SAFe® and Startups: Expert overview

Luke Hohmann, Agile Guru & founder of FirstRoot, enlightens us on how entrepreneurs can gain an edge from Scaled Agile Framework, the power of Participatory Budgeting and post-pandemic shift in work culture.

Luke Hohmann, Founder, and CEO, FirstRoot Inc, is an internationally acclaimed expert in Agile Software Development. He co-organized the first Agile conference in 2003, has served on the Board of the Agile Alliance, and in partnership with the Scrum Alliance produced the “Collaboration at Scale”– world’s largest monthly webinar devoted to helping organizations with 10 or more Scrum teams in 2 or more locations to scale agility.

Excerpts from his tête-à-tête with #TrundlTalks follow.

Innovation with Participatory Budgeting

FirstRoot is the outcome of Luke Hohmann’s experience in Participatory Budgeting spanning for over a decade. It started with Luke conducting Participatory Budgeting programs in the private sector with businesses worldwide to help them improve their portfolio management and portfolio investment processes. Brands of global repute such as e-bay, Salesforce, BMW, Daimler, PayU and the likes rely on these techniques to enhance their portfolio management processes.

Eventually, Luke forayed into the public sector by providing pro-bono Participatory Budgeting services. “I started doing it in schools, and that’s when I realized how impactful the project could be when we were working with children who assumed charge of money,” shares the Agile wizard.

FirstRoot: The growth trajectory

Luke continued to build out his company Conteneo, Inc, and it was later acquired by Scaled Agile Inc. This, in turn, integrated Participatory Budgeting into the Scaled Agile Framework and SAFe®  Lean Portfolio Management. When those integration tasks were complete, Luke felt it was time for FirstRoute to take flight-a company dedicated to engineering Participatory Budgeting solutions for children.

Fortifying futures through a democratic process

Participatory Budgeting (PB) is a democratic process in which a group of students determines how to invest a shared budget to improve a school. Through FirstRoot, Luke channelized the opportunity to impart financial literacy as well as create civic and democratic engagement in young, impressionable minds. While our past doesn’t define us, it can lay the foundation for the future, he feels. Luke’s experience and insight accumulated from his vast Participatory Budgeting experience fuelled the ambition to build a scalable platform for children.

Advantages of Participatory Budgeting
  • Students get the opportunity to experience democracy in real life
  • Helps students engage in design thinking as they create, refine, vote, and fund proposals
  • Fosters community spirit through interactions among students, teachers, and parents
  • Strengthens self-confidence as students’ proposals are implemented
  • Introduces financial literacy skills and concepts of budgeting and financial planning


Dean Leffingwell: Working with the SAFe® doyenne

SAFe®  is pivotal to the ongoing paradigm shift in work culture that we’re witnessing in the workforce as well as Agile Alliance, observes Luke.

Celebrated as one of the world’s foremost authorities on Lean-Agile best practices, Dean Leffingwell is an entrepreneur and software development methodologist best known for creating SAFe®, the world’s most widely used framework for business agility. “I flew out to Colorado in early 2018 to meet Dean Leffingwell,” shares Luke. “He was gracious, and invested almost a full day with me. He listened carefully to everything I was talking about and remarked that he found it interesting.”

That was the turning point. Luke was just consulting with the framework team, and it made sense for Dean to acquire Conteneo, Inc. The SAFe® creator and ace entrepreneur suggested that synergy would yield greater good, and Luke Hohmann joined the company along with his team. “It gives me immense pride to see SAFe® Collaborate evolving its capabilities and expanding its horizon today,” he adds.

Find out what is Agile and how it helps teams survive dynamic market challenges

Participatory Budgeting: Kids vs adults

Adults are going to discuss complex elements such as capital expenses versus operating expenses, deal with sophisticated investments, critical strategies and negotiate scope and price. Children, on the other hand,  would be overwhelmed by such degrees of complexity.

“Although Participatory Budgeting in school has the same structure, we’re bringing people together to talk about an investment—sans the complexity involved with adults,” explains the FirstRoot Founder. For example, when kids are voting on a project, it’s a yes or no, as opposed to any adjustment in scope discussion.

