Tips to Pass Your SAFe Exam and Get Certified

SAFe Exam and Get Certified

I’ve always been a good test-taker. I was a model student with great grades in K – 12 schooling and beyond. I also spent almost two years full-time teaching students how to raise their scores on standardized tests like the ACT, SAT, PSAT, and HSPT. I know tests and test-taking! Still, I put off my SPC exam until I only had a few days remaining. I can clearly remember crossing my fingers, holding my breath, and clicking the submit button, eyes intent on the screen … “You passed!” Commence happy dance. 

Yet my journey to being Certified SAFe® started long before that happy day. To get there, I applied the same guidelines that I used with my former students. 

Know your exam

You first must know what it is that you must conquer. You need to know the style of the exam, the number of questions, how much time you have to complete the whole exam, the average time per question, the passing score, and the rules of the exam. You can find all of the information you need on our certification webpages

Know the exam content

To be Certified SAFe means you have “the skills, knowledge, and experience required to successfully perform the job in a SAFe working environment.” This means that if you pass the Product Owner/Product Manager exam, you’re showing that you can successfully perform the role of a SAFe Product Owner on the job. hat’s a high bar, and it’s powerful! It’s no wonder that simply attending the course doesn’t cut it. That’s right, attending the class does not equal an exam pass at Scaled Agile. Here are a few ways to get to know exam content outside of being an engaged and willing participant during your course.

safe certification

Step 1: Study SAFe materials.

Review the course slides and your notes after the class. Crack open your Learning Plan, download the study guide provided, and read through it. There you’ll find some suggested reading, the majority of which can be found on the Scaled Agile Framework website. Start with topics that you intuitively know you don’t understand very well. For me, I automatically knew I was not as strong in topics dealing with the portfolio level because I don’t participate in portfolio events, so I read the Lean Portfolio Management and Value Streams articles.

Step 2: Target your weaknesses.

To make the best use of your time, you need to target not only your perceived weaknesses but your objective weaknesses. One of the best ways to do that is by taking the practice test in the same conditions that you’ll take the certification exam. For SAFe 5.0 exams, you can see exactly which questions you got wrong. I know a few people who like to take the practice test again and again and again until they get above a 90 percent. I recommend using the practice test as an assessment tool, not as something to memorize, because your real exam won’t have the same questions. Focus instead on concepts. Make sure that you’ve clarified all the terms and content that you felt shaky on in the practice test.

Step 3: Engage creatively with the content.

So now you need to try to learn the material you’re weakest in; reading the articles over and over again isn’t going to cut it. These were my favorite ways to study:

  • Explain the SAFe Big Picture to someone. If you’re familiar with all of the icons on the Big Picture and can explain it well, you’re in good shape.
  • Build a case study. Use a real company, your company, or a fictitious company and try to apply some of the abstract concepts that you’re struggling with. When I was studying for the SPC exam, I made up a fake company called Lib’s Lemonade. I outlined its strategic themes and objectives and key results (OKRs). I made a Lean business case for a proposed product. I attempted to map the company’s value streams. Bonus points if you share it with someone else who is knowledgeable in SAFe and who can check for correctness.
  • Look at your work through the SAFe lens. What matches with the Framework? What doesn’t? Does your team write stories using user-story voice? Do you really use the IP iteration for innovation and planning? Does your team have WIP limits on its Kanban board? Do you have a scrum master? What would it be like if your company did things differently? Have a conversation with a coworker about these discrepancies. Better yet, if you have some influence, make some of these changes. Or shadow and learn from someone else in your company who works in the same role for which you took the course.

Take the exam

The only thing left to do is bite the bullet and take the exam. Make sure to take your exam within the deadline and ensure you have the time, space, internet connection, and quiet to focus on the test. The countdown clock at the top of the screen will help you keep track of the time. Make sure to read each question carefully and review your answers before submitting. Only change your answer when you know with certainty that your other answer was a mistake. Changing your answer based on a whim is a bad idea. Here are some of my other favorite tips:

Pass the exam

SAFe Exam and Get Certified

The only thing left to do is bite the bullet and take the exam. Make sure to take your exam within the deadline and ensure you have the time, space, internet connection, and quiet to focus on the test. The countdown clock at the top of the screen will help you keep track of the time. Make sure to read each question carefully and review your answers before submitting. Only change your answer when you know with certainty that your other answer was a mistake. Changing your answer based on a whim is a bad idea. Here are some of my other favorite tips:

  • Use the process of elimination. Sometimes when you read the question, you won’t be sure what the correct answer is. But chances are you’ll know that some answers are incorrect. Eliminate them and don’t look at them again. This will free up your working memory to focus on the final two or three options remaining. 
  • Prime your mind. The power of association is strong. And according to this study, the sense of smell most strongly recalls memory. So, if you chew mint gum while studying for your SAFe exam at the desk in your home office at night, research shows that you’ll be better primed to do well on the exam if you chew mint gum while taking your SAFe exam at the desk in your home office at night. Some people use a scented perfume, lotion, or lip balm to elicit the same effect. And as long as you were in a good headspace while studying, you’ll likely be in a good headspace while taking the exam.
  • Calm your nerves. Many people have test anxiety. Knowing what to expect for the exam can help significantly. Being confident from knowing that you studied the content can ease your nerves. Keeping in mind that you are well-prepared always helps. If worse comes to worst, and you don’t pass the exam on the first try, knowing that you can take the exam again and pass can be a comforting feeling.

About Emma Ropski

Emma Ropski scrum master and SAFe Program Consultant

Emma is a certified SAFe 5 Program Consultant and scrum master at Scaled Agile. As a lifelong learner and teacher, she loves to illustrate, clarify, and simplify helpful concepts to keep all teammates and students of SAFe engaged.

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Next: Avoid Change Saturation to Land Change Well

Avoid Change Saturation to Land Change Well

This is the second post in my short series on landing change well. Read the first post here.

Managing change is as much of an art as it is a science.

As we have learned through decades of project management and big-bang releases, even the best-planned and best-executed changes at large scale can land poorly. 

Consider a large software system change that impacts many disciplines within an organization. The change impacts the HR generalist, who has been doing her job effectively in the legacy system for years. Nobody asked her opinion of the new system and now that the new platform has arrived, she feels confused and inefficient. The same story is playing out with the sales team, finance, legal, product, and others. Big batches of change do not land well, because as people, we don’t handle change well. 

