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The SAFe framework is one of several Agile frameworks designed to guide enterprises in scaling Agile practices beyond individual teams. More specifically, SAFe helps large organizations navigate the challenges associated with implementing, extending, and using Agile methodologies and practices across multiple teams and departments within an organization.

To understand the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe), we must understand that Agile is a term used to describe approaches to software development (and increasingly more non-IT / software development parts of the business) that emphasizes:

  • Incremental delivery
  • Team collaboration
  • Continuous planning
  • Continuous learning
Allows teams and teams of teams to collaborate in real-time and visualize dependencies
Allows teams and teams of teams to collaborate in real-time and visualize dependencies

SAFe takes a prescriptive approach, showing organizations exactly what to do and when, in order to achieve alignment, collaboration, maximum flexibility, and delivery across multiple Agile teams. SAFe was developed by and for practitioners by leveraging three primary bodies of knowledge:

  • Agile software development
  • Lean product development
  • Systems thinking

The initial reference for the Scaled Agile Framework was the development of a big picture view of how work flows from product management and key stakeholders, through governance, program, and development teams, and then to customers.

The SAFe framework originated through the collaboration of many in the Agile community and was continuously refined until its formal presentation in 2007. It remains under development today, along with a certification process to educate teams and individuals who implement, support, and train others in the adoption of the SAFe framework. SAFe is among the most popular Agile frameworks, and its entire catalog of knowledge and success patterns is available at no cost.

Why Scale Agile?

Most development teams today are using some form of Agile. In many cases, each team has identified whatever method best suits their needs and culture and implemented it into their microenvironments.

Within one company, different departments or teams may be using Agile, Lean and Scrum, all at the same time. Even when they’re using the same methodology, they typically aren’t following it strictly, but using select processes in their own way. In short, there’s a lack of standardization.

When work remains within stable teams and within a single department, these teams often exhibit great collaboration benefit and achieve higher velocity. As time passes, they master some Agile practices and reap the benefits.

The challenge comes with larger, more complex solutions – those that require more than one department (or multiple teams or teams of teams), often in multiple locations, working in tandem over a longer period of time. That’s when it becomes clear that the sticky notes on the wall are not scalable. Manual tracking becomes cumbersome and unreliable. There is a pressing need to improve team collaboration and transparency and visualize cross-team dependencies and risks. In order to maintain the development speed and quality of each individual team, something needs to change.

Compounding those issues are business leaders who need far greater visibility to make decisions at the speed of today’s markets. They need data to calculate how to best allocate financial and business resources in ways that will ensure continued growth.

But when teams are all using different processes and tools, there’s no way for management to gain that visibility or alignment. To solve these problems, organizations look for a framework that can scale Agile beyond the team.

Why Do Organizations Choose the SAFe Framework?

Teams must adopt the right scaling framework that will allow them to work as a cohesive whole. And the stakes are high: management runs the risk of failure if the solution significantly disrupts the business.

The right Agile scaling solution should promote communication and collaboration.

It should provide tools that allow cross-functional teams to coordinate roadmaps, communicate risks and dependencies, and sync development schedules. And it should provide transparency that allows POs, PMOs, Agile coaches and leaders, along with executives, to align and connect strategic outcomes to the work delivered and see progress against those outcomes.

In the grand scheme of Agile frameworks, the SAFe framework has become the standard. SAFe allows organizations to deliver larger, more complex outcomes by coordinating work streams. It helps businesses address the significant challenges of developing and delivering enterprise-class systems continuously, by receiving feedback to improve the product or service quickly. Its extensive knowledge base of proven success patterns and best practices for developers are behind the world’s most important software and systems.

SAFE 5.0: Essential SAFe and Portfolio SAFe

Until the SAFe 5.0 release in late 2019, the SAFe framework addressed the enterprise at four levels: Portfolio, large solution, program and team.

At the program level, the Agile teams’ work is aligned to enterprise objectives. Focus is on specific business value streams and the Agile Release Train (ART) is assigned to deliver the value expected from an initiative. Each ART is associated with a specific value stream.

