Why we Fought SAFe and how we Lost, by Stephen Culligan "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs December 12 2020 True Agile Transformation, Culture, Empowered product teams, Innovation, mtpengage, mtpengage manchester, organisation culture, Product Culture, SAFe, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 1074 Stephen Culligan at #mtpengage Manchester 2020 Product Management 4.296

Why we Fought SAFe and how we Lost, by Stephen Culligan


Stephen Culligan shares an honest and humorous tale of a ‘failed’ attempt to take on SAFe as a consultant in a large enterprise company, and the lessons that came out of the experience. Despite setting and aligning clear product, business and technical goals, employing modern product discovery techniques, and defining the North Star, the project was unexpectedly cancelled by executives. Yet two years on, Stephen discovered that the organisation has started to transform, and that the seeds planted by his team’s efforts might finally be leading to an innovation culture. Don’t be disheartened by what seems failure – scaling is difficult, and change takes time.

Key Points:

  • While Stephen isn’t a SAFe practitioner, he makes the case that it can lead to disempowered product teams.
  • Good product techniques mean nothing if you don’t communicate to stakeholders.
  • Change is rarely instant – it often comes with long feedback cycles, but you may just sow the first seed of change, and then have to wait for results.

Fundamentally, this is about creating an innovation culture in a large organisation, and about transformation – planting little seeds of hope with very long feedback loops. It is about empowered product teams, who get close to customers so they can solve real customer problems in valuable ways for the business, and how sometimes that still doesn’t lead to the results you expect.


Stephen was asked to work with product management, designers and engineers for a Very Large Insurance Company who sell insurance bonds. The goals seemed simple:

  • Business Goal: To sell two bonds together at the same time
  • Product Goal: To make it more user friendly than alternative insurance companies
  • Tech Goal: To reduce time to make changes in the future

The stakeholders kept using the phrase “The Art of the Possible” (presumably derived from the book by Daniel M. Jacobs) in conversations abound bringing in external support. As a consultant approaching this context, the message to Stephen from the organisation was “We don’t trust our own employees to be able to solve this problem, so we need you to come in and show us how to do it“. However, what Stephen has learned in three years of consultancy is that it’s usually not the teams who can’t deliver a great product, it’s often the context in which they are working which is stopping them from delivering a great product.

The organisation were working in SAFe – the Scaled Agile Framework – which incorporates many familiar ways of working and tries to interlock them together; customer centricity, design thinking, XP, scrum, Kanban, lean budgets etc. These are all good practices, but SAFe is usually employed in large hierarchical organisations with top down decision making, which often leads to very dis-empowered product teams.

Transformation is Cultural Change

You may already have the inkling that SAFe probably wasn’t the problem, but rather the culture it creates (or exists within). When stephen comments that the SAFe framework diagram reminds him of John Cutler’s trust diagram, it’s not an idle observation – his point is that the systems and structures of SAFe are often applied as a safety system for executive stakeholders to maintain a sense of control when there is an absence of trust in an organsation0.

Consultants are often brought in as “experts”, and are given tacit permission to make broad changes to organisational processes. So they first tried to dismantle the process which was stopping teams from talking to customers, and to define clear goals – essentially, to break away from SAFe. They did what good product teams do – talked to lots of agents selling insurance bonds, talked to customers, and interviewed stakeholders individually. This led to them uncovering two key problems, which turned into a very clear North Star metric: to enable more time with customers, while the time to issue the bond was driven down.

Stakeholder Communications are Critical

The consultancy team did all the ‘right’ things in collaboration with the product team. They created lean prototypes and updated their immediate stakeholders on a weekly basis. By week 7 everything was going great and despite the organisation historically being sceptical of experts, value was being delivered quickly. Yet out of nowhere, in week 8, the project was cancelled, and the team was folded back into the regular agile processes of the organisation. The reason for these was never clear, but Stephen has some strong hypotheses.

Marty Cagan called SAFe a “heavyweight framework” as the team is far removed from their stakeholders, and that’s a critical point in this context. Looking back at the SAFe diagram and thinking about how they were operating, Stephen realised that, while the team were communicating well with their close stakeholders, they were ignoring the stakeholders further away in the layers of management. The stakeholders in the upper layers of organisational management were certainly interested in how this innovation / transformation effort was proceeding, but were presumably getting very little information to gauge success or progress. If that was the case, it’s perhaps not surprising (though no less disappointing) that the project was cancelled in an untimely way.

Organisational Transformation is Slow

The fallout of that sudden cancellation was also not surprising. Some of the team left, others stayed and tried to drive change from within, but they were all disappointed and felt they hadn’t achieved anything. Thankfully, that’s not quite where the story ends. Two years later, Stephen received an update from one of the team who had persevered and remained at the company. Changes were beginning to happen in the Very Large Insurance Company, with new processes and innovations being tested on real transactions, and new products to follow! “It took a while, but we are getting there.

Key Takeaways

Stephen had believed that he’d failed as a consultant, and that SAFe had blocked him and his team from driving change. The reality was just that the process was incredibly slow – he’d helped empower the product team with better ways of working, and they’d then reentered the organisation and gradually championed better ways of working, helping the company to start moving in the right direction.

  • Scaling is incredibly difficult – maybe the hardest thing we’ll do as product managers.
  • SAFe probably isn’t the problem – it just re-enforces existing hierarchical culture. The business just needed to get closer to the customer.
  • Change takes time – so you should act now, but don’t always expect immediate results.