Change is not typically something that we choose; it’s more likely something that is imposed upon us. Change is hard. Change is uncomfortable. Without the perspective of the why, change is outright painful.

Avoid Change Saturation
The Satir Change Model reminds us of the emotional toll of change.

Several years ago while working with a client to adopt new ways of working, I was introduced to the discipline of change management (CM), and since, it has proven to be one of the most effective tools I’ve found to help organizations adopt a Lean-Agile mindset, strategy models, budgeting, and to deliver value.

The CM team helped me better understand the organization, determine who were my advocates and adversaries, as well as develop plans for how to best influence the organization. And, as was introduced to me by Lisa Rocha, how to avoid change saturation through the use of Change Air Traffic Control to ‘land change well.’

One of my favorite things about living in Denver is the drive to the airport. If you are familiar with the city, you know that the airport was built far outside of downtown on the plains (and when you landed in Denver for the first time, I’m sure your thoughts were similar to mine: where are the mountains?!). 

What makes the drive from the city to the airport so interesting is that the lack of terrain combined with the Colorado blue sky makes it easy to see the air traffic patterns. This is a hugely effective metaphor for Lisa’s concept of Change Air Traffic Control: though you may have many changes in flight, you can only land one at a time. 

After thinking deeper about Lisa’s idea, I started to realize that the phases of landing change with SAFe actually match air-traffic patterns rather well.

Avoid Change Saturation
Landing change with SAFe.

Phase 1: Feeder routes
Portfolio funnel

Change begins with an idea. In a Portfolio, these ideas are welcomed by everyone and are captured in the Portfolio funnel, which serves as an initial filter for ideas. Portfolio leadership explores each one and decides if the good idea aligns with the Portfolio strategy, if they want to learn more, or if the Portfolio is not ready to explore the concept at that time. 

Phase 2: Initial approach

Epic analysis

When the Lean Portfolio Management (LPM) team identifies ideas that they are interested in exploring, they conduct an initial analysis to determine the feasibility, Value Stream impact, and other implications through the use of a Lean Business Case

This is also the point where the change management team should be engaged to help answer questions around how the change will impact PPTIS, defined as:

People: Who are the people impacted by this change?

Process: What processes are impacted by this change?

Technology: What technology is impacted by this change?

Information: What data is impacted by this change?

Security: How is physical, informational, or personal security impacted by this change?

LPM Team

With the quick picture of the change becoming clear, the LPM team will make a decision whether it’s interested in experimenting further with the idea or not. 

For the ideas earmarked for further experimentation, change managers will begin working with the LPM team to articulate the Vision (the reason why) for the change. As John Kotter often reminds us, people underestimate the power of vision by a factor of 10. 

Phase 3: Intermediate approach
Feature analysis and PI Planning

Once the LPM team has prioritized an idea for investment (considering the Lean Startup Cycle), an MVP of the idea will be defined for the purpose of validating or invalidating the idea within the Continuous Exploration cadence of an Agile Release Train. Working with Product Management and the architecture community, change professionals will start articulating the what, the how, and the why of the change to begin preparing stakeholders who will be impacted. The change impact assessment is updated as a living artifact. 

With guardrails for the work and change established, the solution teams are now ready to build the change. The handoff between strategy and solution happens at PI Planning

Phase 4: Final approach
PI execution

The final approach for introducing change takes place during PI execution. While the Agile Teams are developing the solution representing change, change professionals continue their work by mapping the change to identify who is impacted, the best method to interact with each impacted party, and to determine how each group prefers to receive change.   

This work, performed with the release function, helps prepare the organization and its customers for the release-on-demand trigger for value delivery. 

Phase 5: Land change well

Release on Demand

Once the organization, the customers, or the market determine that the time is right to introduce change, all of the work done by the Portfolio, Agile Release Train, and change professionals will be put into action. 

Though each has done their best to prepare the receiving entity for change, there is more to landing change well than simply preparing. We must also avoid change saturation, which is where the Air Traffic Radar comes in.

Monitoring Change with the Air-traffic Radar

It’s hard to prepare for what you cannot see, and most change falls into that category. To help avoid inundating our organization and our customers with too much change, we need to develop a mechanism to visualize the change that will impact a given audience.The best way I’ve found to describe these learning networks is to share the questions people in these networks are curious about. So, here’s my synthesis of a lot of research around how we share what we learn across enterprises.

air traffic radar
Air-Traffic Radar, as inspired by Lisa Rocha.

The concept of a change radar involves four perspectives: changes we are inflicting, changes being inflicted by others, changes impacting our internal customers, and changes impacting our external customers. 

To better understand what changes are impacting us, we want to think back to the visual of the air-traffic pattern at the Denver airport: what changes are coming our way and at which horizon. 

With the visual, we can start informing Portfolio and Program prioritization considering our customer’s appetite for change. As is often said: timing is everything. If we land the right change at the wrong time, we run the risk of losing strategic opportunities. 

Change is hard! But with our change partners working with the Portfolio and Agile Release Trains, we can help our organizations achieve Business Agility, deliver value, and land change well.

About Adam Mattis

Adam Mattis is a SAFe Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT)

Adam Mattis is a SAFe Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT) at Scaled Agile with many years of experience overseeing SAFe implementations across a wide range of industries. He’s also an experienced transformation architect, engaging speaker, energetic trainer, and a regular contributor to the broader Lean-Agile and educational communities. Learn more about Adam at

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Next: Experiences Using the IJI Principle Cards

Experiences Using the IJI Principle Cards

Games to play with leaders and teams to embed the principles in your organization.

IJI Principle Cards

It’s been over two years since we first launched our popular SAFe® Principle cards. With the advent of SAFe version 5.0, the introduction of a new 10th principle and the launch of a new, updated set of principle cards, it’s a great time to look back at how we’ve been using the cards and the benefits they’ve generated.

This blog post is split into four sections, covering:

  1. A brief introduction to the cards (and where to get them)
  2. Engaging executives and other leaders
  3. Reflecting on how well the principles are being applied
  4. Brightening up training events

A brief introduction to the cards

As one of the first SPCTs in Europe, I’ve delivered more than my fair share of Implementing SAFe® and Leading SAFe® courses, and, to be completely honest, I’ve always struggled to get through all of the principles (I’m usually flagging by principle 6 or 7) and thought there must be some way to make them more accessible. To me, it always felt like we were learning the theory behind the principles rather than getting excited about the principles themselves.

