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What Is The Scaled Agile Framework®? Explained For Project Managers

Scrum, Kanban, Lean…and now SAFe®. The SAFe framework has shown up to the project methodology party. If you don’t want to be left out, let’s get to know our new party guest—the SAFe framework.

As a project manager, I’ve worked in large organizations (global enterprises) and smaller orgs (start-ups) that have adopted agile delivery frameworks and other agile approaches to help teams get their work done and deliver simple and complex solutions to customers in the form of products and services. 

Agile (whether it's Scrum or another agile methodology) has worked for the small team I’ve led, but what happens when an organization grows and more teams need to be added or better aligned to deliver products and services? Is there a way to do this that is efficient and useful? That’s where our new party guest SAFe may become the star of the party.

illustration of pm methodologies as emojis at a house party with SAFe arriving
Project management methodologies and frameworks at a house party.

Here's what I'll cover in this article:

What Is The Scaled Agile Framework®?

According to Scaled Agile, “The Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe) is a system for implementing Agile, Lean, and DevOps practices at scale”. As it implies, it is a framework that can be used to help organizations adapt their agile processes and workflows as an organization grows.

It can be used by organizations that are using agile frameworks such as Scrum or Lean, or for organizations that are looking for a way to scale their DevOps processes to support the organization. SAFe can help businesses align development teams and project teams to better deliver value to customers.

Imagine you are a project manager (or Scrum Master) for a small project team in a digital marketing agency. You and your team are a self-contained unit and have all resources you need to deliver projects within your team. You have your own working agreement and ways of doing activities like planning, estimating risk management, and monitoring for progress.

Let’s fast forward to the future: your digital marketing agency has grown. Your agency has won a number of customer contracts and needs more project teams to support the business.

Congrats! There are now 3 other project teams with 3 other project managers. Your project team is no longer self-contained. Some of the resources your team needs are now part of a ‘common’ systems team and they work to support all project teams. 

Also, the work that your project team does has overlap with the work that the 3 other project teams are also doing. You can no longer simply do your team’s planning in a silo—there must be some collaboration and communication with the other project teams.

Suddenly your world has become a lot more complicated ☹!

Is there a way to better align the project teams within this digital marketing agency to ensure that all project teams can benefit from a coordinated way to deliver projects? This is where the SAFe framework can help organizations by adapting agile practices to account for more than 1 agile team.

Why is SAFe® Useful? 

Like any framework, SAFe offers organizations a guideline (or roadmap as it is called) to help organizations on their journey to grow. SAFe provides a roadmap for organizations to follow that introduces the framework at a lower team level right up to the higher management, or the portfolio level or program level. 

Along with the roadmap, there is dedicated training that organizations can take. SAFe also offers training and a deep knowledge base for dedicated agile roles such as Scrum Master, Product Owners, and Architects, and for the agile team as a whole.

safe roadmap infographic
The SAFe Roadmap that guides an organization on their adoption of the framework. © Scaled Agile, Inc.

Is SAFe® A Methodology or Framework?

This is a very good question, as in common everyday usage, methodology and framework are often used interchangeably.

To answer the methodology vs framework question, it might be helpful to first define what the two terms mean.

As Michael Wood stated in his article Why You're Confusing Frameworks with Methodologies:

In general, frameworks create a structure of what to do but rely on the doer to determine the best way to get the “what” done, whereas a methodology spells it all out in finite detail: what to do, when to do, how to do it and why.

In other words, frameworks provide a general structure that allows a user to adapt it to their needs and environment, whereas a methodology is more rigid and systematic in that it specifies what has to be done, when, and how.

As it is indicated in its very name, SAFe is a highly adaptable framework. As it is being widely used by at least 1,000,000 practitioners and 20,000 enterprises globally, SAFe would most likely not have as much mass appeal and global adoption if it were a rigid methodology.

SAFe® Principles

As SAFe provides organizations with a way to scale agile as their organizations grow, its foundations align with agile, lean product development, and systems thinking to provide guidance for not a sole agile team, but for ‘teams of teams’.

