How Executives Make or Break Transformations – SAFe Agile Transformation

SAFe Agile Transformation



trans· for· ma· tion | \ ˌtran(t)s-fər-ˈmā-shən  , -fȯr- \

1: an act, process, or instance of transforming or being transformed

Though transformations are widespread, not all feel successful.

I am blessed to have been able to take part in many transformations.

And in the transformations I’ve been a part of, I’ve found similarities. This goes for Agile transformations, digital transformations, business transformations, and my own more personal transformations.

In this blog post, I’ll share executive behaviors that I’ve seen produce unhappy employees and decreased outcomes:

  • Lack of clarity and communication
  • No connection to middle management
  • Passivity

I will also share patterns that created positive outcomes for the employees and the end users:

  • Leading with heart
  • Leading with honesty
  • Leading with accountability
  • Leading by example

Executive leadership is not the only impact on success or failure. But I’ve seen and felt that strong agile executives enable transformations to be motivational and positive.

SAFe Agile Transformation

Three Ways Executives Break Transformations

Beginning a transformation and not following through can have immense ripple effects throughout an organization.

To begin a transformation, we must ask people to change. Change is something humans have a natural negative reaction to unless they feel safe.

Transformation failures start with this basic premise: we must feel safe to change. Executives who don’t enable safety at scale are not enabling a transformation. 

Lack of clarity and communication

Executives are decision-makers.

Leaders must remember that those under their supervision must live with their decisions. Thus, the leader needs to listen to the ideas and concerns of everyone involved before making and imposing a decision.

This does not mean leaders must follow the suggestions or ideas of everyone. But they must hear and consider what those under their supervision believe before making a decision.

A leader needs to make decisions in a way that those affected by the decision can believe they were heard. Those affected should also know there were reasons why their ideas were not incorporated into the final decision.

Leaders are not “commanders” but must make decisions and be clear about them. Transformations with executives who attempt to please everyone in the moment only ensure that nothing is clear. In this situation, happiness is, at best, temporary.

No connection to middle management

Middle managers have complicated jobs with conflicting priorities. They must focus on in-the-moment concerns as well as long-term strategies. Also, they must find ways to care about the humans that work for them while completing the larger mission of the company. And in most cases, they are not incentivized for these behaviors. 

Rewarding these middle management behaviors and outcomes builds a system unable to transform:

  • Siloed improvements
  • Heroics by individuals over systemic improvements that eliminate the need for heroics
  • Meeting dates at the sacrifice of employee and end-user well-being


Passivity is the biggest failure of executive leadership in times that need change and transformation.

Passive leadership, in my experience, is executives who say they want a transformation and even hire a team to do so and then stop getting involved.

To create a generative culture of engaged workers, a leader must engage.   Executive leaders who step back from the decisions and motivations of their workforce may have happy accidents. But they won’t have the intentional system that builds the culture required to keep their enterprise focused on the appropriate risks and learnings to speed up outcomes.

SAFe Agile Transformation

Four Ways Executives Make Transformations

I’ve managed to interact with many executives throughout my career. Because of this, I’ve internalized my belief on what makes an “agile executive.”

Agile executives hold these transformation leaders accountable for outcomes and results while taking accountability for removing blockers and giving the group the time needed to change. They vocalize and act upon SAFe transformation as a journey that should have measurable and time-bound moments but is never complete.

Agile executives understand their most important asset is the people who work within the company.

Leading with heart

The desire to inspire others comes to mind first. Agile executives are purposeful about inspiring individuals they come across day to day as well as large groups. They do this through clarity of vision but also by taking the time to do so. They find pride in making others feel better, even momentarily, for having spoken with them.

The agile executive doesn’t talk at people; they talk with them and encourage others to talk with each other along the way. Agile executives understand their most important asset is the people who work within the company. They understand this in economic and human terms: employees who are happy, enabled, and mission-driven produce better economic outcomes than those who are not.

SAFe Agile Transformation

A motivating example of leading with heart is in the customer story from Porsche’s leadership. I felt inspired by these agile executives’ connection to the heart of their workforce and how they brought that heart to life together across organizational boundaries. 

