A guiding coalition that operates as an effective team can process more information more quickly. It can also speed the implementation of new approaches because powerful people are truly informed and committed to key decisions.
Create a Lean-Agile Center of Excellence
This is article three in the SAFe® Implementation Roadmap series. Click here to view the entire roadmap.
The Lean-Agile Center of Excellence (LACE) is a small Agile team dedicated to implementing the SAFe Lean-Agile way of working within an enterprise. An effective LACE is one of the key differentiators between companies practicing Agile in name only and those fully committed to adopting Lean-Agile practices and getting the best business outcomes. The LACE is one element of the ‘sufficiently powerful guiding coalition’ for change, which is made up of three primary ingredients:
This article provides guidance for the LACE’s characteristics, primary responsibilities, size, and suggested operational models based on the SAFe knowledge base and the experiences of effective LACE members in the field.
The articles Train Lean-Agile Change Agents, Train Executives, Managers, and Leaders, and Leading in the Digital Age describe how organizations can help change agents and leadership gain the knowledge and skills necessary to lead the transformation.
The challenge is that most people qualified to enable the change have full-time responsibilities in their current roles. While a significant portion of their time may be devoted to leading the change, a smaller, more dedicated group of people is required to drive the day-to-day actions of the SAFe transformation throughout the organization. Though these groups go by different names—the Agile Center of Excellence, Agile Working Group, Lean-Agile Transformation Team, Learning and Improvement Center—they are staffed with people whose primary task is implementing and sustaining the change.
Effective LACEs are made up of people in the organization that have some common characteristics. When forming the first LACE, or a new LACE for a new area of the organization, it can be useful to identify those who already exemplify these characteristics:
Respect of peers – Individuals in the organization who, regardless and sometimes despite their current title, have the respect of others. They already influence new behaviors and practices. They are known for getting things done.
Motivated by helping others – Individuals who are happiest when they are engaged in helping others. They are motivated by seeing those around them succeed. They may not have leadership titles or management responsibilities, but they play critical roles in the organization.
Pragmatic optimism – Individuals who work to find solutions to current problems and remain hopeful for the organization’s future. They are not easily discouraged or shy about bringing up areas the company can improve. They are able to do so in a positive and team-oriented way.
LACE participants are talented and valuable people. Leaders must also consider any organizational and financial impact when assigning personnel to the new charter.
The LACE may be a part of an organization’s emerging Value Management Office (VMO), or it may exist as a stand-alone unit. In either case, it serves as a focal point of activity, a continuous source of energy that can help power the enterprise through the necessary changes. It should be placed high enough within the organization to influence new practices and behaviors. Additionally, since becoming a Lean-Agile enterprise is an ongoing journey, the LACE often evolves into a longer-term center for relentless improvement toward business agility.
As author John Kotter notes, “The size of an effective coalition seems to be related to the size of the organization.” Change often starts with just two or three people. In successful transformations, this group grows to half a dozen in relatively small firms or multiple groups in larger firms.” . Regarding team size, experience has shown that small teams of four to six dedicated people can support a few hundred practitioners, while teams of about twice that size support proportionally larger groups. Beyond that, team size gets unwieldy, and a decentralized or hub-and-spoke model is typically more effective, as illustrated below in Figure 1.
With the LACE members identified and the organizational model that best suits the current state of the transformation applied, the LACE gets to work on their critical responsibilities for supporting long-lived business agility. These responsibilities, grouped into five areas (Figure 2), enable the LACE to serve the complete SAFe transformation throughout all roles and levels of the organization.
Each of these five areas of responsibility is described in detail below.
Facilitating the Transformation
Organizations don’t transform themselves. It requires careful, persistent attention to the most effective ways to evolve mindsets and practices within the given culture. The LACE facilitates this process by establishing a clear mission, committing to the Agile journey, building exemplary Agile capabilities, and communicating the transformation vision and current state.
- Maintain a LACE mission – Teams perform best when they agree on their mission. An example LACE mission statement is included in Figure 3.
- Be an exemplar Agile Team – Operationally, the LACE functions as an Agile team and applies the same iteration and PI cadences. This allows the LACE to plan, inspect and adapt in harmony with the ARTs, exemplifying Agile team behavior. As a result, similar roles are needed:
- A Product Owner works with stakeholders to prioritize the team’s transformation backlog. This backlog is visible and transparent to the organization.
