Agile Assessments: A Conversation Starter

 Agile, Strategy & Transformation

By Chris Maniates

Self-reflection through assessments are an essential part of an agile transformation. They are an indispensable tool in the agile toolbox, a visual indicator of strengths and weaknesses on the agile journey that guides continuous improvement. The assessment process and results allow us to celebrate our successes and leverage our strengths. Similar to other safety nets in SAFe, they ensure we have a focused dialogue.

Assessments in a Scaled Agile Environment

A regular cadence of Scaled Agile Framework® assessments (Team, Program, Business Agility, DevOps, etc.) supports continuous improvement. Agile coaches like the Release Train Engineer (RTE) or Solution Train Engineer (STE) facilitate this inclusive conversation. Slowly, as the discussion unfolds, each team member understands and buys-in on the need for the change. These self-assessments help them choose improvement items to pull into future iterations.

How Do We Assess?

Each agile assessment contains dimensions or behavior statements that measure lean-agile maturity, specific to a scaled agile configuration type. For instance, in an Essential configuration, we’d ask if our Agile Release Train (ART) continuously deploys solutions under the dimension “Continuous Delivery.”

It is important that these self-assessments are lead by a SAFe® Program Consultant (SPC), or similarly trained agile coach who guides team members to understand subtle differences and implications. Through discussion, a team determines how much each behavior statement describes how they work. All the statement scores in a dimension are averaged, and the results are represented on a radar chart. Immediate high-fives may be in order! Or the team’s discussion may identify a specific area ripe for improvement. If so, the SPC or agile coach can recommend appropriate action steps to be placed on the proper backlog and pulled into a future iteration.

Regular assessments are a means to drive dialogue to start the conversation. These communal discussions organically motivate the team as they self-discover “ah-ha” moments together.

Assessments in Action

It’s essential to value the discussion instead of a score. The goal is for team members to self-discover how the agile framework can help them work smarter together, not harder. The following examples explore how to use agile assessments across the different layers of your organization.

It’s essential to value the discussion instead of the score.

Team Self-Assessment

Challenge: Metrics continue to show that one team consistently does not meet its iteration commitment.

Approach: An experienced Scrum Master (SM) facilitates a Scaled Agile Framework Team Self-Assessment.

Action Step: During the ensuing conversation, the agile team agrees that the team is not refining the team backlog well. Together, the agile team decides that with robust refinement sessions, they can better detail clear acceptance criteria before it is pulled into an active iteration. Subsequently, their iterations will be smoother, and they will be able to meet their iteration commitment. The team adds the improvement actions to the backlog, making them available to be pulled into for future iterations.

Program Self-Assessment

Challenge: Keep appropriate improvement actions in backlogs to be pulled into team boards.

Approach: A Release Train Engineer (RTE) facilitates a Scaled Agile Framework® Program Self-Assessment on a regular cadence. In the center of the room, the teams review the previous assessment’s giant radar chart with red yarn marking the score. The teams talk through each statement to identify their current state. After they agree that they have either improved or slid backwards in a specific dimension, they move the radar chart red yarn line. Celebrations often ensue! Halfway through the exercise, the RTE notices that one team is improving in only one dimension or section of the assessment. The RTE cautions the teams of the importance of improving all of the dimensions together. A steady, even growth plan is healthier.

Action Step: The RTE facilitates a rigorous discussion that provides actionable improvement items for the backlog for a team, specific roles, or others outside their ART.

DevOps Health Radar Assessment

Challenge: Customers are unhappy about the frequency of releases. Evaluation of features post-release has stopped. Teams have fallen back into old habits, such as not verifying completeness in production before release. Therefore, customers are finding issues first. Rollback? Teams can’t even fix forward.  

Approach: The LACE (Lean-Agile Center of Excellence) facilitates a Scaled Agile Framework® DevOps Health Radar Assessment.

Action Step: During the assessment exercise, LACE guides the teams to self-discover remediations towards a continuous pipeline.  Backlog items are placed on team boards to automate builds daily, to decouple Release from Deployment, and to gather factual data on the value of deployed features.

Enterprise-wide Assessments

Challenge: A general malaise has infected the teams. Morale is low. Team members feel their innovative ideas are not heard. There is no common view of the future.

Approach: The Agile Project Management Office (APMO) brings in several SPCs (SAFe Program Consultants) to coach the teams to get back on track. Though the SPCs recognize these symptoms, they do not mandate changes. They facilitate different assessment exercises for targeted roles and teams.

In the common open area’s walls, the SPCs post multiple assessment radar charts (Team, Program, DevOps, Lean Portfolio Management, Business Agility, Continuous Learning). The SPCs facilitate assessment exercises for different teams (Agile Team, ART, Solution Group, leaders) in the open area, posting each team’s current status using a different yarn color. The SPCs successfully lead the various groups through multiple assessments. For example, the Continuous Learning Culture Assessment identifies the organization’s current status as a learning organization with an innovation culture focused on relentless improvement. Another SPC runs a Lean Portfolio Management Self-Assessment with the Lean Portfolio Management team.

Radar Charts

Action Step: These assessments and the ensuing conversations uncover traditional mindsets, functional silos, and manual quality processes. These robust exchanges of ideas have provided root causes for the dysfunction. Prioritized actions are placed in the appropriate backlogs to get teams on all layers back on an agile track. Additionally, LACE, STEs, and RTEs gather at the boards to align and cross-coach each other.

Two Program Increments (PI) later, a second (recurring) assessment is held. When assessment scores (the team’s yarn lines on the radar chart) move towards the outer circle designating increased lean-agile excellence, the teams post celebratory signs for all to see.

Continuing the Conversation

Scaled agile doesn’t happen overnight. It is tough for even one person to change. To continuously shift multiple teams of teams’ way of working is genuinely challenging. However, the regular use of targeted assessments provides organizations with the mechanism (words, guardrails, and open discussion space) to self-discover what they want to change to work smoother together and decide how to adjust their agile journey.