Whilst co-teaching with my colleague, and fellow SAFe Fellow, Brian Tucker, I tried to come up with a simpler, more accessible way for people to engage with, sign up to, and remember the principles. The end result was the set of Ivar Jacobson International (IJI) SAFe Principle cards, now updated with the new 10th principle—Organize Around Value.

IJI Principle Cards

The cards try to do a number of things. For each principle, they:

  • Explain why the principle is important
  • Describe it in a form that is more like a principle and less like an instruction
  • Provide a snappy quote or aphorism that can be used to support it
  • Bring it to life with examples of what awesome and awful behaviour would look like
IJI Principle Cards

All on something the size of a small playing card.

In the old days, the full set would readily fit on one sheet of paper, but now with the introduction of the new 10th principle, we’ve had to expand to two sheets of paper.

The cards are freely available from the IJI website here.

Engaging executives and other leaders

Our experience with executives is that you are unlikely to get them to attend a two-day course or sit through an hour or more’s lecture on the SAFe Principles. They will play the penny game, but their appetite for being talked at is minimal.

This is a shame, as it is absolutely essential that they support and embody the principles in their day-to-day work.

Using the SAFe Principle cards to play the ‘principle ranking’ game, we’ve found that we can get them to engage with, understand, discuss and sign up to the SAFe Principles—all in under 30 minutes (20 is usually enough).

The game itself is very simple and can be played in a number of ways.

It is best played in groups of 3 – 4 people, as this maximizes discussion and ensures that everyone stays engaged throughout.

Equipment: One set of cut cards for each group and one set of uncut cards for each participant. The cut cards will be used to play the game and the uncut cards as a reference. If you want to look up a specific principle, it’s a lot easier to find it on the uncut set of cards than in a pack of cut cards.

The game: Give each group a set of cut principle cards and ask them to rank them in importance to the execution of their business. Separate any that don’t apply, or that they explicitly disagree with, from those that they would actively support.

Once the groups have finished their rankings, ask them if there are any principles they would discard.  We’ve done this many times, at many different organizations, in many different industries and no one has ever discounted or rejected any of the principles. There are a number of ways to produce the ranking:

  • Higher/lower. Someone takes the lead and places the first card on the table. The group discusses and makes sure they understand the principle. The next principle is then selected, discussed, and placed higher or lower relative to the ones already in play. The game continues until all cards are placed.
  • Turn-based. A more formal variation of the previous approach where the members of the group take turns to either add a card to the ranking or reposition one of the cards that have already been played, explaining and discussing their justification as they place or move the cards. The game continues until no one wants to move any of the cards.
  • Four piles. A simplified ranking where you distinguish the top three, the bottom three, and any rejected cards, and leave those not selected in a pile in the middle. This usually results in three piles as typically none are rejected.

Whichever way you choose to rank the cards, remember that it is OK for cards to have the same rank.

The results of the ranking can be interesting, particularly the difference between the different groups—but really this is just a forcing function to make them play with the cards. These pictures show the results from playing this game with a company’s IT leadership team. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to spot which group was the architecture team.

IJI Principle Cards

The real goal of the exercise though isn’t the ranking itself; it’s to get everyone actively engaged with and discussing the principles. The discussions can get quite lively with the participants often referring to the awesome/awful caricatures as well as the descriptions of the principles themselves.

As mentioned above, we’ve never seen any of the principles rejected but we have seen many different rankings. Rankings that often reflect the executive’s area of responsibility— for example, the CFO will typically place the cards in a different order to the head of human resources (HR).

This activity has always gone down really well—it’s active learning, engages everyone in the discussion and doesn’t take a lot of time. It has been so well received we’ve had executives ask to take the cards away to share with their teams. In one case, the head of HR grabbed one of the cards and said, “This is just what I need. I thought one of the ‘Agile’ team leaders was encouraging the wrong behaviours, but I had nothing to challenge them with.”

A good trick to close out the activity is to ask them, as they now understand the principles, “Would you be prepared to sign up to them?” If they say yes, take an uncut set of cards and get them all to physically sign them.

We’ve found that this exercise works almost as well in a virtual environment as it does face-to-face. Using tools such as Mural, it is possible to create an interactive experience that is close to that of playing with the cards face-to-face (but let’s be honest, nothing beats standing up with the cards in your hands).

Reflecting on how well the principles are being applied

The cards are a great tool to use in retrospectives to remind people of the principles they should be applying and to generate actions to encourage everyone to be better at applying them.

One simple way is to use them as a trigger for improvements during a retrospective. The two most effective approaches we have used are:

Pick a card. A very simple activity that throws a bit of randomness into the retrospective process. Every so often (every other retro / once a PI), randomly pick one or two cards to discuss and generate ideas for improvement. To make things fun, you could generate your own awesome and awful examples. The more methodical of you might want to work your way through all the principles one at a time—reducing the set of cards to be picked from each retrospective until you’ve got through all 10.

IJI Principle Cards

Value versus practice.

  1. Create a three-by-three grid with the x-axis being how important the principle is to the group (high, medium, low), and the y-axis being how well the principle is being applied (badly, meh, excellently).
  2. For those in the highly important/badly applied section, discuss what is going on, identify specific examples of bad behaviour, and generate concrete actions for improvement.

You can also use the cards to do a simple principle-based assessment. This is a great complement to the SAFe self-assessments and other practice-based assessments.

The simplest approach is to create a ‘happiness radiator’ with four columns (principle, happy face, neutral face, and sad face) and then get the assessors to tick the relevant box—as shown in the photos below. This can be done at the team level, train level, or even for the whole organization. The important thing is that everyone has their own vote—you want to avoid consensus bias as much as possible.

Note: If people are new to the principles, play the ranking game first to ensure that they understand the principle before voting.

IJI Principle Cards
Here are examples of the cards being used in Mural to perform both the ranking exercise and to build a happiness radiator, respectively.
IJI Principle Cards
The Mural Template for both these exercises is freely available from the IJI website here.

These assessments could, of course, be done without using the cards, but we’ve found that having the cards in their hands really helps people relate to the principle and tick the correct boxes. Even when working virtually, being able to see and manipulate the cards is invaluable.

