By multiplying milestones, we transform a long, amorphous race into one with many intermediate ‘finish lines’. As we push through each one, we experience a burst of pride as well as a jolt of energy to charge towards the next one.
—Chip and Dan Heath, The Power of Moments
Measure and GrowMeasure and Grow is the way portfolios evaluate their progress towards business agility and determine their next improvement steps.
The Lean-Agile transformation and the journey to Business Agility is a major undertaking for every enterprise. Many executives have commented that this transformation was one of the most difficult—but the single most rewarding—change that they have personally experienced in their entire careers.
The business benefits of business agility are clear: faster time to market for more innovative solutions; higher quality and productivity; higher levels of employee engagement; opportunity for a new and enhanced culture, and ultimately, the ability to thrive in the digital age. But for those new to the endeavor, the question naturally arises as to where and how to begin. That is the purpose of the SAFe Implementation Roadmap, a proven pattern that has been shown to work in enterprises around the world. And yet, even when moving down the roadmap, the question for the enterprise becomes: How do we know how we are doing? Are we growing in the right areas? What do we do about the deficiencies we know we have? Where should we target our next effort?
To reinforce and accelerate the SAFe transformation, leaders need to ‘measure and grow’ the implementation at various points along the journey. This will help maintain the energy and enthusiasm they are devoting to the short cycles of Iterations and Program Increments (PIs) while setting their sights on the larger goals of true business agility.
‘Measure and grow’ is the term we use to describe how SAFe value stream portfolios evaluate their progress towards business agility and determine the next improvement steps. It describes how to measure the current state of a portfolio and grow to improve overall business outcomes.
Measure and grow are accomplished via two separate assessment mechanisms, designed for significantly different audiences and different purposes.
- The SAFe Business Agility Assessment (Figure 1) is designed for LPM and portfolio stakeholders to assess their overall progress on the ultimate goal of true business agility.
- The SAFe Core Competency Assessments (Figure 2) are used to help teams and trains improve on the technical and business practices they need to help the portfolio achieve that larger goal.
Each assessment follows a standard process pattern of running the assessment, analyzing the results, taking action and, less we forget, celebrating the victories.
SAFe Business Agility Assessment
The SAFe Business Agility Assessment is a high-level assessment that summarizes how Agile the business is at any point in time. The assessment report provides a visualization that shows progress measurements across the SAFe seven core competencies. An example report is shown below in Figure 1.
The spreadsheet version of the assessment can be downloaded here.
Note: The ‘Original’ version of the Business Agility Assessment uses SAFe terminology in the phrasing of the assessment statements. We recommend moving to the ‘New’ version of the Business Agility Assessment which has reduced the number of assessment statements, simplified their construction, and removed SAFe-specific terminology.
All the SAFe assessments are also available as online assessments for SAFe community members, where additional tools for data collection, analysis, comparison, and trending can be used to good effect.
Running the Business Agility Assessment
Assessing business agility status is not a trivial feat. Opinions abound, the data is lumpy, and the ways of working are evolving at the same time as the assessment is taking place. Therefore, simply sending the assessment out to various participants and asking them to fill in the data will probably not provide the right experience or accurate results. Instead, we recommend a facilitated session with someone trained in the nuances of SAFe and the assessment process. An experienced SAFe Program Consultant is probably a good choice.
Two assessment patterns can be used:
- Each participant fills the assessment independently and then the group discusses and analyzes the results together
- All participants discuss each statement together and reach a consensus on the score for each statement
Both patterns have their benefits and disadvantages. Trust the facilitator to pick the right pattern based on group dynamics, distribution, and time frame.
Analyzing Business Agility Assessment Results
With the data from the assessment in hand, the next step is to analyze the results. During the analysis, it is important to identify significant variances in opinion. The facilitator should review each area of disagreement and explore the differing views. These might stem from a different understanding of the statement itself, or from disagreement about where the group is in the specific dimension. The goal is to explore the differences to get better alignment of where improvement is needed. This is a significant part of the collaborative learning experience.
Core competencies that the group has assessed as problematic can then be explored to understand the reasons that drove people to score themselves low. In addition to pointing out areas needing improvement, the assessment allows portfolios to see visible improvements in performance or ‘wins’. The wins are small multiplying milestones that encourage teams to consolidate those gains and produce more change, as Kotter’s model  suggests.
The facilitator should also be aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect , in which people tend to assess their ability as greater than what it really is. This means that core competenciesthat seem unnaturally high might also require an examination to make sure the group understands the meaning of the statements in question.
Taking Action on the Business Agility Assessment
Although high level, taking the business agility assessment is, in itself, a learning experience. Many questions directly set expectations of behaviors, activities or outcomes that can be reasoned about and discussed. For example, a question about continuous learning such as “the organization provides time and space for innovation” is fairly clear, and the implied corrective action is fairly obvious.
Further in the Figure 1 example above, the enterprise scored low in Lean Portfolio Management. That could be because they are ineffective at it, but it’s more probable that the enterprise hasn’t started that part of the journey yet. In most cases, a quick look at the implementation roadmap will identify some fairly obvious next steps, with the goal being to steadily improve proficiency across all seven core competencies.
