The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social skills.
—Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point
This article is part of the SAFe® Implementation Roadmap series which outlines and discusses the primary ‘critical moves’ that are common to successful SAFe transformations. To view the Roadmap and find links to the entire set of supporting articles, click here.
Reaching the Tipping Point
Changing the way of working—the ingrained habits and culture of a large development organization—is hard. Many enterprises report that implementing SAFe was one of the toughest, and simultaneously most rewarding, change initiatives that they had ever experienced.
The need for fundamental change has an interesting way of affecting people that often results in resistance. When you add the forces of inertia seen in large enterprises steeped in legacy behavior, there has to be an exceptionally convincing reason to make such a change. A reason so compelling that the status quo becomes simply unacceptable. A reason so inescapable that change becomes the only reasonable path to future success.
In other words, the enterprise must reach its ‘tipping point’ —the point at which the overriding organizational imperative is to achieve the change, rather than resist it.
The Need for Change
We’ve observed two primary reasons that cause an organization to tip to SAFe:
- A burning platform. Sometimes the need to change a product or service is obvious. The company is failing to compete, and the existing way of doing business is obviously inadequate to achieve a new solution within a survivable time frame. Jobs are at stake. This is the easier case for change. While there will always be those who are resistant, they are likely to swamped by the wave of energy that drives mandatory change through the organization.
- Proactive leadership. In the absence of a burning platform, leadership must drive change proactively by taking a stand for a better, future state. Some simply exhibit a constant paranoia about the existing state (“a constant sense of danger” in Toyota ). This case may well be the harder challenge, as the people in the trenches may not see or feel the sense of urgency necessary to do the hard work that comes with change. After all, they are successful now, why should they assume they won’t continue to be successful in the future? Isn’t change risky? In this case, senior leadership must constantly impress the need for change on all, making it clear that maintaining the status quo is simply unacceptable.
Establish the Vision for Change
In any case, there must be a compelling reason for the change, and a vision to go along with it. Kotter  notes that establishing a ‘vision for change’ is a primary responsibility of leadership in a change situation. The ‘vision for change’ serves three primary purposes:
- It clarifies the purpose and direction for the change and sets the mission for all to follow. It avoids the myriad of confusing potential details, and focuses everyone on the why, not the how, of the change.
- It starts to move people in the right direction. After all, change is hard and pain is inevitable, especially in the early going. People’s jobs will be change. The vision helps motivate people by giving them a compelling reason to make the change. Perhaps most importantly, it underlines the fact there is really no job security in the status quo.
- It helps start the coordinated action necessary to assure that hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people work together toward a new—and more personally rewarding—goal. With clarity of vision, people are empowered to take the detailed actions necessary to achieve the vision, without the constant need for management supervision or check in.
Take an Economic View
Whether reactive or proactive, the primary reason to drive change in an organization is to realize the business and personal benefits that it’s intended to deliver. SAFe’s Principle #1 reminds us to always “Take an economic view.” In this context, leaders should articulate the goal of the change in terms everyone can understand. Dozens of case studies show that enterprises can expect to see benefits in four major areas, as Figure 1 illustrates.
Change leaders should communicate these intended benefits as part of the vision for the change. In addition, leaders should describe any other specific, tangible objectives they hope to accomplish. Measurable improvement on these key performance indicators will provide the fuel necessary to escape the inertia of the status quo.
Learn More Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.
 Fugio Cho, Chairman of Toyota, 2006-2013.
 Kotter, John P. Leading Change, Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition.
Last update: 24 January, 2017