- A Scrum Master/Team Coach facilitates the process and helps remove roadblocks.
- The team is cross-functional. Credible people from various functional organizations are integral members of the team. That allows them to address backlog items, whether related to organization, culture, development process or technology, wherever they arise.
- A C-level leader typically acts as the team’s Business Owner. This leader takes the lead on the early blocking and tackling needed to remove barriers to change and remains engaged enough to ensure the transformation stays aligned with the organization’s strategic needs.
- Illustrate SAFe expertise – In addition to operating as an Agile Team, the LACE is transparent about its own SAFe journey. They participate in Implementing SAFe, becoming SPCs who understand the complete Implementation Roadmap. They use their team to work through experiments on improving flow and efficiency, creating the ability to speak from a place of experience when coaching others. They use data to inform improvements in the organization, utilizing qualitative and quantitative feedback to design future changes. The LACE will advocate Lean-Agile behaviors, focused on modeling principles and their own behaviors. They provide thought leadership and apply real-life experience to support teams, trains, and senior leadership in meeting their goals and relentlessly improving.
- Communicate the transformation vision and progress – The LACE, as part of the guiding coalition, uses opportunities like all-hands, syncs, company communication channels, and more to continue reporting on the transformation’s progress and its continued vision. This communication is not just data transfer. Learning from Kotter, the LACE ‘shows people something that addresses their anxieties, that accepts their anger, that is credible in a very gut-level sense, and that evokes faith in the vision.’
Managing the Transformation Backlog
Like any Agile team, the LACE has an important job to do and must efficiently manage the flow of work. The tasks that fulfill their mission must be clearly defined, regularly prioritized, and worked on by all members. The LACE establishes a transformation backlog to organize its work and maintains it on an ongoing basis. The backlog is transparent to the organization, is aware of the current state of agility and improves upon that baseline, and iteratively achieves transformation OKRs.
- Manage a shared backlog- The LACE has a tall order to fill: change the behavior and culture of an organization. Once a LACE has formed, there will be a natural desire to accelerate progress and work through its entire backlog (Figure 4) as quickly as possible. However, trying to remove all the major organizational impediments right at the start will slow the transformation to a halt. Instead, with the support of the entire guiding coalition, the LACE empowers the organization to generate short-term wins by incrementally defining and launching ARTs. It then consolidates those gains as additional ARTs are launched. This provides the positive momentum needed to tackle the more significant organizational issues.
- Create a baseline – The business agility assessment (see the Measure and Grow article) can help the LACE understand where a portfolio is on the road to Business Agility. The LACE should baseline the assessment at the start of the transformation, continuously measure progress, and use the recommendations provided to drive the improvement backlog.
- Identify transformation OKRs – With each PI, ART, and value stream, the gains continue to build, and the organization transforms incrementally. The LACE will partner with other SPCs, value stream managers, and the LPM to utilize OKRs. As the transformation expands, this may mean coaching on OKR writing and followthrough of outcome-based decisions. The LACE will exemplify this by identifying and using OKRs to measure the outcomes of the SAFe transformation itself. Some features within the LACE backlog will create results for some of the transformation OKRs directly; many other features will be enablers that the people and systems being transformed require to succeed.
Fostering Lean-Agile Learning
In many cases, the LACE will manage the centralized funding for continuous learning within a Portfolio or set of Portfolios. The LACE utilizes training metrics to partner with other departments such as HR and Finance, to educate the organization on the ‘way we work now.’ SAFe SPCs will provide the SAFe training needed to kick off and maintain the transformation, as described throughout the Implementation Roadmap. The LACE, as part of the large SPC community, participates in crucial conversations, helps identify learning plans, and guides the Continuous Learning Culture through:
- Inviting new thoughts – LACE members invite feedback from those affected by the change. They embrace conflicting opinions and strong pushback, with the philosophical stance that one who knows all the answers has not been asked all the questions. LACE members are voracious learners, connecting to peer communities worldwide to learn and grow their transformation with new findings.
