This is the first post in a series about the foundation of the Scaled Agile Framework. See the introductory post here. This article was originally published on LinkedIn

In the introductory post in this series on the foundation of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), I said that SAFe’s biggest challenge – and opportunity – is in its foundation. An unstable foundation can cause the organization to tilt in a metaphorical sense – there are many examples of leaning towers around the world that show what happens when the foundation of a structure isn’t solid.

To dig deeper into the SAFe foundation, this article looks at the first element of the foundation: lean-agile leaders.

Who is the Lean-Agile Leader?

The “lean-agile leader” can be found on the far left of the SAFe foundation on the main SAFe graphic. On the far right of the foundation layer is the SPC – SAFe Program Consultant – more on this in an upcoming post in this series. Simply put, the SAFe foundation depends on people. Lean-agile leaders, as well as SPCs, are people in an organization who are working together to implement SAFe. The implementation process follows an Implementation Roadmap (more on this later too). The process itself is guided by values, a mindset, and a set of principles. These attitudes and beliefs – in other words, the organizational culture – are embodied in the lean-agile leaders. Without them, the SAFe foundation can’t exist, the lean-agile culture won’t be created, and SAFe can’t be implemented.

The success of a SAFe implementation falls squarely on the shoulders of an organization’s lean-agile leaders. These “managers, leaders, and executives” embody the lean-agile mindset and are expected to train and enable other people in the organization. This responsibility is so important that it cannot be delegated to anyone. SAFe also suggests that lean-agile leaders may need to adopt a different leadership style – one based on teaching, empowerment, and engagement of individuals and teams.

The Essentials of Lean-Agile Leadership

Let’s consider the concepts I just covered. Looking at them a little more closely, what becomes clear is that SAFe is designed for the benefit of all people involved in its implementation, through the efforts of some of the people in an organization – the lean-agile leaders.

At the same time, the success (and the failure, to be fair) of a SAFe implementation is solely the responsibility of lean-agile leaders – no pressure at all, right? These same people are expected to empower and engage all people involved in a SAFe implementation.

To summarize lean-agile leadership as an element of the SAFe foundation, lean-agile leaders need to display 4 essential characteristics:

  1. Be people-driven and people-focused
  2. Accept sole accountability for SAFe implementation
  3. Consider their management style. They may be required to change and adapt it to align with lean-agile principles. This change, importantly, may mean they will need to figure out how to give power to teams and other people. It also means that they will need to actively engage with teams.
  4. Act as change agents to catalyze and sustain change in the organization’s culture

Note, this is my own condensed interpretation of the 6 behaviors of lean-agile leaders in the SAFe framework.

Looking at this list of essential characteristics, how does an executive or manager in a typical organization think about people, accountability, management style, and culture?

Making the Leap to Lean-Agile Leadership

I believe that most executives and managers in today’s organizations will have challenges in one or more of these areas. I argue that the leaders of organizations engaged in SAFe implementations mostly fall on the left side of the table below, while some or few fall on the right side.

To boil things down even further, lean-agile leaders face the possibility of “losing” some of their power when they change their focus to empowering teams and individuals. While that may sound daunting, or maybe even dramatic, it is a very real issue in most organizations today.

It could be argued that power is not a zero-sum game – empowering a team or an individual does not diminish or eliminate the power of the person who is doing the empowering. However, the reality is that the transition to a lean-agile culture can be seen – somewhat accurately – as a power grab by teams and individuals from the lean-agile leaders. This is not necessarily a bad thing if you really believe in empowerment. On the other hand, if you have been designated as a lean-agile leader, yet you are not completely sold on the concept of empowerment, what do you do? It shouldn’t come as a surprise that so many agile transformations (including those based on SAFe) hit roadblocks because of people’s natural tendency to resist change.

The role of the lean-agile leader in SAFe is potentially precarious. Being a lean-agile leader can mean, whether it is true or not, that the leader needs to deliberately give away their power for the greater good and benefit of the organization. If you look closely enough at executives and managers in any organization, you will find there are very few who are comfortable with giving up power, influence, and maybe even job security by focusing on the needs of other people instead of their own needs. For most people, the leap may too big and scary from the left side to the right side of the table above.

Conclusion: What Next?

So how do you make the leap to lean-agile leadership? One approach is to be completely transparent in letting the organization know that its lean-agile leaders are fully committed to SAFe. More on this in an upcoming post.

Next up in this series: The Core Values of the SAFe foundation.