Appreciating the value of SAFe

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Over the last few days I have been taking the time to carefully reflect on the reasons why I really appreciate the SAFe framework. I’ve put the link in here for you SAfe 4 and there are a number of case-studies detailed in here SAFe case studies

I will neatly ‘side-step’ the positivist hierarchy of evidence question for the time-being as I think that might muddy the proverbial waters in terms of my appreciating what it offers, for me, and perhaps for you. Stated simply, case-studies offer three things for the interested professional:

  1. Credibility. Many Senior Executives find it helpful.
  2. Insights and Learning: The Case-Studies and CoP help foster respectful collaboration
  3. Evidence. Many large public and private organisations want underpinning evidence for the ‘case for change’ or an associated business case for validation.

But this does not really capture what I have in mind and this is the consultancy cycle approach to incremental change. It is fair to say that I’ve been using this model for over 16-years now. Stated simply, it starts with a problem that needs to be solved. It also sets aside any notion of a prescribed methodology, or indeed methodologies, and instead actively seeks out the established ‘evidence-base’ for what has effectively worked in similar situations/contexts or what we might call case-studies?

To make my point a little more ‘real’ let me provide three hypothetical scenarios and the ways by which the SAFe framework would, perhaps, offer something of value, insight and help.

Remember, of course, that one of the foundations of the agile movement is all around incremental change. That is to say, that we are looking to make small, testable improvements from the current state to the desired future state. We collect data/evidence as we test our hypothesis to this end.

Also, remember that SAFe is a framework and therefore you can select the parts that you wish to test as hypothesis to help you gain more agility.

Scenario One:

The organisation wants to empower its teams to use the most appropriate methodology and associated tools so that they can take seriously the ideas of the self-empowered or organising team.

One of the strengths of SAFe is the operational ease by which each team can adopt, test and refine its own lean-based methods such as Scrum, Kanban, ScrumBan or any refinement that the team makes as part of its own individual agility maturity. We don’t need, anticipate or expect that innovation is quashed by ‘corporate policy’ or the illusion that if every team used the same tools then life would be simpler! SAFe is ace in this regard!

Scenario Two:

There is significant technical debt because projects are being stopped and started. The dependencies are out of synchronisation, and even completed projects are left on the shelf completed without any genuine business value being realised.

Thankfully SAFe has lots to offer in the ‘strategic portfolio operational’ space. At the Enterprise there are key strategic themes. In turn at the Portfolio there is a ‘work-in-progress’ limit to the number of projects that are in the Portfolio strategic pipeline. Thus, the value stream per theme is clear; with enabler projects and Epics being clearly worked up and approved in a ‘light: tight’ governance role. This simply means that the business value of working software is known prior to it being started. SAFe also has a very realistic portfolio budgeting method that lends itself to ‘light: tight’ financial planning. This model is very similar to that advocated the National Audit Office for financial budgets that have a range of variables and costs with the assumptions (and sensitivity analysis) explicit.

Notice though, that if any project has emergent problems and has to stop whilst those problems are solved, that the WiP ensures that there is a worked-up (i.e. ready to go) project for that team. Thus, there are no idle, redundant or sunk costs due to poor sequencing or Portfolio synchronisation. SAFe is first-class in this area!

Scenario Three:

In a word the next problem is all around system improvements. Consider a context with SOA architecture and three projects needing to ‘call’ various SOA services before the transition to a fully production/live services.

In this regard SAFe has lots to offer! Consider the cadence or rhythm of the software (fully tested and system Demo to all stakeholders including the business Users). The neat release train ensures that all the teams know when to have their Epics completed to ‘hit the next train’. This makes System Assurance testing co-ordination that much simpler too. In effect the Business Users have shippable working software more frequently and better tested across the Enterprise.

SAFe also has a very sensible 10 or 12-weeks planning session for all the teams, or silos, within IT or ‘brand IT’. In this way it ensures that the front-line staff across the whole of IT all have co-created a plan that they are all equally aligned with and committed to. (I’ve blogged previously about systemic alignment).

For me, this is very powerful. It shifts the thinking from silo or ‘part’ to the ‘us’ or the ‘whole’ IT family or system. I love this for the collaborative hope that it offers. And given the significant number of businesses across a range of Industries that have, and are, successfully using SAFe this is encouraging to me.