- Creating learning plans – In partnership with other SPCs, people managers, HR, and enterprise learning, the LACE creates learning plans that effectively onboard employees and suppliers into the new ways of working and mature their role-based competencies over time. In support of this, SAFe courseware is action-oriented and is utilized after class to further the change at hand. The LACE assists leaders and managers in understanding who has attended which classes and workshops and what kinds of action-based activities result.
- Measuring learning – The LACE ties learning and training back into strategic and transformation-based OKRs. LACE members utilize quantitative and qualitative measurement to maintain feedback from learners, identify gaps in offerings that may require new learning offerings, and trend over time numbers trained related to role, ARTs, and Portfolio. As the transformation matures, the measurements from the LACE will also mature related to the change in practices based on learnings.
The LACE is uniquely positioned to coach all forms of leaders throughout the organization. Their mission is dedicated to enabling business agility, enabling conversations around improving overall flow. To achieve this mission, they will be coaching leaders to lead by example, participating in and updating existing leadership programs, and connecting leaders to the voices of the employees and suppliers being asked to transform.
- Facilitate leadership workshops – The LACE, as early SPCs, often facilitate Leading SAFe and Leading in the Digital Age cohorts, described in steps 3 and 4 of this roadmap series. After that, they continue to organize and facilitate leadership workshops, from educational series to vision and strategy alignment sessions. Actions often naturally emerge from these workshops to initiate 1:1 and small group coaching with leaders, opportunities embraced by the LACE when they arise. The LACE will offer guidance and coaching for OKRs and KPI usage, enabling RTEs, STEs, Business Owners, and LPM members to communicate and amplify their value streams.
- Participate in organizational leadership programs – Most large organizations have existing leadership programs. To enable the new skills required to lead in the digital age, LACE members partner and participate in existing organizational leadership programs, aligning transformation messaging to corporate strategies for retaining and growing top talent.
- Serve the transformed – With a great mission comes great responsibility. To avoid becoming ‘ivory tower’ agilists, the LACE utilizes their own learnings, coaching relationships, and practitioner COPs to maintain their organizational credibility.
The Lean Portfolio Management competency articulates some key responsibilities that pertain directly to the LACE. LACE personnel can help bring together the right leaders to initiate LPM adoption and facilitate getting started. LPM Agile Portfolio Operations and Lean Governance responsibilities benefit from the LACE’s direct involvement (Figure 5). Close collaboration with others in the organization, facilitation, providing information gathered from multiple sources and partnering deeply with the VMO all advance the LPM cause.
- Facilitation of LPM events – The LACE often becomes facilitation experts within their org, starting with Value Stream Identification Workshops early in the transformation. LACE members often facilitate Participatory Budgeting, Portfolio Reviews, and Portfolio Sync, gathering inputs from the VMO, RTEs, STEs, and Epic Owners. As non-decision makers, The LACE members have a unique and non-threatening way of facilitating these discussions with context.
- Provide supporting data– Through the activities of the other responsibilities, the LACE will have the opportunity to communicate cross-value stream needs that arise, which different roles may not see as quickly. With these insights, the LACE may serve as Epic Owners to instantiate or enhance the transformation. These may include tool or policy change recommendations or a business case for new infrastructure needs. These efforts are based on patterns seen across multiple DevOps classes and value stream mapping activities or observations from running various design thinking workshops.
- Partner with the VMO – The VMO, like the LACE, leverages specialized skills, knowledge, and relationships while transitioning themselves and the portfolio to a new Lean-Agile way of working. The VMO will have operational and financial data that the LACE requires to succeed. The VMO and the LACE will often partner in the activities below or even assume responsibility when an organization has chosen not to form a VMO:
- Facilitation of portfolio events
- Develop, harvest, and apply successful ART and Team execution patterns
- Fostering decentralized PI Planning and operational excellence
- Establish objective metrics and reports progress toward business agility
- Focusing the portfolio on measuring and improving value delivery
With the members of the LACE identified and the first set of Lean-Agile Change Agents trained as SPCs, the organization has the right people for the next critical move:Next
 John P. Kotter. Leading Change. Harvard Business Review Press, 1996.
 John P. Kotter, Dan S. Cohen. The Heart of Change. Harvard Business Review Press, 2002
Last update: 9 December 2022