Spotting and Removing Friction from Agile Transformation

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Sometimes an Agile transformation is a lot harder than it needs to be. It can happen when an organization is launching an ART, or it can happen during something as simple as helping an individual team improve its demos. So how do you spot that friction and remove it from your agile transformation? In this episode, Eric Willeke, SAFe Fellow and founder of Elevate, joins us to discuss how tactics and different investments make it easier to do the work of successful change.

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Sometimes an Agile transformation is a lot harder than it needs to be. It can happen when an organization is launching an ART, or it can happen during something as simple as helping an individual team improve its demos. So how do you spot that friction and remove it from your transformation? In this episode, Eric Willeke, SAFe Fellow and founder of Elevate, joins us to discuss how tactics and different investments make it easier to do the work of successful change.

Erin and Eric talk about:

  • The difference between mechanical agility and inspirational agility.
  • Why it’s important to understand what the teams—that are often a source of friction—are trying to achieve.
  • How the word “they” can be a clue in identifying friction.
  • Helpful techniques to remove friction from your transformation.

Hosted by: Erin Rae Humbach

Scaled Agile’s leadership and product management team - Erin Rae Humbach

As a member of Scaled Agile’s leadership and product management team, Erin Rae focuses on developing, leading, and executing strategic initiatives. She is an effective team player with 14 years of Agile experience who collaborates closely with other stakeholders to accomplish business objectives while building trust and long-lasting relationships. Find Erin on LinkedIn.

Guest: Eric Willeke

 Agile transformations - Eric Willeke

Tapping into his experience leading and architecting multiple Agile transformations, Eric mentors and trains executives to help them make a difference. His background as a coach and facilitator, architect, SAFe Fellow, SPCT, and principal contributor to the Framework has helped executives avoid the pitfalls inherent in every Agile transformation and ensure sustainable impact from agility investments. Connect with Eric on LinkedIn.


Speaker 1:

Looking for the latest news experiences and answers to questions about SAFe. You’ve come to the right place. This podcast is for you, the SAFe community of practitioners, trainers, users, and everyone who engages SAFe on a daily basis.

Melissa Reeve:

Welcome to the SAFe Business Agility Podcast recorded from our homes around the world. I’m Melissa Reeve, and for the past 70 episodes or so, I’ve had the honor and privilege of interviewing dozens of experts in the Scaled Agile Framework. Together, we’ve learned from experts, including Dean Leffingwell, members of the Framework team, experienced SPCTs, and SAFe Fellows and practitioners. And I can’t thank you enough for listening. With this episode. I’m signing off as the main host of the SAFe Business Agility Podcast and we’re introducing a series of guest hosts. Today, I’m pleased to introduce Erin Rae Humbach. Erin Rae is a seasoned agilist and a well-known face in the Scaled Agile Community. Erin Rae, take it away.

Erin Rae Humbach:

Thanks so much, Melissa. I’m so excited to be here and joining me today is Eric Willeke. Eric is a SAFe Fellow, an SPCT, and co-founder and principal of Elevate. Thanks so much for being here, Eric. It’s great to have you on the show.

Eric Willeke:

Yeah, it’s wonderful to be back, Erin.

Erin Rae Humbach:

All right. So today’s topic that you’re going to share with us is around removing friction from Agile transformations. Let’s get started. Tell us a little bit about what you mean when you talk about friction and Agile transformation and some of your experiences in supporting customers.

Eric Willeke:

Thanks, Erin. There are a lot of sources of challenge that just don’t need to be there. Things that are harder than they should be when you look at the act of creating change, the act of launching an ART. Even something as simple as helping an individual team get better at how they demo or use their backlog or any of dozens or hundreds of factors in change that are harder than they should be. Because it feels like the organization’s systems, processes, and overall environment is just stacked against the change agent. And I think we all know this. We struggle with this. Dozens of books have been written about how to eliminate some of these things, how to make them better. Yet, what I don’t see day-to-day is this showing up as the driver for how you shape a transformation. And many of you out there may have heard me talk about mechanical agility versus inspired agility, where mechanical agility is that mindset of we’re just going to launch the teams, we’re going to launch the trains, we’re going to get the groups out there doing Agile, and then we’re going to call it successful.