To make life interesting, the feedback can be generated about a specific community or aspect of the framework such as Product Management and Product Ownership. The table below shows a set of results generated at the Global SAFe Summit in 2017. It also shows the results of performing the assessment at a meetup in Amsterdam.

It is scary how few Product Management Teams are exemplifying the SAFe Principles. I was shocked to see that only 13 percent of the SAFe practitioners surveyed at the SAFe Summit (about 100 people) thought that the Product Managers in their organization took an economic view. If the Product Management Team isn’t adhering to our underlying Lean and Agile principles, then I truly believe this will severely limit how Agile and effective the teams can be. If the Product Managers and Product Owners are not behaving in an Agile way, then there is no way that their teams can be truly Agile.

IJI Principle Cards

To help with these role-based assessments, we have produced sets of role-specific principle cards, one of which is shown on the left.

To get access to these cards and for more information on how to use them, go to the main Principle card page here. RTE and Architect cards are also in the works and will be accessible from the same area.

About Ian Spence

Ian Spence is an Agile coach, SAFe® Fellow

Ian Spence is an Agile coach, SAFe® Fellow, and Chief Scientist at Ivar Jacobson International. He has helped literally hundreds of organizations in their Agile transformations by providing leadership, training, consultancy, facilitation and all levels of coaching. An experienced Agile coach, consultant, team leader, analyst, architect, and scrum master, Ian has practical experience of the full project lifecycle and a proven track record of delivery within the highly competitive and challenging IT solutions environment.

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Next: Quarantine and COVID-19: Beware of Burnout

Ten Steps to Landing Change Well – Business Agility Planning

Change is hard. 

For more than a decade, I’ve used that simple reminder to start every discovery and transformation engagement. Even with that warning in mind, those responsible for leading change in any business will often underestimate just how hard it can be to land meaningful change well. Change is a very personal thing. Only by proper agility planning one can land meaningful change in any business.

In general, people will process change in three stages, beginning with shock before finally accepting the change and moving on.

Business Agility Planning

Though no formula can smooth the change adoption curve, there are things we can do to help people as they move through the stages of acceptance and shorten the amount of time between shock and ‘the new normal.’

  1. Address the humanness of the system. When introducing change, we are often tempted to focus on the system, the process, or the outcome. We inadvertently marginalize the most critical component to successful change: the people. By placing the people first and doing our best to understand how the change will impact the organization and customers, we can do our best to forecast and mitigate the negative emotions that may emerge. Ask yourself: “What fear may emerge as a result of this change?”
  2. Start with leadership. Change must be thoughtfully led. Too often, change initiatives fail because a leader will issue a directive and then check out. Change needs a champion, and the broader the impact, the stronger advocate that change will need. When leading change, it’s best to be visible, be consistent, empathize with the current, and maintain focus on the goal.
  3. Involve everyone. When introducing change, it’s important that those involved do not feel that there are two sides: those impacted (us) and those imposing (them). Again, change leaders need to create an environment that is empathetic to the pain of change (all of us, together) and keeps those involved focused on the outcome resulting from having changed.
  4. Create a compelling business case. Start with why. Why is this change important? What risk is it mitigating? What opportunity is it enabling? What efficiency will we be able to exploit? How will we be better positioned to serve our customers? John Kotter notes that we underestimate the power of vision by a factor of 10. That perspective proves true no matter the size of change. Without understanding why the pain we are about to endure is worth it, change is harder to overcome.
  5. Create shared ownership. Change in an organization or value stream is not something to be done in isolation. If the change is beholden to a single person or small group, it will matter much less to others and quality will suffer. Change outcomes are a shared responsibility of the team. Creating an all-of-us-together culture helps avoid feelings of pain endured in isolation.
  6. Communicate the message. Communicate the message early, communicate it consistently, and communicate it often. In alignment with the SAFe® Core Values, we must assure alignment and transparency in the system to achieve optimal outcomes.
  7. Assess the cultural landscape. Even if we prepare the organization well for change, even if we say and do all of the right things, organizational culture will dictate how well people in the system process change. I am often reminded of the wise words of Kim Scott: “Culture is what is said in the halls, not what is written on the walls.” Employee engagement surveys, rolling feedback walls, and hallway conversations can go far in helping change leaders understand how people are really feeling.
  8. Address cultural challenges directly. If understanding the cultural landscape is step one, doing something with what you learn is step two. When the pain of change rears its ugly head, change leaders must address this pain immediately and directly. This is not a time for political grandstanding but for using the organization’s own words with a sense of empathy. Remember, as Brené Brown teaches us, being empathetic does not always mean fixing the pain. Simply acknowledging the circumstance and validating how people feel can have a profound impact on morale.
  9. Prepare for the unknown unknown.  As Murphy’s Law reminds us, if something can go wrong, it will. Though there is not a lot we can do to prevent unforeseen circumstances, we can prepare for them. Actively seek risk, break things, pressure test, and create fallback and recovery plans. The SAFe approach to DevOps can serve as a good guide to monitor for and respond to the unknown.
  10. Speak to team members. The most important component in addressing the human element of change is to talk to the people involved. Be visible, be accessible, and be the kind of leader that people trust. When leading change, if you can successfully manage the emotional component, you are well on your way to helping the team land change well.

    The next challenge? Avoid change saturation to land change well. Stay tuned!

About Adam Mattis

Adam Mattis is a SAFe Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT)

Adam Mattis is a SAFe Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT) at Scaled Agile with many years of experience overseeing SAFe implementations across a wide range of industries. He’s also an experienced transformation architect, engaging speaker, energetic trainer, and a regular contributor to the broader Lean-Agile and educational communities. Learn more about Adam at

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Next: POs and PMs: A Dynamic Duo

POs and PMs: A Dynamic Duo

Welcome to the second post in our series about best practices to create a healthy relationship between product owners and product managers that drives product success. You can read the first post here.

I’ve heard lots of metaphors used to describe the relationship between a product owner (PO) and a product manager (PM). One of my favorites is oil and vinegar—separately, they’re just liquid on a salad, but mix them together and you’ve got a great dressing.

POs and PMs - A Dynamic Duo

A PO and a PM working together creates a positive tension that leads to a great relationship—despite different opinions—that’s in others’ best interests. But combining the PO and PM into one role is a recipe for disaster. 