The portfolio or the LACE should routinely re-evaluate their progress toward business agility, perhaps every other PI, and plan the next steps. The measurement frequency depends on the opportunities pursued and how fast the portfolio can reasonably achieve progress. Creating a baseline early on in the transformation, followed by periodic assessments will illustrate improvement trends and allow everyone to communicate successes.
SAFe Core Competency Assessments
In most cases, assessing progress towards business agility spurs the enterprise to greater, and deeper, efforts. That leads the business to explore and start to measure and take more specific action on some or all of the seven core competencies. Structured similarly to the business agility assessment, each core competency assessment has a set of statements, organized by dimension, that are rated on the same scale as the above. The questions go one step deeper to specific aspects and areas of opportunity and concern along each of the three dimensions of that specific competency. An example report is illustrated in Figure 2.
Running a Core Competency Assessment
As with the business agility assessment, the scope, audience and process for an individual competency assessment must be purpose built. Perhaps low results in the Agile product delivery competency might require that each Agile Release Train in the portfolio assess its progress in that dimension. Or perhaps it’s an LPM assessment that needs to bring in the right LPM stakeholders. In any case, all the guidance and caveats provided above still apply and attention to culture and careful facilitation is necessary to get the right experience and the right results.
(Note: Each of these more detailed Core Competency assessments can be downloaded from the bottom of this article.)
Analyzing Results of a Core Competency Assessment
The results of a competency assessment are summarized along the three dimensions. But again, there is far more detail in the assessment and far more learnings than the figure alone implies. For example, here’s a sample of questions from the Built-in Quality dimension, which by themselves inform stakeholders and imply improvement activities:
Teams share responsibility for design
Teams reduce technical debt in each iteration
Teams foster cross-training and T-shaped skills
Continuous integration and automated tests run at team and system levels
To reiterate, taking the assessment, whether business agility or core competency, is not a rote mechanical effort. It’s a fostered collaboration replete with its own learnings, and it sets expectations and communicates intent. Therefore even the apparently simple act of taking the assessment will be a significant step in moving towards improvement.
Taking Action from a Core Competency Assessment
To close the loop on the process, each core competency assessment has a set of growth recommendations or ‘grows’ (Figure 3), which are available as SAFe Collaborate forums, one for each core competency dimension. Each growth recommendation is an activity of some kind (read an article, attend a course, run a workshop, etc.) that has been shown to be effective to create improvement in that dimension. They are organized into three basic categories, core, intermediate, and advanced, so there is a logical order in terms of what to do next. Hovering above any one recommendation brings up a short explanation, and often a link to the relevant activity.
The group can use these recommendations to identify opportunities for improvement. For example in Figure 2 above, the basic team practices seem pretty solid, but the team ranks itself poorly on built-in quality. In order to find next steps, teams would navigate to the build-in quality growth recommendations and review and discuss actions they agree to take. In addition, those close to the problem will have their own ideas for improvement as well.
(Note: The links to the SAFe Collaborate forums containing the growth recommendations for each core competency dimension are available at the bottom of this article.)
Prioritizing Improvement Opportunities
In order to limit Work in Process (WIP) (see SAFe principle #6) and assure that something does indeed get done, it is helpful to prioritize the opportunities and choose one or two that will provide the most value immediately. Much like prioritizing features in the Program Backlog uses economic ranking with Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF), the same approach can be used to identify the best next opportunity to pursue.
A simple table to compare opportunities via WSJF, is shown in Figure 4 below.
This approach will help the group select the improvement opportunities that yield the biggest impact with the least effort.
The prioritized opportunities then go into the LACE backlog, the Portfolio Backlog, or the program backlog to be worked on as soon as possible. The backlog of choice depends on the opportunity. For example, an opportunity to restructure ARTs by running a Value Stream and ART Identification Workshop will likely be on the LACE backlog, while a recommendation to train all Scrum Masters might belong in the program or the portfolio backlog.
Core Competency Assessment Downloads and Grows Forums
The following table provides download links for each of the core competency assessments and the links to the individual grows forum for each.
Lastly, change is hard. Continuous change is hard continuously. The smart enterprise uses small wins to celebrate progress and inspire people to the next achievement milestone. There are many opportunities to celebrate: such as when a portfolio, ART or team move from one level to the next in each dimension; or perhaps even manage to change a single assessment statement from ‘mostly false’ to ‘mostly true’. Celebrating successes creates the fuel needed for more improvement and advancement on the journey towards business agility.
These milestones can also provide an opportunity for organizations to gamify the business agility journey. This, in turn, can motivate individuals and teams to intensify their focus on the activities that will help them and their portfolio to achieve its goals.
In addition, tying the improvement to changes in the Value Stream KPIs and LPM metrics connects the effort to the portfolio’s measures of overall success. In this way, the entire portfolio can focus on measurement, and celebrate growth and positive outcomes.
Learn More Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact. Simon & Schuster, 2017.  Kotter, John P. Leading Change. Harvard Business Review Press, 2012.  en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect
Last update: 18 June 2021