Eric Willeke:

And you get improvement. Even that gets you 20-percent improvement, it’s meaningful, but it’s not the real impact. And when I look at inspired agility, that’s where I see leadership teams and executives really working together across silos, focusing on getting things out of the way so that their teams can truly be successful. That you can see every individual in your organization reach their potential with agility and therefore the teams and the trains aren’t just better. They’re transformed in the real meaning of that word and the path to getting there isn’t just through launching those teams and trains.

It’s through finding the things that are keeping those trains from being successful, making it harder for each one of them to launch, which if you’re launching hundreds of trains, that cost adds up and it wears at the change agent and exhausts them. So when I talk about taking friction out of change, when I talk about making a frictionless transformation experience, it’s really about the set of tactics and the different ways you’re investing to make it ever easier to do the work of change—and to do the ongoing work of being an Agile Release Train and delivering amazing value for your customers.

Erin Rae Humbach:

Great. Thanks. I’m really interested in hearing who’s involved in that effort. You talk about leaders, is the LACE involved? Who inside of the organization have you seen is really digging in and focusing to help those Agile Release Trains?

Eric Willeke:

I think what you just asked is why it doesn’t happen often enough because, more than many topics in consulting, the real answer to this is it depends. It depends on who are the stakeholders in that capability area today. One of the things I like to do, for example, when I start with any new transformation is to go find the head of audit and compliance and take their team out to dinner and get to know them and understand what those individuals are struggling with. Because I know that audit and compliance and related factors are often a source of friction. We don’t understand stereotypically as coaches or as delivery people. We don’t understand what their goals are, what they’re trying to achieve, why they put this set of rules in place at a deep enough level to address those interests and concerns. I also don’t need to be the expert there.

I need to have a great relationship with the experts and I start by prioritizing that relationship. Now, when I have an audit or compliance-related issue, I don’t go trying to solve it. I don’t beat my head against a wall with org silo. I go ask Kevin or Mary or whoever the compliance officer happens to be in the org I’m working in and say, hey, Kevin, Mary, this came up today. What are your team’s goals here? What do you think they’re trying to achieve? And then we can solve the problem much closer to the root cause very quickly. But Kevin and Mary, they’re not helpful if it’s an HR issue about staffing and job titles, or if it’s a DevOps and deployment issue about the information security group, or if it’s a facilities issue about how the cube farm is set up.

So each one of those topics requires a different set of relationships. It requires an entirely different network of people trying to solve the problem. One of the things I really appreciate is Mark Richard’s attitude out of Australia. One of the SAFe Fellows, and he talks about infecting other initiatives. And that’s very much the mindset I take towards this problem as well is, when you find one of these sources of friction, you don’t go try to solve it. You go find out who is already working on a related problem, and you try to infuse an Agile mindset and the principles and practices into that space, and then the problem goes away. So the who is hard, because it’s a different set of executives, a different set of leaders, maybe a completely unexpected random group, like a team of admins for various executives that has to go solve the problem.

Erin Rae Humbach:

So some of what you’ve been talking about remind me of a talk you gave at a previous Global SAFe Summit where you covered something called the exploding curve. Is that related?

Eric Willeke:

It kind of is, yeah. At that time, it’s a bit of a joke, but it’s also a cautionary tale to transformation leaders of what happens when you try to launch train after train and you don’t fix these sources of friction. And if you go too fast and you don’t fix these things, what you get is what I call the exploding curve. The organization hits the brakes on your transformation because you’re breaking everything else around IT or around the development team or around digital or wherever you’re trying to drive this change. And they just don’t know how to handle it. And a few teams, one release train, that can sneak under the radar. That’s not big enough for these other functions to care about, but when you start doing 10 trains, 50 trains and the systems aren’t set up to support it.

And every funding conversation is still a manual conversation and exception process. And every time you try to do capitalization, it has to be a manual effort by the finance team. And you’re asking real estate to set up a special space and reserve 50 conference rooms for every release train. And you haven’t solved these things that are making it harder. That breaks the company, that keeps those other functions from doing their job and that’s where change dies because you lose support. You don’t get the support you need from everybody else. So that’s the explosion.