Leading with honesty

Agile executives know that if those they lead doubt for one second that they are being honest with them or that they don’t have the best interest of their people at the forefront, harm will occur.

Depending on the products the enterprise creates, this harm could result in not only decreased customer outcomes but actual physical or mental harm to employees and end users.

Agile executives know that trust doesn’t occur in meetings; it happens in moments between them. And they encourage leaders throughout the company to know the same. They own up to mistakes immediately and celebrate those who act upon errors as learning moments.

Leading with accountability

Agile executives hold themselves and others accountable for the transformation at hand. They provide clarity of strategy, prioritization reasoning, and clear intent, creating a fertile ground to hold people accountable.

They also select and empower a group of trusted individuals who have shown desire and competency to move the full business along. To do this, they look for those who believe the company mission and customer outcomes could improve through change and have the relentless positive energy to make it happen.

Agile executives hold these transformation leaders accountable for outcomes and results while taking accountability for removing blockers and giving the group the time needed to change. They vocalize and act upon transformation as a journey that should have measurable and time-bound moments but is never complete.

A personal vignette

This moment continues to stick with me as a clear example of leading with honesty and accountability.

When I was a senior director a few years into leading a SAFe® transformation inside an organization, a new C-suite leader asked to meet with me in her first couple of weeks on the job.

During this meeting, we discussed where I saw opportunities and what I was hoping to achieve over the next year. She ended the call with a few statements that renewed my energy and began an amazing working relationship.

She said:

I appreciate your candor and ability to see the full system. I know this is a journey, not a destination. My ask is to continue to be bold, open, gritty, and kind. My other ask is a challenge to you. If you can help the teams and trains gain 5 percent efficiency in how they produce their work, we will have $$ (number left out on purpose, but it was A LOT) to fund additional efficiencies and improvements. Be the person who tells me how to do this, what you need from me, my peers, and the organization to succeed. I will be there with you, and I ask you to be accountable to that initial result, with more challenges from me after we succeed.

Leading by example

Agile executives are action-based. The transforming organization mimics their actions, not their words.

First, they ask for and receive coaching and education, knowing that lifelong learning is how they got to their position. And no title they have eliminates the need to continue learning, especially in today’s changing age.

Then Agile executives work hard to form teams amongst their peers, exemplifying team behaviors and living the same practices they ask their employees to have. They share their improvement backlogs and communicate their wins, failures, and hopes authentically. 

Finally, agile executives show up, physically and mentally, to events made up of cross-functional roles spanning hierarchies held within the organization, encouraging behaviors that create alignment and discouraging siloes. They learn the words of the transformation and frequently meet with those they hold accountable for the transformational steps. This ensures space to raise and resolve risks, blockers, and detractors to progress.

Aspire to Your Own Transformation

Transformational agile executives have a good sense of themselves and their role in the overall scheme of the endeavor in which they’re engaged. Leaders cannot take themselves too seriously but need also to recognize that their conduct establishes a pattern for those under their leadership to follow. Agile executives teach by example as much as by any other means available to them. 

Leadership requires that a leader respect those under their supervision and treat them as equals. Regardless of the type of transformation which you are deciding to lead, I hope this blog inspires you to inspire others and to continue aspiring to your own transformation.

Be the change.

About Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis is a Scaled Agile Framework team member within Scaled Agile, Inc.

Rebecca Davis is a Scaled Agile Framework team member within Scaled Agile, Inc., a SAFe Fellow, SPCT, and a Principal Consultant. She has led multiple transformations as a LACE Director, RTE, Portfolio Manager, and Coach. Rebecca has experience helping organizations create joy in the workplace by connecting employees to each other and user outcomes.

Connect with Rebecca on LinkedIn.

True Agile Teams and Trains – SAFe Implementation

This is the fourth post in the Practice Makes Permanent series. You can get caught up by reading the first, second, and third posts. 

Any SAFe® implementation relies heavily on one of the 10 Critical Success Factors: Real Agile Teams and Trains. Let’s break this conversation down to make it easier (small batches, right?) and talk about the “Real Agile Teams” part (the next blog in this series will address the “and Trains” part). The “Agile Teams” article does a great job of describing cross-functional, high-performing teams.  

