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Strategies for Enhancing Agile Team Performance in SAFe

improving agile team performance

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) provides organizations with a structured approach for applying Lean-Agile practices across the enterprise. By focusing teams on delivering value through alignment and accountability, SAFe helps drive productivity, quality, and speed-to-market.  

However, truly optimizing the performance of teams requires more than just implementing the mechanics of the framework effectively. Even within SAFe, teams need the right leadership, culture, and support systems to reach their full potential. 

In this post, I’ll share proven strategies for developing the kind of high-performing team culture that turbocharges Agile execution under SAFe. From coaching to skill-building to sustaining health, there are tangible ways leaders can enable teams to self-organize, problem-solve, and deliver exceptional work in a Lean-Agile environment. 

Read on to learn actionable steps for fostering elite team performance on the journey to business agility.

Promote a Culture of Safety and Responsibility

Creating an environment where team members feel psychologically safe to take risks, make mistakes, and be vulnerable is foundational for high performance. Leaders should actively foster cultural values like openness, trust, collaboration, and transparency. There are a few key ways to promote psychological safety:

  1. Encourage speaking up and sharing ideas without fear of embarrassment or retaliation. Make it clear that the team is a judgement-free zone and that no perspective will be dismissed or belittled.
  2. Adopt a growth mindset oriented towards learning rather than assessing blame. Frame experiments and failures as opportunities for improvement rather than poor performance.
  3. Provide autonomy for teams to organize themselves, collaborate freely, and determine the best approaches. Give context and clear business objectives but avoid dictating detailed implementation plans.
  4. Be transparent about goals, priorities, resourcing levels, and other organizational details that impact teams. Reduce uncertainty through clear and consistent communication.
  5. Share ownership of risk and accountability rather than pointing fingers at individuals. Recognize positive intent assumes all members want the overall team to succeed.
  6. Build empathy skills in team members to better understand different working styles, communication needs, motivations and values. Promote active listening and validation during discussions.

By role modeling vulnerability and reinforcing shared responsibility, leaders demonstrate that it’s safe to speak transparently. Over time this grows a culture where team members bring their full, authentic selves to create amazing results. Psychological safety unlocks innovation, healthy dissent, knowledge sharing and drives better outcomes. It should be priority one for Agile leaders.

Coach with Empathy and Clarity

Agile coaches play a critical role in developing teams and optimizing their delivery capabilities. Great Agile coaching balances compassionate support with clear guidance towards change. Here are some best practices:

  1. Lead with empathy. Make time to listen and validate team members’ perspectives and experiences before moving to prescription. Use language that demonstrates you deeply understand what they are thinking and feeling.
  2. Ask questions to illuminate root causes rather than making assumptions. Explore various aspects of team dynamics, relationships, tools, and processes that may be contributing to challenges.
  3. Provide recommendations focused on observable behaviors rather than personal judgement. For example, suggest a team start meetings with check-ins to build connections, rather than calling them impersonal.
  4. Recognize the improvements teams make and celebrate small wins. Positive reinforcement increases engagement, gives a sense of progress, and supports the growth mindset needed for change.
  5. Work collaboratively with team members to set goals and generate solutions. Make space for different ideas while keeping alignment with business objectives. Guide rather than dictate.
  6. Support teams through setbacks with encouragement. Remind them growth comes gradually, perfection is impossible, and you’re committed to their long-term success.
  7. Seek feedback from teams on how your coaching can better meet their needs. Be willing to improve your own mindsets, behaviors and skills.

The mix of compassion plus clarity offered by great Agile coaches builds safety while moving teams decisively towards increased performance. With this supportive guidance, teams gain the confidence to address dysfunction and optimize effectiveness.

Prioritize Team Health Over Velocity

Agile teams rightfully aim to deliver value quickly to customers. However, when facing pressure, teams often overextend themselves, which leads to technical debt, defects, and burnout. Sustainable pace actually enables more consistent value delivery long-term. Leaders should make upholding team health the top priority, not maximizing velocity.

Set realistic velocity ranges based on demonstrated capacity, rather than idealized goals, to create an achievable pace. Buffer capacity for innovation, tech upgrades, and learning. Monitor for signals of overburden like missed commitments, low participation, negative emotions, or heroics required to meet goals. If velocity targets consistently demand heroic efforts to achieve, reduce the pacing.

Make space for self-care practices like breaks, buddies and marked non-work time. Model healthy behaviors – avoid sending emails at night or scheduling late meetings. Check in on how people are coping with stress and workload. Watch for signs of isolation, disengagement or emotional strain.

Allocate time for well facilitated retrospectives for teams to inspect their physical, mental, emotional health along with their technical practices and team dynamics. Celebrate areas of health and identify specific, achievable actions to improve. Resource teams to make progress on their greatest pain points and roadblocks.

Healthy, balanced teams maintain higher velocity over months and years than burned out teams pushing excessive hours and shortcuts to inflate story points. Sustaining team members’ passion, connections, learning ability, and creativity pays back exponentially in terms of value delivered to customers. Keep the teams in flow, not burnt out.

Provide Cross-Training and Upskilling Support

Well-rounded team members with complementary skills can better self-organize, problem solve, and deliver customer value. Leaders should actively invest in expanding team capabilities.

Provide training on foundational Agile and SAFe practices like user story mapping, test-driven development, continuous integration, and DevSecOps. Ensure teams fluently apply Lean-Agile principles.

Get creative in developing diverse strengths – design thinking, customer interviewing, user research, copywriting, data analysis, change management. Enable broader perspective taking.

Support growth into adjacent technical areas to enable fuller stack ownership. API developers learn front-end coding; QA engineers learn automation framework design. Break down knowledge silos.

Facilitate informal mentorships, job rotation, guild meetings, lunch & learns for tacit knowledge sharing. Make space for serial coaching – short bursts of mentoring.

Develop internal coaches and trainers to sustainably upskill teams. Support them in obtaining certifications like SAFe Agile certification, SAFe POPM certification, SPC certification, RTE certification, to formally advance expertise. 

Track skill growth quantitatively through assessments and qualitatively through career conversations. Regularly optimize upskilling programs accordingly.

Apply 70-20-10 learning model – 70% on-the-job experiences, 20% developmental relationships, 10% formal training. Learning must be directly applied to stick.

Make learning continual, rewarding those expanding capabilities. Balance training patience with delivery urgency by allocating non-sprint capacity for skills growth.

Cross-trained, versatile contributors and collaborators evolve into high performing Agile teams that fully own services. When challenged by unfamiliar problems, they flexibly self-organize to find solutions. By providing the space and support for regular upskilling, leaders enable teams to deliver their best work.

Final Words

Achieving high performance in Agile teams takes more than just adopting SAFe. It requires instilling cultural values that make people feel safe, empowered, and cared for. It also takes hands-on coaching and skill-building to evolve team dynamics, technical practices, and delivery capabilities over time. 

Leaders can profoundly impact teams’ ability to self-organize, problem-solve, and deliver exceptional customer value if they prioritize psychological safety, collaborative learning, and sustainable pacing. With good coaching and a focus on health, teams gain the confidence and competence needed to thrive within SAFe’s alignment and accountability. 

By implementing these key strategies, leaders enable Agile teams to fully own solutions, engage creatively, and deliver their most ambitious goals. The result is improved productivity, quality, and job satisfaction that propels the business forward. With resilient, versatile contributors collaborating smoothly, SAFe teams transform into truly high-performing engines for innovation and change.