Erin Rae Humbach:

So you talked a bit about getting that support around creating those relationships. Is there kind of a magic equation that you’ve worked through in supporting these organizations around, how you manage all of those different people? And is there a sequencing around it, sounds like a lot of relationship management, change management effort. Is there any way that you’ve gone about it specifically?

Eric Willeke:

There are a couple of techniques and one is an overall transformation pattern that I’ve found very successful. And the other is kind of just a personal habit that has made it a lot easier. I’ll start with the personal habit because it’s direct and actionable and really straightforward. Listen for the word, “they” and then go introduce yourself to “they,” whoever “they” is. And I find any time that people are complaining about a function, complaining about a challenge, inevitably a “they” comes up, and if only that “they” were in the room, having this conversation, the conversation would be completely different. And that goes along with one of my kind of personal belief systems where I will mostly jokingly, but not entirely say the root cause is always in the room because if the root cause isn’t in the room, you should go get them in the room and then continue the conversation.

So I find the word “they” gets a little bit of an allergic reaction to it. So you notice it. They’ll make a big deal out of it, go meet the “they” and bring them into the conversation and understand the other perspectives and questions, mindsets that you’re trying to represent, and then have a better conversation and then rinse and repeat. You might find yourself managing a hideously complex network of stakeholders by doing this, but at least you finally have the group, however large, that can actually make this problem go away or make it easier and that’s where the organizational pattern comes in. When we look at a LACE, we are very good at staffing coaches and aligning them to release trains and getting those trains through the implementation roadmap and up and running and supporting them for the first PI or two. That’s great, rinse and repeat, we’re phenomenal at that as a community, but we also need, either in or adjacent to the LACE, a group that is very focused on finding these other sources of friction, learning from the initial trains.

Like when you launch that first train, you’ll get a laundry list of issues that need to be resolved that were hard. Now you could be in the hero mindset where your job is to overcome those challenges and get that train launched. Cool, wonderful mindset to be celebrated to a certain extent. But in my mind, the real heroes are the ones who find those problems, overcome them, and then carry them away to make sure they get fixed later. So that train number two doesn’t have to deal with it and train number three doesn’t have to deal with it and so on. And the question always becomes, who are they carrying those issues away to? Are they carrying them and trying to solve them themselves, well that’s a challenge because those individuals are trying to launch trains. They don’t have time to go solve these other issues.

So when I look at a transformation team, when I look at the platform that is developing and delivering the transformation product to the enterprise, what I’m really looking for is a group in there that is owning and shaping the response to these sources of friction. Now those sources of friction cover an incredibly broad area. They impact a number of different groups. They involve a very large list of stakeholders and a very different skill set might be required to own and lead any single one of those. Luckily, SAFe provides us with a nice pattern for that kind of problem. A Portfolio Kanban flow of epics with epic owners. And it may not be a full portfolio and I can pick up that pattern and say, this group, the cross-cutting friction group, whatever you want to call it, they have a portfolio of issues they’re working on.

And each of those issues that we’ve decided to focus on and invest into because it is material enough to invest into, has an owner or a small epic ownership team because of the number of stakeholders involved. And they need to go figure out what the real problem is they’re solving, go through the design-thinking process, engage the right network of stakeholders, understand their success criteria, define the initial experiment, start testing, see if that test is actually helping, and then scale that to the large organization if it makes sense. Suddenly that starts to look a heck of a lot like a portfolio Kanban, the flow of an epic. And what you need isn’t a staffed entity full of all these other groups and hundreds of people from across the org. You need a small team of people with enough systemic knowledge to go get all those people and take the epics to them and work with the efforts that are already underway.

And what I’ve found in practice in large organizations is while the launching and after release train part, I think if it as like a 1X multiplier, you kind of get out of it what you put into it. The work you put into the secondary is like a 50X multiplier. It pays off over and over again, and that’s the real source of transformative improvement in the organization because you’ve made life easy. You’ve made change easy.

Erin Rae Humbach:

So you talk a bit about this smaller transformation team. Who have you seen been on that team that’s really going and using this process and moving these epics forward around change to help the organization be successful?