What is a real Agile team? In this post, I hope to avoid the standard message about “what is a team?” and instead share some thought-provoking ideas about what a true


True Agile Teams

I came to a discovery a few years ago: there is no such thing as an Agile team.

Think about it. The Agile Manifesto Principle 12 states, “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” To me, this means that a team never arrives at true agility, but is constantly striving toward agility. Sure, you can call your team Agile. But, as soon as your team believes they have “arrived,” they have begun to stagnate. True agility is only found when we’re eager to learn what’s next to improve, and when we realize how much room for improvement still exists.

If you’ve ever rowed a boat upstream then you know what happens when you stop rowing—you go back downstream.  There is no steady state. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. This is the reality of relentless improvement and of the spirit of Agile Manifesto Principle 12. Your team(s) may have made incredible progress towards agility, but until you realize it’s a never-ending journey, your path forward will always be in jeopardy.

Agile Teams

Empowered Teams

Leaders often tell me that they want to empower their teams because they believe that empowered teams can deliver more value. That’s a valid belief, but leadership often doesn’t understand that our natural state is empowered. In his book Turn the Ship Around Captain David Marquet stated:

“We’re taught the solution is empowerment. The problem with empowerment programs is that they contain an inherent contradiction between the message and the method. While the message is ‘empowerment,’ the method—it takes me to empower you—fundamentally disempowers employees. That drowns out the message.”

In other words, to empower teams (and team members), we must first acknowledge that we have disempowered them through the systemic constraints we have created. If you want true Agile teams to constantly strive toward agility, the secret is to get out of their way. Create an environment with complete clarity on what needs to be done, then trust the competency of the people you have hired to do the right thing.  As Marquet stated, “We realize that we don’t have the power to give these talents to others, or ‘empower’ them to use them, only the power to prevent them from coming out.”

So how do you empower teams?

Remove Constraints around Team Members

In Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, General Stanley McChrystal observed, “For people who perceived themselves as skilled workers, being recast as mindless cogs in a larger machine was degrading.” Businesses hire the best and the brightest they can possibly find, but in many cases, these skilled people are used as the “mindless cogs” in a machine. They’re asked to do small, separated components of work without being allowed to see or add value to the system overall. In many cases, this is due to a lack of clarity. The teams are given only enough information to solve the task at hand, but not enough to apply their shared intelligence to solve the overall problem in the best way possible.

To begin correcting this, apply SAFe Principle #9: Decentralize decision-making by providing clarity of mission. Here is an easy way to get started:

  • Select a decision that typically requires sign-off or approval by management or leadership. Deploying to production is a common example.
  • Ask the person that approves this decision what they are using as criteria to make the approval decision. 
  • Work with the teams to create a framework that will give the approver the confidence that the decision is being reviewed correctly.
  • Provide the information that the approver has to the team so that they can make the decision by combining what they know (local context) with the approver’s vantage point. 

Let the team make the decision but allow the approver to see and hear the decision as it’s being made. I like using  Marquet’s approach to this practice by having the team state something like: “We intend to deploy this package to production. All functional, security, and compliance tests are passing. All code has been checked into version control.  Appropriate code reviews have been completed. The rollback process is in place and has been tested.” Using this statement of intent is a great way to allow teams to make the decision while keeping the approver in the loop. Over time, the approver will gain confidence in the team’s ability to correctly determine this decision.

Now you can move on to the next decision.  And the next, and the next…

Change the Culture

Apply SAFe Principle #8: Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers by building a culture of psychological flow. 

Psychological flow is a concept stemming from a 1975 study by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi who measured test subjects’ happiness metrics at random times throughout their days. Csíkszentmihályi discovered that people are at their happiest when they are in an environment of:

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  • A distortion of temporal experience, as one’s subjective experience of time, is altered
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding also referred to as autotelic experience

Boiling this down, people are most happy when faced with a clear challenge that’s not too difficult to achieve and is intrinsically rewarding. 

