A guiding coalition that operates as an effective team can process more information, more quickly. It can also speed the implementation of new approaches because powerful people are truly informed and committed to key decisions.
This is article four in the SAFe® Implementation Roadmap series. Click here to view the entire roadmap.
Create a Lean-Agile Center of Excellence
The Lean-Agile Center of Excellence (LACE) is a small team of people dedicated to implementing the SAFe Lean-Agile way of working. It is often one of the key differentiators between companies practicing Agile in name only, and those fully committed to adopting Lean-Agile practices and getting the best business outcomes. The LACE is the third element of the ‘sufficiently powerful coalition for change,’ which is made up of three primary ingredients:
- Train a number of Lean-Agile change agents as SAFe Program Consultants (SPCs)
- Train executives, managers, and other leaders
- Charter a Lean-Agile Center of Excellence (LACE)
This article provides guidance for size, structure, and operation of the LACE. It is based on our own experience, as well as others working directly in the field.
In the articles Train Lean-Agile Change Agents and Train Executives, Managers and Leaders, we described how the organization can help change agents and leadership gain the knowledge and skills necessary to lead the transformation.
The challenge is that most of the people qualified to drive the change have full-time responsibilities in their current roles. While a significant portion of their time can perhaps be devoted to supporting the change, a smaller, more dedicated group of people is required to drive the transformation throughout the organization. Though these groups go by different names—the Agile Center of Excellence, Agile Working Group, Lean-Agile Transformation Team, Learning and Improvement Center—they are all staffed with people whose primary task is to implement the change.
How many dedicated individuals does it take to create an effective LACE team and accomplish the change? In addition to the number of people, one must also take into account that there’s an organizational and financial impact to assigning talented resources to the new charter. As author John P. Kotter  notes: “The size of an effective coalition seems to be related to the size of the organization. Change often starts with just two or three people. The group in successful transformations then grows to half a dozen in relatively small firms or in small units of larger firms.”
For perspective, we’ve observed that in SAFe-practicing companies, small teams of four to six dedicated people can support a few hundred practitioners; while teams of about twice that size support proportionally larger groups. Beyond that, team size gets unwieldy, and a decentralized or ‘hub and spoke model’ is typically more effective, as you’ll see later in this article.
No matter the size, the responsibilities of a LACE typically include:
- Communicating the business need, urgency, and vision for change
- Developing the implementation plan and managing the transformation backlog
- Establishing the metrics
- Conducting or sourcing training for executives, managers and leaders, development teams, and specialty roles such as Product Owner, Product Manager, Scrum Master and Release Train Engineer
- Identifying value streams, and helping define and launch Agile Release Trains (ARTs)
- Providing coaching and training to ART stakeholders and teams
- Participating in critical, initial events like Program Increment (PI) Planning, and Inspect and Adapt (I&A)
- Fostering SAFe Communities of Practice (COPs)
- Communicating progress
- Implementing Lean-Agile focus days, with guest speakers, and presenting internal case studies
- Benchmarking and connecting with the external community
- Promoting continuing Lean-Agile education
- Extending Lean-Agile practices to other areas of the company, including Lean Budgets, Lean Portfolio Management, contracts, and Human Resources
- Helping to establish relentless improvement (see Sustain and Improve in the Roadmap)
For a small team, this is a pretty significant list of responsibilities. But it’s important to note that many of them are shared with numerous SPCs, who may or may not be regular members of the LACE.
Organization and Operation
The LACE may be a part of an organization’s emerging Lean-Agile Program Management Office (Agile PMO), or it may exist as a stand-alone unit. In either case, it serves as a focal point of activity, a continuous source of energy that can help power the enterprise through the necessary changes. Additionally, since the evolution to becoming a Lean-Agile enterprise is an ongoing journey, not a destination, the LACE often evolves into a longer-term center for continuous improvement.
Operationally, the LACE typically functions as an Agile team, and applies the same iteration and PI cadences. This allows the LACE to plan and Inspect & Adapt in harmony with the ARTs, serving also an exemplar for Agile team behavior. As a result, similar roles are needed:
- A Product Owner works with stakeholders to prioritize the team’s transformation backlog.
- A Scrum Master facilitates the process and helps remove roadblocks.
- The team is cross-functional. Credible people from various functional organizations are integral members of the team. That allows them to address backlog items wherever they arise, whether they’re related to organization, culture, development process, or technology.
- A ‘C- level’ leader typically acts as the team’s Product Manager.
A team like this needs to align with a common mission. An example mission statement is included in Table 1.
As we mentioned, the size of the team must be in proportion to the size and distribution of the development enterprise. For smaller enterprises, a single, centralized LACE can balance speed with economies of scale. However, in larger enterprises—typically those more than 500-1,000 practitioners—it’s useful to consider employing either a decentralized model or a hub-and-spoke model, illustrated below in Figure 1.
Table 2 describes situations where each of these models is most effective.
The LACE has a tall order to fill: Change the behavior and culture of a large development organization. Once a LACE has formed, there will be a natural desire to want kick it into high gear right away and work through its full backlog as quickly as possible. However, trying to remove all the major organizational impediments right at the start will slow the transformation to a halt. Instead, the LACE—with the support of the entire guiding coalition—empowers the organization to generate short-term wins by defining and launching ARTs. It then consolidates those gains as additional ARTs are launched. This provides the positive momentum needed to tackle the larger organizational issues.
With each PI, ART, and value stream, the gains continue to build; and the organization transforms incrementally. These activities are the subject of the remaining articles in this Implementation Roadmap series.
Identifying enterprise Value Streams and Agile Release Trains is the next critical move.Next
Learn More John P. Kotter, Leading Change, (Harvard Business Review Press, 1996.)  Knaster, Richard and Leffingwell, Dean. SAFe Distilled, Applying the Scaled Agile Framework for Lean Software and Systems Engineering. Addison-Wesley, 2017.
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Last update: 15 May, 2017