I know because I experienced the trouble firsthand.

Think about the core responsibilities for both roles:

  • Be the voice of the customer
  • Analyze data
  • Manage backlogs
  • Make customers happy
  • Organize cross-team syncs
  • Create roadmaps
  • Support planning
  • Seek out competitive intelligence
  • Aid support escalations
  • Help sales activities

One person simply can’t do all these activities in a typical work week. When I’ve been in this situation, I found that the urgent, tactical things come first as people clamor for responses, feedback, and direction on their daily work—ultimately causing important strategies to suffer. Some days, I’d already made two to three stressful decisions before morning tea and was expected to make more at strategic levels. I quickly experienced decision fatigue. When your company and solution are small, you might be able to do it all, but it doesn’t scale.

There’s a strong stereotype that PMs need to be mini CEOs and be just as stressed out. That’s not sustainable as a product person. When a PM is also doing the work of a PO, expecting them to do strategy and manage the team backlog throughout the PI isn’t realistic. You miss the strategic work, you miss pivot-or-persevere opportunities. I’d often ask myself, “Am I really looking at the big picture or just surviving?” 

The power of an Agile team is that it’s a high-functioning group that collaborates. And when the PO and PM roles are performed by two different people, they can work together to support those teams, and ultimately, the organization. When I was a PO working with a PM to deliver a new onboarding experience for our product, we stayed in sync. I focused on what our technology allowed and what the team could implement. She focused on market impact and educating our sales team. We had healthy, productive conversations with positive conflict about what should happen next, and split the duties of attending meetings. All while continuing our business-as-usual activities and still finding time to recharge for the next day.

POs and PMs - A Dynamic Duo

If you’re a leader, avoid having one person take on both roles. If you’re doing both of these jobs, don’t. Perhaps there’s someone in your organization who can help you by serving informally in the other role. Finding the balance that I just described is key to your and your product’s success. POs and PMs don’t have to be in the same places but they need to connect, be aligned, and maintain that positive tension. It’s why we teach these roles together in our SAFe POPM class—you need to know how to best collaborate with your peer PO or PM to excel.

If you’re free on August 26 at 6:00 PM MDT, join Lieschen and I at an online Agile Boulder meetup where we’ll talk about this very topic.

Check back soon for the next post in our series about shared objectives and collaborative ‘sense making.’

About William Kammersell

William Kammersell

William Kammersell is a Product Manager and SAFe® Program Consultant (SPC) at Scaled Agile. With over a decade in Agile software development, he loves researching customer problems to deliver valuable solutions and sharing his passion for product development with others. William’s journey as a developer, scrum master, Agile coach, product owner, and product manager has led him through a variety of B2B and B2C industries such as foreign language learning, email marketing, and government contracting.

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Next: How Planview Executed a Successful, Virtual PI Planning

Product Owners, Product Managers, and the Feature Factory

Product Owners and Product Managers

Both product owners (POs) and product managers (PMs) have “product” in their titles. Both roles connect people to the customer to ensure we’re building the right thing. Both roles rely on data to inform decisions and spot trends by correlating that data to everything that’s going on across the organization. Both roles manage backlogs. And both roles make customers happy. So, what’s the difference between a PO and a PM?

Product managers concentrate on the program backlog and features, look one to three program increments ahead, and focus on product viability. They collaborate with business owners and those at the solution and strategic levels within SAFe®

Product owners concentrate on the team backlog and stories, look one to three months ahead, collaborate with the team, and focus on product feasibility.

Seems straightforward enough, but we’ve heard feedback from people in the field that the PO-PM structure within SAFe isn’t so great.

“I’ve trained dozens of teams who are using SAFe and I have never seen this work well. The Product Owners are disconnected from their users and incapable of creating effective solutions for them that really solve their problems, because they do not understand the problems well. The Product Managers are essentially ‘waterfalling’ down the requirements to them and the teams are not allowed to prove if these are the right things to build or not. No one is doing validation work.” 

—Melissa Perri, Product Manager vs. Product Owner

The feature factory

What’s described above is something many call “the feature factory.” Organizations quickly fall into the feature-factory trap when POs stop talking to external customers, going with the word of the PM instead and losing sight of the user’s needs. It also happens when PMs become disconnected from the teams, choosing to write requirements that are handed off to POs instead of aligning with teams and POs on objectives about how to best achieve them. By not connecting with the team, over time, PMs start making all the decisions on their own and there’s no room for teams to provide ideas to their own backlogs—essentially ‘waterfalling’ their PIs as described above and creating a culture of meeting acceptance criteria instead of focusing on objectives. 

We often also see feature factories when PMs and POs never say “no” to requests from customers or business owners. Catering to the desires of a few large clients or to executives’ individual objectives can cause PMs and POs to drop validation work and strategy in response to those requests. Without validation work, there aren’t any clear pivot-or-persevere moments for checking in to see if we’re understanding the problem correctly or even solving their problems. Instead, we’re practicing waterfall and calling it SAFe.

In this blog series, William Kammersell, our curriculum product manager, and I will share practices to help you avoid the feature factory and create a healthy PO-PM relationship that drives product success.

Read the next post in the series here.

About Lieschen Gargano Quilling

Lieschen Gargano is an Agile Coach

Lieschen Gargano is an Agile coach and conflict guru—thanks in part to her master’s degree in conflict resolution. As the scrum master for the marketing team at Scaled Agile, Lieschen loves cultivating new ideas and approaches to Agile to keep things fresh and exciting. She also has a passion for developing best practices for happy teams to deliver value in both development and non-technical environments. Fun fact? “I’m the only person I know of who’s been a scrum master and a scrum half on a rugby team.”

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Next: Elevate Your Remote Production to Super Awesome

Elevate Your Remote Production to Super Awesome

SAFe® Program Consultants

The world is now full-on remote! That is, as non-essential workers, we’re all currently working from home. At least until the COVID-19 crisis is behind us and some sense of normalcy returns, we are working in front of screens and lenses. This post is for SAFe® Program Consultants (SPCs) who are actively teaching SAFe courses, and for SAFe Release Train Engineers (RTEs) who are facilitating remote Program Increment (PI)


As a consultant for Agile Rising (a Scaled Agile partner), I spend a good portion of my time teaching formal courses on Lean-Agile topics and practices.