There are 10 lean-agile principles upon which the framework is based on:

  1. Take an economic view: Focuses on the concept of delivering value to customers early and often. Taking an economic view also highlights the need to consider all costs (risk, manufacturing, operational, development) and operation within approved budgetary guardrails
  2. Apply systems thinking: Requires an understanding of systems in which the org creating the solution is a system, and that the solution is also a system (the project, product)
  3. Assume variability; preserve options: Centers around the concept of not deciding on a single design/set of requirements early in development, but rather having a set of designs/requirements and using actual data (from experiments/testing) to narrow the options
  4. Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles: Follows the concept of delivering work in smaller (more frequent) chunks and building on top of the previous work
  5. Base milestones on objective evaluation or working systems: Evaluate work in development at various times throughout the agile development lifecycle to evaluate if whatever is being developed will provide economic benefit and will be fit-for-use
  6. Visualize and limit work in progress (WIP), reduce batch sizes, and manage queue length: As implied, this principle focuses on providing a limit to the work people or teams have assigned at a given time (to not overwhelm and to ensure that there is a consistent flow to the work and delivery)
  7. Apply cadence; synchronize with cross-domain planning: Following a pattern of alignment with others for planning across teams
  8. Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers: Understand the need to provide autonomy, clear constraints, and obstacles, and creating a culture of engagement for your team members
  9. Decentralize decision making: To act fast and deliver more frequently requires decisions to be decentralized and allowing those closest to make decisions
  10. Organize around value: Instead of organizing teams around specific functions (example: design, testing, etc), organize around cross-functional teams and customer and business value.

How To Implement The Scaled Agile Framework® 

Step 1: You Need To Have The Right Mindset

To adopt SAFe, an organization must not simply start using terminology associated with the framework. There needs to be a change in mindset across an organization and leadership commitment to improving the agility of the business.

To start implementing SAFe, an organization must have a desire to improve its business agility. Business agility refers to the speed and ability of an organization to respond to changes and emerging business opportunities. Scaled Agile defines business agility as “The ability of your organization to respond to change with speed and relative ease.”

To achieve business agility, an organization needs to adopt a Lean-Agile mindset. Lean-Agile is a mindset that combines beliefs, principles, and actions from the Agile Manifesto and Lean thinking. It is the transformation from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset where professionals are ready to experiment, be inspired by others, explore opportunities, be challenged, and embrace failures.

The goal of Lean is to deliver maximum value to clients in a minimum amount of time while providing the highest possible quality. Lean thinking can be defined as:

  • Specifying the value of the product
  • Defining a value stream for each product
  • Creating value flow without interruption
  • Allowing the customer pull value
  • Pursuing perfection

Leadership of the organization is an important aspect of SAFe implementation. Leaders have to want to lead the change, bring the lean and agile mindset across the organization, and take actions towards lean agile values and principles.

Implementing SAFe is not a trend or something a business’s leadership should do on a whim. It takes commitment, time, and sometimes resources (financial and human).

Leaders exhibit behaviors that inspire the entire organization to adapt to new ways of doing things. Simply having knowledge or a leadership title is not enough. Leaders have to lead the change, participate in activities, coach teams, and work on continuous improvement.

Step 2: Defining A Value Stream 

A value stream is a series of steps (and organizational components) that are required to deliver value to a customer—right from the initial trigger to receiving a final product or service. It is the most important building block to start with when implementing SAFe

For example, if a business creates custom ceramic coffee mugs for sale on their website, a value stream may look like this:

safe value stream example showing the flow of creating and shipping mugs
gif of the finished mug in the value stream example
An example value stream, resulting in the finished mug.

In the example above, all processes that are required to deliver value from the moment the customer places their order for their coffee mug to when they receive their shipment is organized to ensure that value flows.

SAFe focuses on optimizing the value stream to deliver a continuous flow of value to the customer. It suggests organizing people around value streams so that people and teams work seamlessly together rather than siloed or segmented functional departments.

Step 3: Set-up The Agile Release Train (ART)

SAFe revolves around the coordination of multiple agile teams. An Agile Release Train (ART) is a combination of multiple agile teams. They are built around a value stream and are expected to continuously deliver value by building solutions that benefit end-users and the customer.

An ART comprises all the people that are required to develop, test and deploy the product or service. An ART typically has 50–125 people in it or 10–12 different agile teams (with a team size of 8 to 10 people).

An ART is cross-functional and contains all people and resources required to develop, build, and deliver a full set of products or services to a customer. Depending on the size of an organization, there can be multiple ARTs (think large-scale organizations with 500+ people).

Step 4: Define Various Roles In SAFe®

Like any organizational structure, certain roles are required and should be assigned. In SAFe, at the individual agile team level, the roles are similar to what you may find in a small agile team:

  • Scrum Master: facilitates agile ceremonies and clears impediments for the agile team
  • Product Owner: owns the product backlog and responsible for prioritizing items in the backlog
  • Scrum Team Members: complete prioritized backlog items and deliverables to develop value for customers

In a SAFe ART, there are a few more roles and stakeholders that are required to provide a program-wide coordination function among the different agile teams:

  • Release Train Engineer (RTE): Program manager and coordinator for the agile teams
  • System Architects/Engineers: For both technical and non-technical organizations, systems architects and engineers help product or software development by providing a solid architectural basis for the solution

Step 5: Prepare a Program Backlog for the Agile Release Train

You have set up your ART and now have multiple agile teams. What are those teams going to work on? How do you ensure that there are no duplications of effort and inefficacies?

