Change Leadership

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Leading Change

Being a Lean-Agile leader provides the thought processes and practical tools needed to guide the enterprise to achieve business agility. The benefits of delivering value in the shortest sustainable lead time, creating flow, and producing customer delight—all with happy, engaged employees—are clear. It’s also clear that the new way of working for many organizations represents a quantum shift in culture and practice from the traditional paradigms of the past. In other words, the transformation required to adopt SAFe inevitably leads to significant organizational change.

Here again, the role of the Lean-Agile leader is critical. Successful organizational change requires leaders who will lead the transformation (rather than simply ‘support’ it) by creating the environment, preparing the people, and providing the necessary resources to realize desired outcomes. Research shows clear correlations between the leader behaviors described in the “Leading by Example” section of this article and the success of organizational change driven by Agile and DevOps initiatives. Other researchers found that these leader behaviors influence employees’ commitment to supporting the change more than simply following a prescriptive change model [7, 8].

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Lean-Agile leaders drive the change process by developing and applying the following skills and techniques:

  • Change vision occurs when leaders effectively communicate why change is needed and do so in ways that inspire, motivate, and engage people to buy into the change with a sense of urgency.
  • A powerful coalition for change is formed when a ‘volunteer army’ of individuals from multiple levels, across silos, and with diverse perspectives are empowered to contribute to and help overcome barriers to implementing the change.
  • Change leadership is the ability to positively influence and motivate others to engage in organizational change through the leader’s personal advocacy and drive. It includes producing and celebrating short-term wins, reinforcing the change until the desired outcomes are achieved, and anchoring the change in the organization as the ‘new normal.’
  • Psychological safety occurs when leaders create an environment for risk-taking that supports change without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career.
  • Training the new way of working ensures that everyone is trained in the values, principles, and practices of Lean and Agile, including a commitment by leaders to their training so they can lead by example.

Sound organizational change management (OCM) practices are still important and highly recommended in a SAFe transformation. One of the most respected voices in OCM, Dr. John Kotter, in his most recent research, has described the ‘eight accelerators’ for implementing successful change as [9, 10]:

  1. Create a sense of urgency
  2. Pull together the guiding team
  3. Develop the change vision and strategy
  4. Communicate for understanding and buy-in
  5. Empower others to act
  6. Produce short-term wins
  7. Don’t let up
  8. Institute change

Dr. Kotter goes further in describing four change leadership principles that can help unlock the full potential of the eight accelerators:

  • Management + Leadership. To capitalize on windows of opportunity, leadership must be paramount – and not just from one executive. It’s about vision, action, innovation, and celebration, as well as essential managerial processes.
  • ‘Have to’ + ‘Want to’. Those who feel included in a meaningful opportunity will help create change in addition to their normal responsibilities. Existing team members can provide the energy – if you invite them.
  • Head + Heart. Most people aren’t inspired by logic alone, but rather by the fundamental desire to contribute to a larger cause. Extraordinary results are possible if you can give greater meaning and purpose to your effort.
  • Select Few + Diverse Many. More people need to be able to make change happen – not just carry out someone else’s directives. Done right, this uncovers leaders at all levels of an organization, ones you never knew you had.

These values and practices require the active participation of the leaders driving the change. But even this is not enough. Heath and Heath note in their book on change [11] that leaders “need to script the critical moves” essential to accomplish the change.

The SAFe Implementation Roadmap

Based on experience and these insights from the field of organizational change management, the SAFe Implementation Roadmap article series guides leaders on this particular journey, as summarized in the Implementation Roadmap article and Figure 6 below.

Figure 6. The SAFe Implementation Roadmap

The SAFe implementation roadmap is described in a series of 12 articles that align with Kotter’s blueprint for change. For example, the sense of urgency is often established in the many conversations that lead to an organization ‘reaching the tipping point’ and deciding to ‘go SAFe.’ The next recommended action is to train a core group of Lean-Agile change agents and leaders who will form the powerful guiding coalition. The pattern continues throughout the roadmap, designed to incorporate successful organizational change lessons into the SAFe transformation model. This roadmap helps leaders’ know the way’ as they drive for successful change. The roadmap also highlights Scaled Agile’s Leading in the Digital Age series designed to better prepare leaders to lead the implementation.

Role of the SAFe Practice Consultants

Even with Lean-Agile leaders and sound organizational change strategies, observations from many SAFe implementations indicate that a significant cadre of change agents and experienced coaches is also needed. While every leader plays a part in producing the change, SAFe Practice Consultants (SPCs) are trained and equipped specially for this task. SPCs’ training, tools, courseware, and intrinsic motivation play a critical role in successfully implementing and sustaining a SAFe transformation.


Implementing SAFe is not just any change; it’s a shift to persistently and relentlessly improving business agility, all based on the fundamentals of Agile and Lean. It requires managers, executives, and other leaders who understand how to lead, sustain and accelerate the transformation to a new way of working.

Leaders alone have the authority to change and continuously improve the systems that govern how work is performed. Only they can create an environment that encourages high-performing Agile teams to flourish and produce value. Leaders, therefore, must internalize and model leaner ways of thinking and operating so the rest of the organization will learn from their example, coaching, and encouragement.

Effective leadership ultimately provides the foundation for the adoption and success of Lean-Agile as the new way of working, and mastery of the competencies that lead to business agility.

Agility is principally about mindset, not practices.

― Jim Highsmith, Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products

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