Learnings From the SPC4 Course & How it Helped me


I approached the SPC4 course back in July with limited experience of SAFe. I’m pretty new to this agile coaching role and jumped at the opportunity to learn more about one of the major frameworks.  I had recently started working with some teams who were using SAFe, the teams were pretty new to the framework so it made sense for Adventures with Agile (AWA) to send me on the course to better assist these teams.

My small experience with the framework felt like a heavyweight collection of some good ideas. After the course I wouldn’t say I’m a SAFe evangelist but the framework doesn’t deserve much of the criticism thrown at it. I now see there are real benefits of SAFe and how, when used correctly, it can start organisations on a transformation journey.

What’s it like?

The trainers, Ian and Brian from Ivor Jacobsen, went a long way to explain the purpose of most of the elements from the framework. They regularly referenced their own real experience in large organisations and were open about the limitations of the framework in practice. They would also deviate from the SAFe recommended practices where they identified that other approaches may be better suited for your context. One good example of this is the use of story points all the way up to the portfolio planning level. This means planning at this level is in the thousands and tens of thousands of points, it just doesn’t feel right. The trainers were frank and explained that while this is what SAFe mandates there may be other measures that are more appropriate. Personally, I like SWAGs (Sweat Wild Ass Guesses or Scientific Wild Ass Guesses depending on if you ask Chris Matts or Dan North!).

People say these courses are a death by PowerPoint and I can’t disagree compared to other sessions I’ve been on. But it wasn’t that bad, the trainers regularly introduced ideas via stories, activities and games. They frequently told stories about successful SAFe implementations where concepts were moulded to work beyond the “by the book” method. More experiential learning exercises would have been nice but the vast amount of content probably makes this difficult.

The course is rather breakneck pace at times, there is a lot to cover even though you have four days. Ian and Brian made sure they focused on what they felt were the most important items for real application. Things like running through a mock PI planning session or the concepts of limiting WIP. Other areas they were honest about, these are new items for version 4 of SAFe and were good candidates for the upcoming exam. One such example is the value stream layer of the SAFe big picture. This is new this year and likely to come up, the guys were clear about the fact that this layer is not applicable for everyone. In fact, they didn’t reference any real scenarios from their experience. They were honest though and explained the necessity for covering it.

Is it for me?

This mixed approach may be jarring for some people, those expecting to get the full picture, or those wanting only the useful bits. But in my opinion they got the balance about right. It’s a tough thing to manage such a large amount in four days. We covered a huge swathes of SAFe but still needed a wrap up section on the last day to cover some of the bits and pieces that were likely to be in the exam but had not been covered already.

Looking at other reviews for courses most people talk about their big revelations. Some personal awakening that was unleashed by a great trainer. I can’t say I had this, that’s not to say Ian and Brian are not great trainers, I just think the subject matter from my perspective as an agile coach was not that much of a leap. Yes, I am now able to better formulate what certain aspects of the framework are there for, but none of it felt particularly revelatory. The PI objectives, for example, are akin to sprint goals but with a nice metric built in to allow some analysis of predictability for release trains.

So, what is my key takeaway from the course?
Don’t dismiss SAFe as a framework created to sell to managers or to sell more certification. There is certainly some of that in there, management will love that big picture with a place for everything. Instead I have realised that there are some great ideas in SAFe, not much is hugely original but it’s collected up into a package that can be a real benefit from some organisations. Don’t follow SAFe blindly either, take the time to understand the material, pick out the key ideas it is trying to instil in an organisation and use that on your journey.

The wrap up

I wouldn’t recommend this course for anyone just looking to explore agile frameworks, it’s an intense four days and the follow up exam takes some work. If you are moving to SAFe or already doing it and feel you need to take it to another level then this will be appropriate. I couldn’t recommended Ian and Brian enough though. They take a syllabus that’s very dense and do a great job communicating the core of it.

How has this course helped me now I’m back in the office?
For a start I have a solid grasp of the fundamentals of the framework. All the little clarifications people ask along the way I’m now able to answer. Since I went on the course the teams have been through a few PI planning sessions. This is where the most immediate effects of my learnings were visible. The previous sessions were incredibly painful for the teams, unrefined features, switching priorities on the day, large numbers of cross team dependencies.

Slowly we are changing things to help deal with some of these issues, never as fast as I’d like but it is changing.

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