What is the Scaled Agile Framework? A Guide to SAFe
Agile project management was a breath of fresh air when it appeared on the scene in 2001 with the release of the agile manifesto. With benefits like faster time-to-market, increased customer satisfaction, and better product quality, many organizations adopted agile processes in the following years. Of course, agile’s progress across industries hit a few roadblocks. Not least of these was how to maintain agile’s trademark flexibility and responsiveness in large enterprises, which often have cross-functional teams that need to work cohesively towards shared goals.
That’s why the Scaled Agile Framework is such a game changer. It lends structure to lean and agile practices, preserving the freedom of the agile model without compromising the focus needed to keep employees across departments aligned. If you’re interested in realizing the benefits of agile at your enterprise, read on for a deep dive into the Scaled Agile Framework, its principles, benefits, and how to implement it successfully.
The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) consists of a set of practices, patterns, and guidelines that help organizations implement agile practices at scale. Its chief objective is ensuring that the flexibility of agile doesn’t lead to disunity and a lack of common purpose across large organizations. SAFe includes recommendations for implementing agile at the project, program, and portfolio levels, helping employees from the C-suite on down stay aligned and productive.
SAFe was introduced to the world in 2011. It merged the core principles of agile philosophies like scrum, kanban, extreme programming (XP) while advocating a big-picture mindset. One of the most popular agile frameworks today, SAFe is backed by a knowledge base its practitioners can leverage as they implement the framework at their own organizations. While small companies with just a few different teams may prefer a more simplistic approach to implementing agile practices, SAFe is one of the most effective ways for larger organizations to maintain the effectiveness of agile as they grow.
SAFe’s ten principles act as its fundamental underlying philosophy, synthesizing ideas from lean, agile, and DevOps. These principles orient agile concepts towards a unified organizational culture, emphasizing that decentralization, autonomy, and flexibility don’t have to lead to near-sighted decision-making and a lack of collaboration. Let’s take a look at each principle in turn and see what they really mean.
- Take an economic view. Achieving consistent organizational wins requires effective budgeting at both the project and portfolio levels. SAFe encourages leaders and other team members to carefully evaluate all the financial considerations that lead to project success. This helps anchor the decentralized decision-making agile requires to these key overarching factors.
- Apply systems thinking. In the same vein, SAFe encourages employees to move beyond a myopic focus on individual tasks. Instead, consider systems and processes as part of a connected whole and keep in mind what the organization aims to achieve using them.
- Assume variability; preserve options. Experiment with multiple options and maintain flexibility on final decisions as long as reasonably possible. This allows you to gather as much empirical data as possible to make informed choices that lead to success in the field, rather than simply looking good on paper.
- Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles. Agile traditionally leverages sprints and shorter development cycles. SAFe helps companies better leverage the insights gained from this rapid cadence by fostering cross-team and cross-departmental connections.
- Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems. This principle encourages evaluating projects holistically and focusing on their economic impact. Your company can then set realistic milestones based on that data, rather than engaging in groundless optimism until it’s too late.
- Make value flow without Interruptions. By keeping things lean and simple, SAFe reduces the time needed to turn concepts into reality and deliver value to your end users.
- Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning. SAFe recommends a regular rhythm for development to create predictability in outcomes. Ensure constant communication between different domains so that projects complement each other and your entire portfolio stays on track.
- Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers. Rather than encouraging individuals to compete with each other, SAFe helps bring them together behind a singular vision and creates a collaborative environment of mutual respect and influence.
- Decentralize decision-making. Organizations should empower teams and individuals with real autonomy, eliminating the bottlenecks inherent in a top-down approach.
- Organize around value. Companies must recognize the significance of business agility, speed, and innovation. This helps them respond to changing business trends and customer needs with the goal of consistently delivering maximum value.
SAFe’s implementation roadmap includes 12 activities for successfully achieving business agility and lists the SAFe courses related to each activity. While the roadmap is intended as a general guide rather than a series of hard-and-fast rules, it provides a great jumping off point for figuring out how SAFe might look at your company. Before putting this roadmap into practice, though, take a look at these key best practices for getting the most out of SAFe.
Adopting SAFe on your own is a daunting prospect, but thankfully, you don’t have to. Your organization should look for a platform built with agile in mind, one that’s been tried and tested by some of the largest organizations across the globe. No platform fits these criteria better than Atlassian’s Jira, a project management platform and just one part of Atlassian’s closely integrated ecosystem of products. With thousands of plugins available to customize it to support your enterprise’s unique implementation of SAFe, Jira offers a serious edge to any organization looking to get started on its SAFe journey.
