead of the I&A to gather problem statements. As the scrum master, I’d design and facilitate a retro of the past three months and coach teams through what’s an appropriate problem to bring and the information it needs. It’s still a tall task, but a little less tall. We could make the task even shorter by using ScatterSpoke’s Team Pulse 👀
Designing the format, forming the small groups, training the facilitators, collecting improvement items, voting on them, and finding a way to squeeze them into an already tight backlog is all in a day’s work for the coach leading this event. Just reading it all makes me sweat!
Even if you haven’t been there, with the inside scoop from me, the I&A in practice should be a bit demystified. It’s not just a problem-solving workshop. And the problem-solving workshop isn’t really a problem solving workshop. You can vary the protein served beyond fish, and not everyone gets to eat (but definitely next time!). Last but not least, preparing for the I&A takes time, energy, and passion. Systemic problems aren’t easy, but this unique SAFe event is an inclusive and brave first step toward solving them.
What can you actually do to make effective retro a reality? The good news is, it’s not as difficult as you might think. We’ve broken it down into 5 elements to make it as easy as possible to massively improve your sprint retrospectives.
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