If you read my previous blogs, then you know that I’m also a motorcycle road racer and instructor. I have experienced psychological flow many times when in a really good battle with fellow competitors. We all know the finish line, we all know the risks (some better than others), and we are hyper-focused on achieving our goals. This is my happy place. And one of the best parts of this flow is the ability to talk with my fellow racers, who previously wanted to beat me to the finish line but now want to share the experience, after the race. 

There are many ways to improve team culture, but incorporating psychological flow is a critical component.  We all hear about “self-organizing teams” in Agile, but this doesn’t mean the teams self-form. It means they are formed with a purpose and given specific challenges to overcome with minimal guidelines. Leadership’s motivation is to remove impediments from their team’s path even if the leaders are the key impediment. 

If you want to have real teams striving toward agility, one of your first steps is to ensure they are properly challenged. Don’t bring them long lists of requirements. Instead, bring them a problem to solve or an opportunity to embrace. Then step back and watch the engagement begin. Culture changes every day. Take purposeful steps to create the culture needed for real Agile teams.

Crave Fast Feedback

We’ve all heard the need to “fail fast.” At this point, it’s almost cliché. But does it mean we set the teams up so that they will fail quickly? That sounds very demotivating. What fail fast really means is to create an environment where it’s safe to fail. We set out on paths that seem valid, but we continue to look for qualified data that helps with the pivot-or-persevere moments. 

Two things need to happen when we hit those pivot decisions. One, celebrate that we were able to truncate an invalid path before pursuing it too far. Two, incorporate the learning from this pivot so that we’re better prepared to find more successful paths and narrow in on the right specifications. For more on this topic, review SAFe Principle #3: Assume variability; preserve options.

Real Agile teams crave feedback that’s accurate, timely, and useful. Teams need fast feedback to quickly fail and invalidate paths; otherwise, they begin to lose focus and validated direction. Do you want to see your teams striving towards agility?  Create an environment where feedback continuously flows to the teams.

“Team Leader” Is an Antipattern

Well, at least in the conventional sense.  Team leads typically have one or more of these traits:

  • They’re the person who has exhibited the most skill
  • They’ve been with the company the longest
  • They have the most application or product knowledge

But are those the right reasons to look to this person for leadership? 

All of us have worked with the “rockstars” of product development. They always have the answer, they can solve just about any problem, and they seem to know how everything works. But why don’t the rockstars create a rock band? Shouldn’t those with that much skill, experience, and knowledge try to bring others up to their level rather than continuing to stand out from the crowd? Solos are great, but we all want to hear music from the whole band. 

safe for teams

Let’s look at a much more successful team lead approach, the Kaizen leader. In my experience, the whole team thrives when its leader is focused on continual, relentless improvement. Since leadership should be a role that is held as needed (rather than a title), team leadership can switch from one person to another as new improvement opportunities arise. Create a team environment where this is part of the culture and becomes part of the team DNA.

Getting Started

When talking about enterprise transformation with internal change agents, I often hear “that won’t work here” or “our culture just doesn’t work that way.” You know what? They’re right. Not with the current culture or reality.

However, remember that culture changes every day. Our job is to implement some of these team approaches to create a culture where transformation can really thrive. Teach, learn, and focus on the fifth lean principle of Pursue Perfection: “Perfection is like infinity. Trying to envision it (and to get there) is actually impossible, but the effort to do so provides inspiration and direction essential to making progress along the path.” To pursue perfection in a team is to be more excited about the journey than the destination. Teach your teams to view the pursuit of perfection as a worthwhile but never-ending journey of improvement.

I hope this post helps you to look at things through a different lens. Look for the next post coming soon that will add some of the same thought-provoking concepts applied to the ART.

About Dwayne Stroman

Dwayne is an Enterprise Transformation Coach and Trainer and SAFe Program

Dwayne is an Enterprise Transformation Coach and Trainer and SAFe Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT) with more than 20 years of experience. He is ultra-passionate about helping large organizations learn how to build the right products and deliver optimal value through learning and customer validation. Dwayne uses his SPCT role to help several Fortune 100 companies, as well as many growing companies in finance, retail, healthcare, and logistics, realize the benefits of a Lean-Agile mindset. Connect with Dwayne on LinkedIn.