“It is essential to nurture a local mindset. Every single school in every part of the world is unique—like a mini community of sorts. The idea is to teach children key aspects of democratic processes,” he avers.

“We want them to learn budgeting and understand financial literacy concepts. However, the actual investments they make in a school are going to be based on what that school needs, and on unique cultural parameters.” The platform Luke has built today is not only optimized, but also tailored to the needs of the local community.

The evolution of SAFe®

One of the most important things about SAFe®  is that its evolution continues to meet the needs and the structure of the Agile community. It has also emerged as a significant contributor to the paradigm shift in work culture in recent times.

Most people think that because SAFe® is used by the largest organizations in the world, it is exclusively their strong suit.

The Agile Guru dispels the myth. “A startup comprises all the needs of a large company—albeit on a smaller scale—waiting to expand its horizon and attain maturity.”

Be it product, development, marketing, sales team, or finance and HR department-they have all the components. Often, this is expressed by one person in the organization engaged in multiple roles. As they expand, they hire a CFO, and dedicated controllers and financial managers to handle diverse operations on a bigger scale.

SAFe® enriching entrepreneurship

Whether one can leverage the benefits of SAFe® is contingent upon your aspiration for your company’s growth. If you are starting a small company and you don’t envisage its growth, the idea holds little meaning.  “You could use Scrum or Kanban or other Agile methodologies, but if you have the conviction to grow your business into a bigger entity, why not start with SAFe®?” opines Luke.

Most methods in the Agile community do not have a path to growth and lack wholeness, while SAFe® paves the way to successful growth. “For example, no other Agile method has portfolio decision-making, but a startup needs to make investments, and how you choose to make those investments is really critical. That’s why I’m an advocate of a SAFe®  for startups that want to grow,” shares the Founder of FirstRoot.

The lacunae between communication and Scaled Agile Framework requirements

Is it limited awareness about SAFe®  that prevents entrepreneurs from leveraging it to propel business growth? Misperception about Scaled Agile exists, admits Luke, and hopes that by publishing his upcoming article on how FirstRoot is using SAFe®  to teach Participatory Budgeting in children on a global scale, other entrepreneurs would eventually take cognizance of the vast, untapped potentials of Scaled Agile Framework.

Post-pandemic shift in work culture

Luke observes that Covid has had a significant impact on pre-pandemic SAFe®  practices. One of the  key events in SAFe® is PI planning or Programme Increment Planning which brings people together to discuss the status of work development.

Find out what is PI Planning, its purpose and advantages

The aim is to establish a vision and work together to get to the next Program Increment, shares Luke. Unfortunately, post-Covid PI planning events can no longer be conducted in physical proximity of team members. “You can’t bring people together anymore. We now have better tools, and I think that the pandemic has accelerated a lot of development efforts,” he observes. “I know, for example, the SAFe®  Collaborate team made many enhancements to create more capabilities that would help them combat pandemic induced challenges.”

Pre or post-pandemic situation notwithstanding, you’re always going to have distributed teams, says Luke, who has been managing distributed teams since 2000. “When I was the head of engineering and product management for an Israeli security firm, I had developers in Israel, Germany, and the Bay area. You ought to find a way to bring people together.”

While most aspects haven’t undergone a sea change, the root of the unsolved problem lies in diverse time zones. “We still need to create environments where people can be fully human with their families, colleagues and their time zones–regardless of pre or post pandemic world. It is important to nurture a work culture that is inclusive of distributed teams,” signs off Luke Hohmann.

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Know your expert:

Luke Hohmann is the Founder and CEO of FirstRoot, Inc and previously a SAFe® Framework Contributor and Principal Consultant. He was the Founder and CEO of Conteneo, Inc. (acquired by Scaled Agile, Inc.) where he worked with an extraordinary Dev team to create the Weave, Strategy Engine, and Knowsy® decision agility platforms. The author of four books, numerous articles, and cited as an inventor on more than a dozen patents, Luke is an internationally recognized expert in Agile Software Development.

Know your host:

Sajit Nair (SAFe® Program Consultant (SPC) | Atlassian Community Leader | Program Manager at Trundl Inc) is an Agile consultant working with technical teams to deliver quality solutions with expertise in Atlassian PM toolsets like JIRA and Confluence.