I hope that I’ve demonstrated the rationale for why I can appreciate the SAFe framework when we are seeking to improve our agile maturity? I hope that whilst you may prefer a different scaled framework, or none at all, given your specific/particular circumstances or contextual factors, that for others SAFe is both a fab place to start that journey, or indeed help the maturity?

Take care, Jason


Jason is a Certified Scrum Professional; as well as a Business Psychologist and Agile Project Manager. 

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‘Lessons to be Learned’ is this anything more than a rhetorical device?

You might recognise the picture above as a human neural network. This is the miraculous or amazing ways by which the human brain disseminates information that we all use to make sense of our external (environmental) and internal (psychological) worlds. I believe that this is a useful metaphor for learning at a number of levels, including individually, team and organisationally.

This blog is all about learning. But the motive behind writing it is all about relieving pain, upset, misunderstanding and disappointment. Consider the following scenario:

A loved one is treated poorly by a provider of care/ treatment. This results in serious harm or death. Given the seriousness of the error an external review is completed taking several months. Consequently a comprehensive 157 page report is produced. The same day this becomes available a press statement including the phrase that we all recognise instantly: “The organisation accepts the reviews findings and acknowledges that lessons must be learned” is given to the national, regional and local media.

Even though several months have passed for you the associated emotions remain raw or visceral and there is this sense of an injustice. You are energised to do three things. Firstly, you read carefully all similar reviews of the same type of error over the last 10-years. Secondly, you ask the organisation to demonstrate the ways by which they have implemented the ‘lessons learned’ from these previous reviews that you have found. Lastly, you informally ask friends that work in that organisation in what ways the ‘lessons learned’ from these reviews has shaped their professional practice over the last decade.

It is an obvious point but worth exploring none-the-less, what difference will it make to you if you discover that very little genuine learning has taken place? And, of course, if you discover that learning from previous reviews has indeed re-shaped professional practice and informed the ethical culture of the organisation what difference would this make to your sense of justice/injustice?

Around 7-years ago I was asked to review (yes me too!) and then design and implement a learning architecture that would address the points that I have outlined above. This is roughly what we co-created.

As a matter of interest this was within healthcare, but as I said before I believe the design features, or principles, could be applied in most organisational contexts such as banking/finance, IT, social services, foster care, schools/education, and the military, and the voluntary sectors such as charities and churches.

We mapped the following key learning building blocks:-

  • Insights from International, National Reviews
  • Learning from other external Reviews
  • Learning from Organisational ‘near miss’ events (logged)
  • Insights from Programme and Project ‘Lessons Learnt’ reviews/ evaluations
  • Learning from Conferences and other CPD events
  • Team Based Learning
  • Individual Learning (PDR)
  • Communities of Practice (Professional)

With bi-directional information and learning ‘flows’ we anticipate the following direct outcomes and wider systemic benefits.


  1. The rate, or pace, of learning across the network ‘nodes’ should increase over time- given that we have specifically “designed-in” the learning connectedness
  2. There should be some correspondance of learning from each ‘output’ to the relevant learning ‘input’. In this way, we can see that any relevant learning from say a specific project review/evaluation should expected to be found, in say, the ‘community of practice’ for programme/project managers
  3. The same of course, could be said for any professional such as nursing, teachers, investment bankers and so forth
  4. Consequently, the knowledge management skill par excellence- is extracting the right degree of learning granularity from each knowledge input to each learning output


  • Having professional ‘communities of practice’ connected to learning knowledge management will enable skills and knowledge transfer in the most effective ways
  • The added-value from international/national reviews has genuine legitimacy to individual learning- with explicitly mapped transfer points or nodes across the network
  • The learning network is a key enabler for cultural and team climate improvements to this end
  • Individual learning evidently ‘scales-up’ to organisational learning. For example, an individual attending a CPD event would share a brief of that learning that is disseminated to each and every node

 Jason is a Business Psychologist.



“Let’s kick their ass and get the Hell out of here”



Within a short 60-minutes some 226 US soldiers has been massacred by the Indians. The latter had over 1,500 warriors and had more reliable and effective Winchester rifles. Ambrose (1996) rightly notes that the ‘Battle of Little Bighorn’ is arguably the most written about military event in American history which is quite something!

From my very own experience, it is fair to say that I have met three leaders that remind me of General Custer over the last 16- years of working as a Work/Business Psychologist. Recently, I have been reflecting on what leadership insights we might gain from re-examining General Custer from a Work Psychology perspective. By way of methodology I have adopted the type of discourse analysis as advocated by Parker & Pavon-Cuellar (2014). In this way I have completed a short intensive research review and consequently completed an analysis of the key themes. Lastly, I mapped these across to psychological evidence-base.