With the onslaught of the virus, we were all left scrambling to prepare for the inevitability of not just consulting and coaching remotely but teaching too!

We want the very best for our clients and always strive to relentlessly improve every aspect of our performance.

As it turns out, we were reasonably well-prepared pre-crisis, as one of our enterprise clients was 100-percent work from home as a workforce already. In the months leading up to the pandemic, we had already been planning and testing various tools and techniques to convert our traditional physical classrooms into collaborative virtual environments. It’s a tall order, given that technology, while fascinating and progressing at a fast pace, doesn’t provide the robust exuberances of a well-prepared training room.

So, we researched. We learned, tested, and continue to do so. This post is all about providing a current state of what we’ve tried and what’s proven to work well for us. You could undoubtedly find all of this information on your own. For the weary, read on and see how we’re conducting our courses. The configuration that we share in this article is for a basic, low-budget, at-home studio. You can amp this up to the limits of your budget and beyond.

Please note that in a short time, our friends and partners at Scaled Agile, Inc. have done a tremendous job of putting together high-quality remote aids, guidance, and new versions of the various SAFe courses to suit our new reality. In this post, I aim to cover the latent individual instructor enhancements that you may consider to take your training production to the next level. As one of my dearest friends, Luke Hohmann, would say, “Go with Super Awesome.”

Exploring Super Awesome

The first thing we have to discuss is hardware. And software. And process. Sound familiar? What follows is not an in-depth technical article. This non-treatise is all about super-awesome instruction enhancements for regular people. Engineers, prepare to be bored out of your mind.

Replacing body language over the wire is a huge challenge. What we take for granted in the real world, we cannot expect to happen over a Zoom or chat channel. Our students and customers expect the best from us, and as exemplars, we would put in our due diligence to give them the most value.

The first thing that I notice in lots of online courses is that the instructor (and students) do not share their video feeds. As an instructor, this faux pas is particularly egregious as our students learn in part from our body language. We each have our unique style and way of teaching, and our body language, our movements, and expressions lend credence and variety to our instructions. Without it, our students are getting only a portion of what they usually would in a physical classroom.

In my opinion, the best tools available today that many people are using—such as Zoom, WebEx, BlueJeans, and Microsoft Teams—need a better interface to clearly show the instructor along with the materials.

Color and lighting

Did you notice anything about the screenshot that appeared earlier in this post? I naturally have a tan complexion (and I don’t spray tan) but I looked pretty dark in it, right? Well, I didn’t turn on the panel lights, only a portion of my lighting setup, to show how adding a little bit of light can make a big difference in your presentation. I’m not a pro or even a regular consumer of photography, but even I can see the difference.

Scaled Agile partner

My research led me to some extremes and also reasonable compromises on light choices. I found that you can get away with simple lamps but may wind up having to change bulbs often to suit the specific nature of your at-home studio. I wanted some flexibility, so I purchased these two LED panel lights. These were US$80 each but I can change the color spectrum and brightness—features I wanted for my setup. As a bonus, they come with a great display and simple controls. This capability allows me to adjust the color of the lights to suit my particular skin type. So far, I am super impressed with these lights compared to the other options that I found in the market at the same price range.

I mounted the two panel lights on the wall flanking my primary camera position. Like when I was two years old, I learned quickly that lights create shadows. So, I used a cheap lamp with an LED bulb (5k or more) as a backdrop light to help reduce shadows on my green screen (more on that in a minute).

Notably, the overhead light on my ceiling fan does me no justice—it merely highlights my male pattern baldness to the point of mediocrity. I cried a little, on the inside, when I first noticed it. Key takeaway: unfiltered light is harmful to your video stream (and your appearance).

So, you should experiment with different lighting and positions of the illumination from at least three angles, preferably no unfiltered light from any direction. Use a sheet of printer paper as a cheap filter if you do not invest in a light that comes with a filter.

Natural light, I have read, is excellent, but you need to be able to create distance between your shot and the light source so that you don’t get beams on your face. I have a window in my home office that I covered with easel paper to filter the direct sunlight coming in from the east in the morning. Trust me; you do not want rays of light on your face. Or in an eyeball. Until the end of the story, at least.

Setting the Scene

Once you get the lighting situation wrestled to submission, it is time to tackle pulling all of your content—PowerPoints, video streams, pictures—together into a meaningful presentation. I chose Open Broadcaster Software (OBS)—it’s open and free—as the programming platform on which to experiment. There are commercial software options that you may find on your own, but OBS has worked for me in live events quite well.

Rather than writing a book here to explain the configuration basics of OBS, I created a quick video. I’m not a pro video editor, so please give me some remedial credits for effort.

The Chroma Key (green screen)

Scaled Agile partner

Many video teleconferencing software tools have a virtual green screen feature that allows you to choose pictures or videos for a background. They work ok but can be distracting because the AI doesn’t always frame you correctly in front of the background. And I haven’t found a way in Zoom or Microsoft Teams to adjust overlays or scale with the basic features.

You’ll want to set up a green screen in your studio. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, quality structured green screen products are hard to find. So I had to adapt a solution using a 6×10 foot muslin green screen and some old-fashioned handyman ingenuity.

With just one trip to a home improvement store and my garage, I got the parts I needed to build a retractable screen.

I used 10 feet of electrical conduit wrapped in a three-quarter-inch schedule 40 PVC pipe and taped the muslin on with regular packing tape. The pipe fits over the conduit and makes a functional scroll so that I can roll up the screen when not needed.

Multicamera angles

As an instructor, you may want some options for different scenes. Perhaps you would like to stand up for some of your instruction in front of a marker board or the SAFe Big Picture. In OBS, as we learned earlier, you can configure different scenes to suit your instruction scenario. I have a scene for sitting down and presenting slides. I have a standup scene set up in front of the green screen. Also, I can use my third camera (a GoPro Hero4) for a wide shot in front of the open wall in my office where I can place the Big Picture, Implementation Roadmap, marker board, etc.

Depending on what material and desired instruction format you prefer, you’ll want to choose an appropriate scene based on your preferences. The goal is to replicate physical interface benefits while minimizing the negatives and enhancing the presentation and instruction quality with virtual capabilities.

