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

Reaching the Tipping Point

This is article one in the SAFe® Implementation Roadmap series. Click here to view the entire roadmap.

Changing the way of working—both the habits and culture of a large development organization—is hard. Many enterprises report that implementing SAFe was one of the toughest, and at the same time, the most rewarding change initiative that they had ever done.

People naturally resist change, and you will often hear phrases like, “that’s the way we’ve always done it around here,” or “that won’t work here.” Accepting change means accepting the possibility that you are not currently doing things the best way, or even worse, it may challenge a person’s long held beliefs or values.

It’s easy for people to keep their old behavior—unless there is an exceptionally good reason to make such a change. A reason so compelling that the status quo becomes simply unacceptable. A reason so strong that change becomes the only reasonable way forward to 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 [1].


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 be overcome 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. Lean-Agile Leaders must exhibit what Toyota [2] would call “a constant sense of danger”—a never-ending sense of potential crisis that fuels continuous improvement. This is often the less obvious reason to drive change, as the people in the trenches may not see or feel the urgency 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 [3]. The vision for change provides three key benefits:

  • Purpose – It clarifies the purpose and direction for the change and sets the mission for all to follow. It avoids the confusing potential details and focuses everyone on the why, not the how, of the change.
  • Motivation – 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 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.
  • Alignment – 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 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 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.

Figure 1. SAFe business benefits: improved time-to-market, quality, productivity, and employee engagement

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.

Moving Forward

The next critical move is to Train Lean-Agile Change Agents.


Learn More

[1] Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Little, Brown and Company, Kindle Edition.

[2] Cho, Fujio. Chairman of Toyota, 2006 – 2013.

[3] Kotter, John P. Leading Change. Harvard Business Review Press, Kindle Edition.

Additional Resources

SAFe Executive Workshop Toolkit

Last update: 20 April,  2018