Up front and central I’d like to argue or construct a view of Custer as embodying the psychological ‘dark triad’. This is a ‘diabolical trinity’ of three key personality constructs, namely:-

  1. Narcissism which can be witnessed by pride, egotism, a lack of empathy and grandiosity.
  2. Machiavellianism which is characterised by the exploitation and manipulation of others for one’s own ends and a strong motivation and focus on one’s own self-interest. This also includes tactics such as deception, lying and lack of moral values
  3. Psychopathology which can be witnessed by anti-social behaviour, impulsivity, callousness and a lack of remorse.

You will notice that although these three components are conceptually ‘teased apart’ in practice they overlap. I have noticed in at least two clients that these components seem to ‘spark off’ one another. Lastly, each component has a statistical normal distribution. That is to say, a less ‘acute’ type can be found in non-clinical settings such as the workplace. This resonates with Lowen (1985) in his first-class and very accessible book on Narcissism has found a similar pattern.

  1. Narrcissim

“In years long numbered with the past, when I was merging upon manhood, my every thought was ambitious- not to be wealthy, not to be learned, but to be great. I desired to link my name with acts and men in such a manner as to be a mark of honor, not only to the present, but also to future generations.

“The largest Indian camp on the North American continent is ahead and I am going to attack it”

Both quotations from George Armstrong Custer, 1867.


OK let’s take a look at Custer’s narcissism. Firstly, we have the display component. For example during battle he would ride on a white horse; whereas his troopers would be on black horses as a key differential in terms of the positional display of power, authority, as well as the visual impact signifying difference and the element of deferral. Perhaps a modern equivalent would be a very expressive ‘executive’ car. Andrist (2001) states that he was “greedy for fame” and many commentators (e.g. Kershaw, 2005) have noted how he enjoyed making public speeches- primarily about himself and his successful campaigns to date (see Macnab, 2003).

It is also fascinating to note that Custer frequently invited correspondents to accompany him on his campaigns to report on his military skills and prowess. It is also sad to note that two of them lost their lives at his ‘Last Stand’.

Ambrose (1996) noted that within the U.S. Army Custer was described as being a vain, self-seeking and glory-wanting individual. Andrist (2001) believes that Custer was photographed more than any other Civil War officer; which from a narcissist frame of reference literally speaks volumes!

Custer also loved dressing very flamboyantly. He often wore or ‘sported’ a uniform that included shiny boots, tight olive trousers, a tight hussar jacket of black velveteen with silver on the sleeves, a sailor shirt with silver stars on his collar, and a red cravat. To ‘top it off’ he was had a wide brimmed slouch hat, and styled his hair in ringlets with cinnamon scented hair oil. Quite the image!

  1. Machiavellianism

“Hurrah boys, we’ve got them! We’ll finish them up and then go home to our station.”

Next, let’s briefly explore some of the ways by which Custer was a Machiavellian Connell (1997) reports that many of his peer-group saw Custer as someone that “really wanted to be seen as important but not caring how he got there.”

Connell (1997) reports how during the course of his military career Custer was prone to disobey orders, as well as openly criticize those senior to him in the military hierarchy. For example, he charged the Secretary of War of ‘hypocrisy’ saying that they were signing treaties with the Indians with one hand and them killing them with the other.

Custer also had the classic Machiavellian tendency ‘show-off’ to those in positions of authority/power when it was the right time to do so when seeking his own shameless self-promotion and vain ambitions. One of the most telling examples is when on May 24, 1862 General Barnard and his senior staff were assessing a potential crossing point on the Chickahominy River. Custer was waiting for his ‘moment’ so when General Bardnard said to his team “I wish I knew how deep it was”…with that Custer gently wiped his horse and rode- out to the middle of the river and shouted victoriously “That’s how deep it is, Mr General”.

What unfolds next is very important for our interpretive purposes as Custer was consequently given permission to lead a successful attack across the River and this resulted in the capture of over 50 Confederates. Following this successful campaign, he is also then personally congratulated for his gallantry by the General.