At the team level, features are broken down into stories that form the Team Backlog, and SAFe teams use an incremental approach to deliver the business value goal they’ve been assigned. Time is divided into sprints after which an ART delivers a potentially shippable increment.

Plan value streams at the strategic level
Plan value streams at the strategic level

With the SAFe 5.0 release, the Team and Program levels have been combined into a new “Essential” level that combines the Agile Release Train (previously part of the Program level), with people (previously part of the Team level). In practice, SAFe cannot be implemented without at least one ART, and an ART requires people.

The new Essential SAFe configuration more effectively aligns components within the organization. It represents the most basic starting point, based on competencies in Lean-Agile leadership, team and technical agility, and Agile product delivery.

At the large solution level, the framework focuses on helping organizations to build large-scale solutions that are beyond the scope of a single Agile Release Train, those often requiring the coordination of work across multiple Agile Release Trains. In SAFe 5.0, the roles and responsibilities within the Large Solution framework remain largely the same and are architected to ensure an organization can deliver some of the most large and complex solutions or systems.

At the Portfolio Level, executives determine the organization’s business vision, objectives and strategies, and ensure alignment with investment and operational goals. SAFe helps guide value streams toward larger portfolio goals, assists with product road mapping, creates investment themes and assigns funding, and instructs leaders in the use of Lean principles to measure progress against objectives.

In SAFe 5.0, the Portfolio Level is now referred to as “Portfolio SAFe.” It’s designed to provide organizations with principles and best practices for portfolio strategy and investment funding, operations, and Lean governance. Its configuration represents the minimum practices required to enable business agility in the Lean enterprise. In effect, Portfolio SAFe adds three core competencies above and beyond Essential SAFe:

  • Lean Portfolio Management that aligns execution with strategy and organizes development around value streams.
  • Organizational agility that extends Lean throughout the enterprise.
  • Continuous learning that instills continuous improvement and innovation into the culture

Strengths of the SAFe Framework

Rooted in Lean and Agile principles, SAFe provides organizations with a relatively lightweight framework that supports and streamlines software development far more efficiently than traditional approaches. It extends the benefits of Agile beyond the front lines of software development to leaders looking for answers to critical questions.

SAFe can handle large-scale and complex deliverables with teams that number into the hundreds. Other strengths of SAFe include:

Collaboration between cross-functional teams

It can be very easy for disconnected teams to fall out of sync. Implementing the SAFe framework makes multi-team coordination possible. It standardizes processes and facilitates collaboration which helps teams work more closely together, avoids unforeseen dependencies and delays, and ensures on-time delivery.

Transparency across organizations

As the size and number of teams grow, and more work is shared across them, the importance of process clarity and transparency increases significantly. The SAFe framework helps teams to provide transparency and also helps to sustain focus on the release at hand.

The biggest stumbling blocks for enterprise while scaling Agile are inconsistency and lack of transparency.

Easy and prescriptive

Organizations that are familiar with the waterfall approach to product development typically find the transition to the SAFe framework relatively easy compared to many alternative Agile frameworks. That could be partially due to the fact that SAFe is prescriptive – it tells organizations exactly what to do, though they can implement SAFe in any way they see fit, and often do.

Freely available

Due to its popularity, articles, tutorials, consultants, and videos are ubiquitous, and the certification process provides education to those implementing SAFe from bottom to top (scrum master to Lean Portfolio Management). While much of the content is available at no cost, there is a cost associated with certification.

Challenges with the SAFe Framework

A top-down approach

Rather than a team-based approach that would seem more congruent with Agile methodologies, SAFe takes a top-down approach to product management with decisions made by management. This removes those on the front lines from the decision-making process, lessens the value of collaborative planning sessions and feels contradictory to core Agile principles like team autonomy, flatter management structures, collective responsibility, and decentralized decision-making.