I chose the ~US$200 Canon R800 because of its ability to zoom optically/digitally for scene adjustments. I can set the camera up on a tripod in different scenes and zoom to frame the shot correctly. If you choose a non-webcam-based device, you will need a capture card like the HD. This expensive tool may be avoided by only using your built-in webcam along with an aftermarket webcam (or two or three) that connects via a USB interface.

Sounds of home, at work

Kids screaming in the background. The neighbor is cutting the grass. We’ve all been there, or at least I have.

I love my iMac and MacBook Pro, but the built-in microphones quickly lose effectiveness. Now, imagine me speaking while typing, and you also get to listen to the clickety-click of my keyboard. In essence, I’m forcing my students to suffer from ‘keyboard-mic-itis.’

Give the world a break and invest in a decent aftermarket USB microphone. After a fair amount of research, I chose a kit that comes with the boom and all the accessories to get great, configurable sound.

Of course, the tips and suggestions I’ve included in this post are what work for me. To see what others are doing, check out the Remote SAFe Training forum on the SAFe Community Platform.

Happy teaching!

About Marshall Guillory

Marshall Guillory is director, professional services and government practice at Agile rising

Marshall Guillory is director, professional services and government practice at Agile Rising, and a Scaled Agile SPCT Candidate. He has over 25 years of business experience in software development, information technology, product management, and government fields and sectors. For the past 10+ years, he’s focused on leading digital and organizational transformations.

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Next: Inspect and Adapt: How a 30-year-old PPM Company Became a Case Study in Agile Transformation

Scrum Master Stories: Building Relationships

Scrum Master Stories: Building Relationships

Not that long ago, we had a transition in leadership on our team. Our product owner at the time was taking a sabbatical and we were in the process of finding a new one. It was challenging for me as a scrum master to make sure that the team felt grounded and engaged during that time of transition—oftentimes teams lose their sense of direction when big changes happen. But that challenge was then rewarding when the team came together to meet our PI objectives, which included releasing two new courses to market and updating others and having fun in the process.

To keep us on track, we focused on our shared goals. We co-created our iteration goals and reviewed them consistently throughout the iteration to remind ourselves what we were working toward. To keep the team dynamic healthy and strong, I filled a treasure chest with prizes to use during our daily stand-up. The team member who could act out the best emoji animal of the day got to open the treasure chest and pick their prize. This game helped keep things light during the transition.

There’s more to being a scrum master than facilitation, process, and team efficiency. We have the ability to make connections with our teammates and our team members and help them through difficult times. To make sure the team had what they needed, I leaned heavily on the great group of scrum masters that we have at Scaled Agile and pulled from their different viewpoints about team engagement, leadership through uncertainty, and healthy team dynamics. I really cherished those relationships during that time—they inspired me to stay strong for the team and served as my support network in  keeping the team moving forward.

One of my key takeaways from that experience was to trust your intuition. Trust that the relationships you’ve built can impact people in a positive way and get them through something that’s really hard.

About Madi Fisher

Madi Fisher - scrum master for the Information Technology and SAFe® Collaborate team

Madi is the scrum master for the Information Technology and SAFe® Collaborate teams at Scaled Agile. She believes in the power of people and what they can accomplish as a team. And she loves being the glue that helps teams stick to a common goal—all while having fun. Madi’s secret sauce mixes the spirit of collaboration, a shared vision, and being customer centric.

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Next: 2020 European SAFe® Summit: Tips for Virtual Attendees

2020 European SAFe® Summit: Tips for Virtual Attendees

SAFe Summit

As with many conferences across the globe, this year’s European SAFe® Summit has switched to a virtual format. Virtual conferences are unlike webinars and webcasts in that they offer many ways to connect with speakers, exhibitors, and other attendees in real time. 

We know that for many of you, this may be your first time attending an immersive, multi-day, online event. So we’ve compiled some simple pro tips to help you make the most of this virtual environment: expand your SAFe knowledge, network with other SAFe practitioners, and have a fantastic conference experience. 

Before the Summit

Pre-conference planning takes on a slightly different twist for a virtual event. While you won’t have to check airline schedules or book hotels, you do have to be away from the office, family, and the dog while you attend the Summit. 

Plan your schedule. The first step is to look at the online agenda and check out the times for the keynote talks and technical sessions that you want to attend. Put those talks and sessions in your calendar and block out the time so that no other activities interfere with your scheduled time away from your regular work. You’re going to be out of touch with your team while you focus your attention on the great presentations, speakers, and other participants.

Socialize. It’s easy to overlook the social aspect of attending a virtual conference, but you don’t have to forego those conversations about what you just learned and who you’re going to see next. Today’s virtual conferences provide multiple communication channels inside their platforms to allow you to interact with other attendees. Just make sure you let everyone know that you’re planning to attend and would like to meet up with them online during the event.  

Pro tip: You can use the free event communication channels, such as private chat or speaking at a moderated discussion area in the lounge, to easily connect. Many people plan ahead and share a link on Slack or set up a Zoom meeting that they keep open on their computer during the conference for sidebar communications. The key is to get in touch with others ahead of time so that everyone you want to meet is in the loop on the best way to communicate during the event.

During the Summit 

All right: the first day of the Summit has arrived, and you’re ready to log in with the password you received when you registered. The first keynote is in 30 minutes, so you might want to look around, see what activities are available, and prepare your Summit identity. 

SAFe Summit

Pro tip: Taking a 15-minute walk just prior to signing into the conference will invigorate you and help prepare you for the day ahead. Much like walking down to the convention center from your hotel room and mentally planning out your day, this simple activity will help you enjoy the conference more and allow you to be more relaxed while attending from your home office.

Update your profile. As an attendee, the first and most important thing you should do is create your profile for the Summit. Your profile is the identity you show to other attendees in the virtual world. Setting this up at the beginning of the conference opens up four different communication options available to all attendees. Access your profile by clicking on the Profile link on the navigation bar at the top of the webpage.  

Once you’re in the profile section, follow the instructions on the form to fill out the information you want to share. Then, look at the other tabs in this section and you’ll notice a briefcase where you can store documents you’ll download from Exhibitors’ booths or the Resource Center. This is also where you’ll find messages sent to you through internal communication channels. Remember, you don’t have to accept every chat and connection request you receive; they’ll be stored here until you want to respond.