These details are psychologically relevant as this set-up the ‘reward’ frame of reference for the type of ‘heroics’ that Custer was in far too desperate need for. Of course, this deep-seated need for achievement and recognition was a classic ‘double-edged sword’ and would lead to his demise along with his brothers Thomas Custer and Boston Custer who died with him along with his brother-in-law, James Calhoun, and nephew, Henry Armstrong Reed.

  1. Psychopathology

“They tell me I murdered Custer. It is a lie. He was a fool and rode to his death” (Chief Sitting Bull).


For me the most telling psychopathological moment is back in 1866. By way of context the western frontier was conflict ridden. Unaccustomed to the tactics of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, Custer spent months fruitlessly chasing after elusive bands of warriors. At one point, he became so frustrated that he abandoned his command and dashed 150 miles in 55 hours just to spend one day with his wife.


For this insubordination and deserting his post the records state that he was court-marital and consequently suspended from the Army for a year. However, General Philip Sheridan came to his rescue and recalled him to lead a winter campaign against the Cheyenne. In a bloody dawn attack along the Washita River in 1868, Custer and his men killed 103 Indians. The records demonstrate that very few were in actual fact were warriors. Tellingly the majority were women, young children and old men. Custer demonstrated neither mercy, nor compassion nor any element of empathy. This was a massacre!


As time progressed Custer noted that the military culture turned a blind eye to some of his more brutal methods of ‘leadership’. As with all mavericks this was mainly because he ‘delivered results’. Unfortunately, given his personality problems Custer became extremely ruthless. For example, it is reported that on at least three occasions when he was challenged by subordinates he did not hesitate to kill them for ‘insubordination’. There was no room for any ‘critical friends’ in his psychological space.

I would argue that Custer’s lack of empathy was one of the factors which meant that he rejected help from new technologies and instead relied too heavily on his own military skills and methods. He outright rejected the Gatling gun. Next his forced his men to use single-shot Springfields, whilst the Indians used much more reliable and effected Winchester rifles.

On the day of the battle, Custer divided his 600-man command in the face of vastly superior numbers into three battalions. Thus, the refusal of an extra battalion reduced the size of his force by at least a sixth, and then rejecting the firepower offered by the Gatling guns played into the events of June 25 to the disadvantage of his regiment.

To be fair, prior to the ‘Battle of Little Bighorn’ Custer had experienced some measure of campaign success. But he ascribed this more to his own method of the ‘Custer chase’ which relied heaving on three factors:

  • having first-class reconnaissance intelligence,
  • the element of genuine surprise, and lastly,
  • Outnumbering the enemy.

Most historians note failure on all three tactical components with his fateful and infamous ‘Final Stand’.


Like Achilles, it seems that Custer achieved in death, the lasting fame that eluded him in life. For many years, the public saw him as a ‘tragic military hero’ and ‘a gentleman’ who ‘sacrificed his life for his country’. To this end, Custer’s wife, Elizabeth helped construct this narrative with the publication of several books including: Boots and Saddles, Life with General Custer in Dakota (1885), Tenting on the Plains (1887).

My own analysis is that General Custer was a psychologically flawed individual and that this can account for:

  • his exponential rise through the ranks with little/limited actual military experience
  • his very brutal treatment of the ‘enemy’ more especially the vulnerable (e.g. unarmed women, children and the elderly)
  • his reliance upon his own skills and rejection of help or new technologies
  • ultimately- his key military failure



Interested in Further reading?


I enjoyed reading Stephen E. Ambrose (1996): ‘Crazy Horse and Custer: the parallel lives of two American warriors’: New York: Anchor Books.


Ambrose, S.E. (1996). Crazy Horse and Custer: New York: Anchor Books.

Andrist,R K (2001). The Long Death: The Last Days of the Plains Indian, Editorial Galaxia.

Connell, E. (1997). Son of the Morning Star. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Custer, George Armstrong (1874) My Life on the Plains. New York: Sheldon and Company.

Kershaw, R. (2005). Red Sabbath: The Battle of Little Bighorn. Ian Allan Publishing.

Lowen, A. (1985). Narcissism: Denial of the True Self. Touchstone Books, New York.

Macnab, D B (2003). A Day to Remember: Introducing the Drama, Irony, and Controversies of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, iUniverse.

Parker, I. & Pavon-Cuellar (2014). Lacan, Discourse, Event: New Psychoanalytic Approaches to Textual Indeterminacy. Routledge. London

Perrett, B. (1993). Last Stand: Famous Battles Against the Odds. London: Arms & Armour.