To help coordinate what gets developed or built, create a program backlog. A program backlog will contain the features, epics, user stories, functionality, and architecture (systems) work that is required to support the value stream and provide value to customers. 

Having a common backlog will require the input of many ART roles such as the Release Train Engineer, Product Owners, and others such as product management and the organization’s leaders. A product backlog will also help in the next implementation step of defining who works on what and when.

Step 6: Program Increment (PI) Planning and ART Syncs

So, the organization has the right mindset, they have developed their value stream(s), set-up their ART and developed their program backlog. Now what?

It’s time to plan who does the work and when. In SAFe this event is called Program Increment (PI) Planning and it is central to SAFe. It is done on a regular basis and is an opportunity for alignment with the entire ART. A PI can be any length of time an organization desires, but it typically takes 3 months (12 weeks). This allows for 6 2-week sprints that teams need to plan for.

Typically, PI planning is done face-to-face with the entire ART present (yes, all agile teams). However, in recent times, many organizations have adapted to doing PI planning virtually. Due to the scope of the event, PI planning is usually a two-day event.  PI planning follows a set agenda that includes:

  • A presentation of the business context, strategic goals, and mission
  • Breakout planning sessions for the agile teams where they create their plan for the PI with items in their team backlog that have come from the common program backlog
  • Presentation of draft plans by all agile teams
  • Management review and problem-solving discussions
  • Team breakouts for planning adjustments and finalization of their plan
  • Presentation of final plans and confidence vote
  • Review of program risks and plan rework (if required)

The benefits of PI planning include collaboration and communication among all agile teams, coordination on items such as dependencies and risks, an awareness of what all agile teams will be working on during the PI and an understanding of the business context and goals.

After PI planning is completed, ongoing coordination and collaboration is done during a PI. Frequently during the PI, representatives of the agile teams (the PO and Scrum Master) along with the RTE will meet to review the progress of the agile teams and identify any dependencies, issues or blockers that require coordination during a ceremony called an ART sync. An ART sync can happen at any interval during a PI, but every 2 weeks (or at the end of each sprint or iteration) is a good cadence.

What Are The Tools Used In SAFe®?

As SAFe leverages other agile methodologies like Scrum and Kanban, there are a number of tools that can be used to help agile teams working with SAFe.

For some recommended tools that can be used for SAFe, start with these list of tools:

As PI Planning is recommended to be an onsite (face-to-face) activity, the following tools are also recommended:

  • Large event space where the entire ART can gather (large enough that teams can have their own area to work in or with space for breakout rooms)
  • Whiteboards or large flip-chart papers
  • Whiteboard markers
  • Post-It/Sticky Notes (that can be used to represent items from their team backlog from their plan)
  • Snacks & refreshments (because who doesn’t need snacks for a planning meeting 😊)

SAFe® & Other Agile Methodologies

Hope you have enjoyed the agile party and meeting our new party guest SAFe. As you may have noticed, our party guest SAFe actually has a lot in common with some of the other guests such as Scrum and Lean. This looks to be the start of a great relationship.

Likewise, if your organization is growing and managing multiple agile teams is becoming more complicated, you may want to consider inviting SAFe to your party.

If you are interested in learning more about SAFe or what it’s like to be a project manager in an organization that has adopted SAFe, please feel free to connect with me via LinkedIn or Twitter.

To learn more about other project management methodologies and tools, subscribe to The Digital Project Manager newsletter.

SAFe and Scaled Agile Framework are registered trademarks of Scaled Agile, Inc.

List of Related Tools: Project Roadmap Software

By Christina Sookram

With over 15 years of corporate experience as a project manager, Christina Sookram is an experienced project leader and educator. She has provided project leadership experience at some of Canada's largest technology companies. She has subject matter expertise in both waterfall and agile project delivery and product management functions with a focus on Scrum, Kanban, and SAFe® agile methodologies. A successful entrepreneur, Christina founded CNS Project Consulting Inc in 2020 to help clients in the IT, education and Web3 industries. Christina is also an instructor at Wilfrid Laurier University and OCAD University where she enjoys sharing her love of all things project management with students.

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