SAFe Expert Coaching Station. If you still have a little time before your first keynote or technical talk, don’t forget to stop by the SAFe Expert Coaching Station. This is one of our most popular features at the Summit and time slots will fill up quickly. You can register for a specific time slot or get on a waiting list for an opportunity to speak with a SAFe expert when a spot becomes available. And, if you only have a quick question, click on the Coaches Chat tab to put in a question. If you want an individual response, just let your coach know and they can respond privately.

Keynotes and technical talks. This year’s keynotes will be presented live, giving you the opportunity to hear firsthand from inspiring, cutting-edge leaders. You’ll also have access to dozens of technical talks on topics ranging from DevSecOps and Lean Portfolio Management to remote facilitation and SAFe for marketing or hardware teams. These talks will be pre-recorded, followed by live Q&A at the end.

Customer stories. Do you wonder what SAFe really looks like when organizations put it to work? We’ll take you inside some of our customer companies—including KBC, Siemens, PepsiCo,Telekom IT, and Achmea—to show you what they’re doing and how it’s working.

Pro tip: Be Q&A ready: it will improve your chances of getting your questions answered by the speakers at the end of their sessions. If you’re familiar with the speaker and topic and know the questions you want to ask, write them down ahead of time. Paste them into the chat window during the talk so the speaker’s moderator can see them and share them with the speaker. 

Networking with Peers

Anyone with a profile can communicate one on one during the conference via four different channels:  

  • Internal Summit Conference Email messages. You’ll get a notification that you have an unread email. Just click on the notification window to view it.
  • Chats. If you receive a chat request, you’ll be able to accept or decline it. You can also send a short message to the chat requester when declining a chat.
  • vCards. This method is the best way to share your business card during the event. The notification will display that you have a new vCard; just click on the notification window to view it.
  • Connections. The notification will display that you have a new connection. You can accept or ignore it directly from the request window.

Public chat forums will be placed throughout the virtual conference to allow you to chat with SAFe coaches, other attendees, and Scaled Agile staff. To find a public chat forum, simply navigate back to the Lobby or use the drop-down menu at the top of the web page.

Participate in a group discussion in the lounge by entering a Public Discussion Group or Group Chat. The discussion group allows you to have topic-specific conversations, while the chat is a free-form back and forth among attendees and Scaled Agile staff. 

Pro tip: The European SAFe Summit is hosted on a 3D platform: it’s best-viewed on a desktop or laptop. Your phone or mobile device does not effectively support this type of experience. 

I hope you enjoy the European SAFe Summit virtual experience! We’re extremely excited about this year’s conference. If you haven’t registered yet, you can do so here. And don’t forget to download the 2020 European SAFe Summit Attendee Guide, with these and more details, tips, and advice inside!

About Micheal Center

enior Industry Event Manager at Scaled Agile

As the Senior Industry Event Manager at Scaled Agile, Micheal brings his 25 years of experience to support and produce engaging trade shows and conferences across the globe. He’s also a Certified Digital Event Strategist who’s dedicated to improving attendee and sponsor experiences at Scaled Agile’s virtual conferences and events.

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Next: What’s a Product Owner to Do?

What’s a Product Owner to Do?

Product Owner

When I coach companies on Lean and Agile methodologies, I strive to have dedicated, co-located Product Owners (POs), Scrum Masters, and teams. In the 21st century and given our current context, many companies involved in a SAFe® transformation have POs and Scrum Masters who are leading multiple remote teams. 

It can be challenging to coach Agile teams remotely and consistently on the Agile Manifesto and SAFe principles and values, such as Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project or Program Execution. Often during these transitions, some companies expect an employee to be a part-time PO in addition to his/her day job.

Many times I have had Product Owners ask me to help supervisors understand the time commitment involved with the role. One way is to describe what a typical PO does each day. In this post, I’ve created a list of what a PO does on a daily basis. This list is not exhaustive, nor is it in any specific order:

  • Attends the team’s daily stand-up meeting to understand the team’s progress and impediments toward the Iteration goals.
  • Capture customer requirements and ideas by writing (or helping others write) stories and Enablers.
  • Continuously accepts or rejects completed stories and Enablers. 
  • Is available to the team each day to answer questions and clarify stories.
  • Works with the System Architect to ensure Enablers are properly prioritized so as not to mortgage the future of the architecture.
  • Verifies that stories are in the proper format, contain valid confirmation (aka acceptance criteria), and are in line with the Program vision and scope. This includes any necessary design details, business rules, NFRs, etc.
  • Ensures that the team is aligned to the PI Objectives, and Iteration goals are clearly defined and communicated.
  • Helps remove or escalate obstacles to Product Management.
  • Makes sure that the Agile team has a direct connection with the business through story development and the Iteration review.
  • Meets regularly with Product Management (e.g. PO Sync) to keep stakeholders informed on how much incremental value has been generated.

In addition to that, on a cadence, POs:

  • Participate in the Iteration retrospective event.
  • Present the stories and Enablers during Iteration Planning.
  • Meet with the team each week to refine the Team Backlog.
  • Work with the team to decompose stories and Enablers into small increments. Ideally something that can be completed every two to three days.
  • Prioritize and update the Team Backlog.
  • Work with the team to create and commit to Iteration goals.
  • Collaborate with team members to form PI Objectives.
  • Help identify dependencies with other teams during PI Planning.
  • Meet with Product Management and stakeholders regularly to field questions and inform them of any updates or changes to scope.
  • Conduct the Iteration review with the team and participate in the System Demo to demonstrate the incremental functionality to the Agile Release Train and stakeholders.

In your context, look at all the activities that your POs are engaged in and consider whether it’s realistic for a part-time PO to do them all. If it’s not, speak to your part-time POs and have them present this data to their managers or as an issue during your Inspect & Adapt workshop.

To learn more on the PO role within SAFe, read this article.

About Joe Vallone

Joe Vallone, SPCT, SAFe Fellow, is an experienced Agile trainer who has helped coach several large-scale Agile transitions at Zynga, Apple, Microsoft, VCE, Nokia, AT&T, and American Airlines. He’s also an effective leader and speaker with more than 20 years of software development and management experience. As a change agent, Joe is passionate about teaching and coaching organizations to reach their full potential by embracing Agile values and Lean thinking.

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Next: We Did It! Our Very First, Fully Remote, Distributed PI Planning.

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