As coaches and change agents, we are so often told to ‘start with why’. As someone who’s used Sinek’s golden circle thinking tool for a very long time, I’m a huge proponent of this. However, while there is often unified consensus around the effectiveness of this approach, I have found a significant lack of guidance when it comes to the ‘how’ behind the ‘why’, especially in a SAFe environment. 

In this post, I address some of the ‘how’ behind starting with why in a SAFe environment. Join the conversation on LinkedIn!

Starting with why comes naturally to most, but SAFe doesn’t clearly provide a systemic way for leaders to convey the why to knowledge workers… it’s hidden. Even in the best of implementations with clear business goals and visions, the vision and purpose is often abstract and distant from the work individuals need to do. As a result, the ‘how’ or ‘what’ gets conveyed instead, thus losing the benefits of starting with why in the first place. 

Why start with ‘why’?

Quite simply, providing “why” is an essential element of enabling the ability to organize around value. Thus, to get an effective implementation of SAFe (or any other agile approach) you need to include that “why” in most of the activities that accompany a SAFe implementation. 

Whether you’re structuring an entire portfolio, or aligning across solution trains, ARTs, or teams, starting with ‘why’ is the basis of decentralized decision making. It gives knowledge workers within an organization the ability to see the vision and the purpose behind the vision. “Why” allows people to feel inspired to interpret and innovate around how to achieve that vision and purpose with the right intent. 

Fundamentally, “why” allows people to bring their best selves to the work and unleashes their potential in service to your customers and your business.

How to ‘start with why’ in a SAFe environment

Intentionally deploy your purpose hierarchy 

The business itself needs to be structured with a ‘why’ in mind in order for leadership to effectively carry the ‘why’ through all facets of business and planning. For this reason, make sure your teams, trains, solution trains, and even entire portfolios are aligned to purposes before you start to segment them around technologies and work. 

If you are able to create this purposeful foundation, then you will know where you’re going, what you’re changing, and the why behind those decisions. This, in turn, avoids the age-old tendency toward a solid, ossified current state that only makes it harder to change later. 

If you only have influence within a smaller group, say a single ART, then help articulate a purpose for that train, and work with teams to capture their purpose and how it supports the ART purpose. If the ART has already been launched, don’t be afraid to retrofit a purpose. Don’t make it harder than it needs to be, just work with what you have and start inspiring people.

Enable change management with purpose

If you’ve laid an intention-filled foundation, then you’ll start to see how this purpose enables change management (rather than having to force change through a purpose-less system), and why change with purpose is so paramount. 

When implementing technology we are often held back by the body of tech debt and operations work that slows down change and keeps people focused on the current state. This steady stream of work can become a safety blanket, helping people feel comfortable that they have a reason for being in their role. Getting people to come out of that safe space to engage with change can be exhausting, and feels like resistance. In reality, it’s just the absence of a reason. 

Starting with why drives the intrinsic motivation needed to get an organization to embrace and navigate itself through this change, which is far easier than having to push and prod an organization through it. 

In my experience, purpose-driven change is the only way to achieve that motivation and the effect of pulling an organization towards change: provide a goal, a destination. Reinforce that destination over and over again in such a way that the people in the organization understand its importance and know that they have the permission to go and make that future state a reality. 

Acknowledge current state; focus on future state

People that don’t feel like you understand where they are will struggle to believe that you understand the journey you are asking them to undertake. You need to be candid and empathic about the current state with the organization. The notion of acknowledging, naming, and appreciating the current state is in many ways a reinterpretation or re-application of what Senge talks about in The Fifth Discipline

Once you’ve acknowledged and named the current state, you should immediately focus most effort and energy on what the future state should be. Providing this future-state anchor for people becomes an important tool for identifying the work that pulls the organization forward. As long as your purpose, your why, is at the root of this work, that forward momentum should flow naturally. 

In SAFe, you see this sort of focus in the portfolio layer, which recommends writing a Portfolio Canvas (now called a Portfolio Vision) representing the current state. You then write a set of candidate portfolio visions as potential future states. Through a design thinking series of merging and selecting, you converge and align on a cohesive, desired vision of the future state. 

Share responsibility throughout the organization

Once the future state vision is defined, SAFe tells you to very explicitly use that vision to create epics that pull your organization from the current to future state. I support this approach for the bigger changes, especially if new value streams (operational or development) need to be created. 

However, I also tend to apply SAFe’s approach a little more experimentally. When a good purpose-based foundation exists, it’s also possible to seed responsibility in the train charters and visions, and not exclusively in the epics. 

Keep it simple

Keep your purpose clear, focused, and internally consistent. Every element of your purpose should flow naturally back to the larger organizational purpose, and organizations within the company should never be working at cross-purposes.

To get there, name the current state, share a vision for the future state, get alignment on that goal, and then identify what is necessary to achieve that new shared reality.

Closing note: You can find a recording of my talk on the purpose hierarchy from the 2020 SAFe Summit here.