Eric Willeke:

Well, first there’s the recognition that it is a system. It needs a little bit of tracking and it really helps to have somebody that is filling the same pattern as the portfolio ops type role. And you could call it a scrum master. You can call it whatever title you want, but somebody with that mindset that’s ensuring the system stays healthy and things get attention. Let’s start with of the health of the team. And then beyond that, I actually look for volunteers there. Like I solicit, literally, put out a call for participation from across an organization and say, who has passion to solve this kind of problem, problems around portfolio who has passion solving this kind of problems around treating an ART’s outputs like a product and creating an environment of healthy product management. How about this one around team and technical agility and good DevOps behaviors and making that pit of success available to developers across the organization.

What about architecture? And you can kind of just find all these people that are already passionate about these areas if you put the calls out in the right way. And what’s great, these are the people that already have great ideas. Many of them already have bright spots where they’ve done it successfully in one corner of the company. And they’re just dying for the chance to get everybody doing it because they know how powerful it is. And you get 20 or 30 of those little things going over the course of a couple of years. And you’re talking about dramatic improvements over your baseline. You get significant changes in performance, quality, predictability, everything else you might want.

Erin Rae Humbach:

Do you by chance use any sort of tools to identify some of those problems? You said that in the room, people will say “they” and dig in there and who’s “they?” But are there any tools that you use, like the SAFe assessments or any other ways to identify those problems in the organization to just start those conversations and identify those people that want to participate and help with these problems, ultimately, that are happening within the organization?

Eric Willeke:

There are and I mean, a little bit of leading the witness, the SAFe assessments, of course, are a useful tool for that. I also like to look at the kinds of impediments that bubble up repeatedly. So, do some harvesting across your impediment history and similarity analysis or whatever tool you want to use to find similar sentiment. And the Lean Kanban board will call this defect clustering, find the areas where you see the same types of problems coming up over a variety of spaces. And those become great candidates.

Listen as you build your internal network, and you might be a transformation executive with a strong network, or you might be a change agent coming in from the outside and having to build your network. As you build a network, don’t just listen for, I mean, do listen for them, but also listen for heroes, listen for the people that seem to be in every conversation because they know something that everybody else doesn’t. And like Brent, from the Phoenix Project, that might be an indicator there’s a high source of friction that needs to be resolved and probably some poor soul that really wants to see that problem fixed so they can go home and have dinner.

And then don’t assume that the source of the problems and the source of the solutions are coming from the same part of the organization. Often, they actually come from wildly different parts of the company because the parts of the company where that problem doesn’t show up or where they’ve already figured out how to fix it. And you might just be connecting people and not having to resolve a problem. As coaches and change agents, we often accidentally carry a certain hubris that we have to be the ones to solve problems, as opposed to just acknowledging this has probably already been solved and we just need to figure out where and let them talk to each other. We don’t even have to be in the middle of it other than facilitating a conversation.

Erin Rae Humbach:

Thanks for sharing all your insights today. Eric. Is there anything else you want to share with our audience?

Eric Willeke:

Just an idea of being vigilant. This isn’t a known list. You don’t get to build your backlog once on these items and then think of it as being done. Stay attentive as you get much later in the transformation. As you’re really optimizing and reaping the benefits of agility, you’ll discover a whole new pile of sources of friction that weren’t worth noticing before. They weren’t at the top of the problem list, but as you’ve resolved problems one and two and three, then problem four is now promoted and isn’t impacting you now and has an opportunity to continue improving the organization. And a lot of people have asked me, what do I do when I finish launching all the trains? Like what happens when I’m done with agility?

Now you get to get started. Now you get to do all the fine-tuning and the reshaping and the refocusing on value and look at bigger problems and deeper sources of friction. Even if your late-stage transformation and all this seems obvious, don’t relax. There’s always something to improve. There’s always something to be even better than you are today and relentless improvement or core values, we can’t let those go.

Erin Rae Humbach:

Great. Well, thank you so much, Eric. It’s always a pleasure. I’m so glad we got to have you again on the podcast and can’t wait for you to visit us again.

Eric Willeke:

Thank you.

Erin Rae Humbach:

Please remember to revisit past topics at

Speaker 1:

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