Adopting SAFe with NASA

The world of product management is constantly evolving, with methodologies and frameworks emerging to address the unique challenges of developing and delivering successful products. Gaining significant popularity in recent years, one such methodology is known as Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). Our company recently became much more familiar with this framework and have embraced the benefits that we’ve gained along the way. Designed to enable enterprise organizations to scale Agile practices across multiple teams and projects, SAFe offers a structured approach that promises efficiency, collaboration, and faster time-to-market. 

One of our team’s more in-depth projects at Lone Rock Point has been with NASA and the efforts to tame the work through project management have been a long road. 

Early in the project, it was difficult at best to plan for what was to come, key decisions changed the trajectory of the project time and again. Once our research was complete, implementation required planning and understanding the work ahead, focusing on how and the cadence of the plan to accomplish all the work laid out with all requirements being met.

As a company, Lone Rock Point is known to our clients to be flexible, willing to do what best suits their needs, and to pivot as needed. We knew using a waterfall approach clearly wouldn’t work for hundreds of moving pieces as the team began implementation of the project with NASA. 

We immediately recognized an Agile approach to development and project management would better support the desired project outcomes. If you aren’t familiar with Agile, it is essentially a methodology that allows cross-functional teams to collaborate on projects in stages, helping to optimize results, and make the work more approachable.

Initially, the team set up our project using Epics and Features that were very broad and covered a lot of aspects. To put that in perspective, to start we had 7 features, 2 years later, we have delivered over 115 features using SAFe to plan our work.

Then in 2021, one organization inside NASA began adopting the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). As they did, one of the project leads requested that our team adopt it as well. Pivoting is something we embrace when needed and the team embarked on a path mid-implementation which presented a unique set of challenges. Adapting to this framework has required careful navigation as teams needed to reconcile existing project management approaches and address resistance to change while attending training sessions to better understand these new concepts.

Other Challenges with SAFe 

In reality, adopting SAFe doesn’t seem very agile-driven at first. It takes a significant investment of time and energy as well as participation by an entire team of people working together with the same level of commitment to making the change. Implementing and navigating SAFe also requires a deep understanding of its intricacies and a willingness to adapt existing product management practices to fit within the framework. 

A few of the challenges we’ve faced include:

  1. Evolving Mindset and Culture: Our team was challenged to shift their mindset and culture. During this shift, my pivotal role was in driving a cultural change for the team as they learned something brand new to most of them. Transforming deeply ingrained habits and beliefs can be challenging and this change encountered strong resistance. Especially around the need for regular synchronization and alignment across teams which required more meetings in virtual operating environments.
  2. Prioritization and Roadmap Management: SAFe introduces a concept called Program Increments Planning events (PIs) which are 2-day planning sessions every 12 weeks. Adapting to the structured cadence of PIs in combination with a resistance to the previously mentioned more meeting time required a careful balance of priorities along the way.
  3. Alignment and Communication: SAFe encourages cross-functional collaboration and alignment among teams, but achieving this can be a significant challenge and time investment. Companies talk a lot about breaking down silos but in order to find success with SAFE, you must break down those silos so the teams share information every step of the way. With our teams working on different aspects of a product and coming from different priorities, the team had to invest a lot of time into ensuring effective communication and aligned efforts. Transparent communication channels and a commitment to fostering a collaborative culture went a long way in helping our teams get started with SAFe.
  4. Balancing Flexibility and Structure: SAFe also aims to strike a balance between flexibility and structure, but finding the right equilibrium can be tricky. Teams need the freedom to innovate, experiment, and respond to changing user needs. SAFe also introduced a certain level of process that if not managed could stifle creativity and agility. We found we needed to carefully navigate a balance between the two, ensuring the benefits of necessary structure without hindering the ability to pivot.

While SAFe provides a structured framework for scaling Agile practices, it has ultimately been the people and their ability to navigate these challenges that have determined the success of our shift to SAFe.

Improvements and Benefits for our Team Using SAFe

Communication, collaboration, and clarity

As the team has adopted SAFe, we’ve seen benefits in how it facilitates effective communication, creating dedicated time and space for the team to openly discuss progress, challenges, and dependencies along the way. By encouraging frequent and regular communication, we have minimized miscommunications, encouraged knowledge sharing, and empowered the NASA project team to collectively address any roadblocks and get answers from project leadership to avoid blockers.

Capacity, Planning, and Cadence 

By establishing team-level capacity planning, we’ve been able to gain a deeper understanding of the team’s capabilities and bandwidth. And by leveraging SAFe’s structured framework, the team has the ability to make data-driven decisions about capacity – optimizing resource allocation to better suit the project’s ever-changing priorities. 

This insight, in turn, enables them to make informed decisions about project scope, resource allocation, and work distribution in an effort to optimize productivity and prevent burnout. Recommending changes to bridge the need for a significant number of high priority features with the reality of our team capacity and resources. Little by little, we’ve learned that by effectively managing capacity, we can guide the team to operate in a balanced and sustainable manner while maintaining a healthy work environment.

We haven’t always been successful with capacity and planning. Teams have often walked out of planning events feeling great, but then two sprints into a PI the project priorities have significantly shifted and the result has been the remaining PI sprints are over capacity. This is something we know we need to work on as a team and are trying some new experiments to see how we can better address it. 

Where we are today

As we’re on the verge of completing the first phase of this project, looking back we see how far the team has come in it’s adoption of SAFe. They understand priorities better from leaders. They ask the right questions earlier to understand the work ahead. They raise their hand when they feel like there is too much work in progress and too many conflicting priorities. They feel heard and the work is seen.

While we’ve made many strides in project management since the beginning of this project, we still have a long way to go. Adopting the entire SAFe methodology isn’t a feasible venture, it’s academic, but if you find the right pieces, implementing this framework and doing the work will definitely carve a path for better product management. 

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