The SAFe® Coach

Coaching appears in the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®), but there isn’t one place where we define the SAFe coach. According to our recent internal survey of 2,500 SAFe Program Consultants (SPCs), over 70 percent are actively engaged in coaching SAFe implementations. In general, a SAFe coach is a servant leader, someone who can facilitate both change and collaboration at scale. A SAFe coach embodies the attributes of our Lean-Agile mindset as well as a learning and growth attitude to lead by example, while continuously fostering positive change. 

A servant leader

There are many roles or labels the coach could play within a SAFe transformation, including Scrum Master, Release Train Engineer, and SPC. Regardless of the roles and functions inherently associated with a coach, coaching takes place throughout all of SAFe’s core competencies. And all of the competencies have one characteristic in common: to guide organizations in fostering better ways of working. So that we can compete and thrive in the digital age by quickly responding to market changes and emerging opportunities with innovative business solutions.

Within the competencies, servant leadership is unique. It’s a behavior designed to continuously serve the teams, enable product delivery, and benefit the overall enterprise. Using active listening and the collective mindset and principles of SAFe, a coach as a servant leader can become more aware, and more connected to the people within their organization. This approach brings neutrality to the enterprise. So that people feel safe in voicing their thoughts and opinions, and can collaborate to realize the benefits of shared understanding, innovation, learning, and growth. By embodying servant leadership, a SAFe coach can help the organization increase SAFe’s effectiveness and relentlessly expand collaboration, coordination, knowledge transfer, and consistent information flow. 

A facilitator of change

SAFe’s dual operating system enables efficiency, stability, and the speed of innovation. Another key benefit of this system is the ability to evolve the social structure organized around value: the Agile Release Train (ART). This is brilliant, and as referenced in The Power of Empathetic Leadership in an Evolving World, Chuck Pezeshki writes, “How you set up your social structure is THE critical factor in how knowledge and synergies in design will be created. Using Conway’s Law, one can predict a priori what the functional form of a design will be. It matters who talks to who.” 

By organizing around value and creating the social structure around the ART, we design a social structure that encourages knowledge sharing and helps us use empathy and design thinking to innovate around the value we’re creating for customers. Pezeshki further states, “Inside the social structure, empathy is the dynamic that creates synergies in design. While empathy is always valuable, even within the simplest social structures—people that connect are much more likely to transfer correct information to each other—it is essential in creative enterprises.” In our world of ever-evolving complexity, creating social structures can help us transfer information that is accurate, reduce risk, and continuously increase the speed of delivering value. 

Coaching these social structures or networks is part of SAFe’s approach to the dual operating system. These networks take the form of virtual organizations such as ARTs or Solution Trains. And within these virtual organizations, coaches need to have personal agency as their own values and behaviors, so they can coach empathetically and address change quickly. The coaches are empowered to serve the social structure by using these synergies, creating knowledge flow, and facilitating positive growth and change. 

A facilitator of collaboration at scale

According to Jean Tabaka, author of Collaboration Explained, Facilitation Skills for Software Project Leaders, there’s an intangible component of team and organizational power fostered by collaboration. That component brings out the best in people, and in turn, the value the enterprise delivers to its customers. 

As agilists, it may seem obvious that collaboration is a key component of building software and systems. It is, after all, called out in the third value of the Agile Manifesto: Customer collaboration over contract negotiation. If your leaders ask you why this is so important as a coach, there’s a deeper understanding of the why that’s reinforced in Jean’s book, and that has decades of history in Lean highlighted in Ikujiro Nonaka’s book The Knowledge-Creating Company. He calls out the tacit knowledge—the valuable and highly subjective insights and intuitions that are in people’s heads and difficult to capture and share. 

Collaboration is what helps make that knowledge transferable, or explicit, within your enterprise. Organizations also benefit from converting tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge because it represents a way to express the inexpressible. When building software and systems at scale, there is obvious complexity. There’s literally no one that has all the knowledge. It’s inherently shared across our valued people across the value streams and the enterprise. It takes thousands, if not tens of thousands of people to build today’s computers, cars, aircraft, and satellites.

This evolution of knowledge sharing helps you grow your business through a culture of understanding and aligning with your company’s overall strategic goals. The expanded mission of SAFe 5.0 is to enable the business agility that is required for enterprises to compete and thrive in the digital age. Facilitating tacit knowledge is critical and supported through the extension, behaviors, and mindset of all the SAFe competencies. It’s also measured through the latest Measure and Grow evaluations of how well the enterprise is progressing toward overall business agility. 

The SAFe coach in the enterprise needs to find ways to coach and continuously improve collaboration. Sharing that tacit knowledge through SAFe events is one of the most powerful ways to allow people to continually innovate and gain the knowledge and collective mindset to integrate and deliver the highest level of value. 

Coaches need coaches, too

A SAFe coach needs an extensive toolbox to evolve and accelerate their organization’s SAFe implementation. There are many tools to support coaches in learning how to be a servant leader and facilitate change and collaboration. None of this comes easy. Can you imagine intuitively knowing how to do all of this in your first SAFe coaching gig? Coaches need coaches, too. We learn from others and vice versa. If we model the SAFe coaching behavior we’d like to evolve, it will become a self-reinforcing learning experience that will enable coaches to help each other, cultures to evolve, and people to be happy and heard. All of this can help us truly become that relentless learning organization that solves some of the world’s largest problems. We could all use a little of that right now.

Here’s where you can learn more about evolving your SAFe coaching expertise: 

Stay tuned for upcoming blog posts on SAFe coaching.

About Jennifer Fawcett

Jennifer Fawcett

Jennifer is a retired, empathetic Lean and Agile leader, practitioner, coach, speaker, and consultant. A SAFe Fellow, she has contributed to and helped develop SAFe content and courseware. Her passion and focus has been in delivering value in the workplace and by creating communities and culture through effective product management, product ownership, executive portfolio coaching, and leadership. She has provided dedicated service in these areas to technology companies for over 35 years.