Overly prescriptive

While its prescriptive nature is considered a strong point by many, others find it stifling. The SAFe framework leaves relatively little room for customization and doesn’t allow sufficient flexibility in process decisions, which renders it less adaptive. Because it requires more upfront planning and process definition, some believe the framework is not pure Agile.

Unnecessary Complexity

Adopting SAFe in its entirety rather than evaluating its individual components and selecting only those that will benefit the organization can add complexity without significant benefit – exactly what businesses are trying to avoid. For example, it may not be necessary for you to collect metrics at every level suggested by SAFe – doing so may be disadvantageous.

Excessive oversight and administration

SAFe’s layers of oversight, administration, and coordination in some ways make it resemble the waterfall approach. Where other methodologies allow developers to identify and solve problems, the SAFe framework calls for administrative roles (who are certified in SAFe) to oversee and coordinate releases and dependencies. This can slow processes and limit flexibility.

Too much “big picture”

Too much focus on the big picture can lead to longer planning cycles and more fixed roles within development cycles, both of which undermine efforts to deliver, ensure quality at every stage of the development process, and get to market faster.

Hierarchical Agile

Some feel that the SAFe framework gives the illusion of Lean and Agile principles, but fails to implement them. They argue that SAFe simply inserts Agile methodologies into existing hierarchical management structures. Decisions are made at the top, far from those that have a deep, first-hand knowledge of the issues at hand.

The SAFe Framework and Collaboration

Collaboration is not only important, but essential. Collaboration means working with another person or group to achieve or accomplish something.

Teams that don’t collaborate properly struggle. The likelihood of success increases in accordance with the amount of collaboration between the teams and stakeholders.

Teams and leaders who fail to collaborate often fail on projects, leaving frustrated team members and dissatisfied customers in their wake.

The SAFe framework is important because of its devotion to collaboration and its ability to execute large, expensive, complex deliverables within an organization. The key applications of SAFe are:

  • Enterprise architecture
  • Enterprise integrations
  • Global governance
  • Scalability
  • Funding across the organization

To achieve delivery success through collaboration within the SAFe framework, you must:

Manage a cohesive team

Collaboration starts with a cooperative, cohesive team. Without it, the Product Owner is just managing a scattered group of skilled people on a deliverable, with no hope of gaining any advantage that collaboration and the sharing of knowledge can bring to the engagement.

Use a collaborative tool

A collaborative tool supports multi-user access to a single program board for tracking work, allowing designated team members to keep the status of their assigned tasks up to date. These collaborative tools will also store key documents and deliverables and allow for check-in and check-out as the team is peer-reviewing deliverables and documents before submitting them to the client for approval.

Gain organizational buy-in

Some organizations are not as supportive of productive collaboration as they should be, which often leads to failure, delays, or cost overruns. Companies must encourage their teams to use collaborative tools to reap the full benefits of Agile. Support, understanding, and funding from the top of the organization typically generates the collaborative efforts needed.

Is the SAFe Framework Relevant to Your Organization?

The SAFe blueprint allows organizations to make the appropriate cultural shifts required for its implementation. Through its normalized lexicon, everyone can view roles, artifacts, and ceremonies and their descriptions.

The SAFe framework helps you map the traditional roles in your organization to the new ones required for an Agile transformation. It essentially outlines a path to a continuously improving empirical system, which is what Agile is all about.

You may consider engaging an Agile partner to augment the implementation and adoption process. An Agile partner that works with you to implement the SAFe framework can get you from “A to B” in a faster, more effective way. Rather than piecing the steps together over many years, you can accelerate the process by leveraging patterns that have emerged through SAFe’s battle-tested history.

The metrics prove the value of SAFe. Some organizations have seen exponential improvements in quality, productivity, and time to market. And SAFe’s known patterns typically involve far less risk than a lengthy, home-grown, and undocumented process that may or may not yield results.

At the end of the day, the SAFe framework makes it possible for organizations to take an Agile approach to software development centered around achieving better quality, faster. While SAFe has shortcomings, they certainly don’t negate its overall value. As with many technologies, the best option for your organization depends on your unique needs, but SAFe has certainly fit the bill for many.