SAFe recognizes that for large enterprises to synchronize their agile initiatives, organizations need genuine buy-in from all their team members. That’s why the roadmap includes activities related to getting leaders on board, building a “lean-agile center of excellence,” and training teams internally on their roles in SAFe. In addition, companies should leverage the know-how of outside experts on SAFe and agile tools like Jira, so employees will always have a steady hand with them to assist as your SAFe implementation ramps up.
A transition to SAFe can still be a bit overwhelming for team members, even with significant training and support. Organizations can make the change as smooth as possible by mapping current processes and practices to the framework, identifying gaps and changes to be made, and creating detailed transition plans in advance.
SAFe is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Successful adoption requires carefully considering organizational size, industry, and culture, among other factors. Planning with and gathering input from key stakeholders is important, but it’s not enough. Continually evaluate and improve your company’s implementation of SAFe by gathering relevant metrics — like mean time to resolution, cycle time, and flow velocity — analyzing the data to draw out invaluable insights, and putting those insights to work without delay.
SAFe has evolved over the years, undergoing four major updates. While the core aspects of the framework remain, it has adapted to keep pace with new developments in tech and project management. Here are just some of the major changes in SAFe 5.0:
- Two new competencies — Continuous Learning Culture and Organizational Agility — have been added, bringing the total number of core competencies for a lean enterprise to seven.
- Several already-existing competencies have been restructured to add new elements, including Team and Technical Agility, Agile Product Delivery, Enterprise Solution Delivery, and Lean-Agile Leadership.
- There is an increased emphasis on customer centricity and design-based thinking.
- A new tenth principle — Organize Around Value — has been added to better align development efforts with end-to-end value creation.
While SAFe remains one of the most popular agile frameworks used, it’s not the only game in town. Let’s take a look at a few of the other options available and how they stack up in comparison.
The Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) framework scales the concept of scrum across multiple, cross-functional teams. These teams work on a single product backlog and have the same cadence and sprint schedules. Simplicity is one of LeSS’s main advantages, and organizations that are familiar with scrum will find the framework relatively easy to follow. However, it also expects teams with a diverse set of skills, experiences, and expectations to remain self-directed while aligning their technical and business needs, which can be a challenge.
Scrum of Scrums (SoS), also known as Scrum@Scale, similarly leverages scrum to achieve scaling, with a team or network of teams working together to create a shippable product. SoS places an emphasis on small teams to minimize bureaucracy. It also defines additional scrum roles, such as Chief Product Owner, to better facilitate collaboration at scale. Like LeSS, SoS is most appropriate for smaller organizations that need an extra bit of scale and are looking for an agile framework that they can implement with a minimum of time and effort.
The Spotify model isn’t technically a framework: it’s how Spotify, the popular streaming service, structured its own teams to scale agile methodologies. Each team has the autonomy to develop its own specific agile implementation, while the model’s other elements provide guidelines to organizations on team structures, transparency, trust, and the decentralization of decision-making. The Spotify model can also be used in conjunction with other agile frameworks like SAFe.
Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) is a process-oriented framework that takes a hybrid approach to agile, similar to SAFe. It applies concepts from scrum, kanban, XP, DevOps, and lean on an enterprise level while providing flexibility in terms of how teams want to interpret these principles. DAD encourages self-organizing teams and prioritizes handling high risk items first, so you fail — and learn — earlier in the delivery lifecycle.
DAD is similar to SAFe in terms of its comprehensive coverage of different aspects of agile and focus on organization-wide scale. DAD prioritizes flexibility, while SAFe offers a more structured method to agile scaling. SAFe is generally preferable to DAD for enterprises that require a clear action plan, while DAD may be a better fit for those that are simply looking for high level guidelines they can use to better scale their own agile practices.
For more than a decade, SAFe has established itself as a proven, effective agile framework. Its end-to-end coverage of all aspects of product delivery, from the project to portfolio level, puts SAFe in a class of its own. When organizations combine SAFe’s potential with a top-notch agile project management platform like Jira and the Atlassian ecosystem, there are few limits to what they can achieve.
The complexities of simultaneously adopting SAFe and a powerful tool like Jira are likely to bog down even the most efficient enterprises, however. That’s exactly why Contegix, an Atlassian Platinum Solution Partner, has spent years aligning agile practices and platforms with organization’s business needs. Its consultants are experts on SAFe and the Atlassian ecosystem, and they're capable of helping even the largest companies maximize the value they get from agile without undue disruption to current operations.
Contact Contegix today to learn more about the benefits of starting your SAFe journey with a trusted partner by your side.