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May 6, 2022

What is SAFe? The Scaled Agile Framework – Part 1

In my previous two blogs, I explained the challenges that arise with scaling Agile, as well as solutions to these challenges. In this blog, I will discuss the best-known Agile scale-up model: the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). SAFe is probably the most widely encompassing framework of all the Agile frameworks. SAFe was published in 2011 by management consultant and software developer Dean Leffingwell, and it is promoted worldwide by publisher Scaled Agile, Inc.

What is SAFe?

SAFe is a framework: a collection of various methods, principles, and approaches for the problems that stagnant organizations experience in their journey to becoming more Agile. The description Scaled Agile, Inc. uses is, "A knowledge base of proven, integrated principles, practices, and competencies for achieving business agility using Lean, Agile, and DevOps."

SAFe is still not very old, as it was launched in 2011, but it has already known several versions in its short life. Currently, we’re at version 5.0. The consultants involved at Scaled Agile and their partners continue to discover new elements that are then added to the framework on a regular basis.

Everything SAFe…?

People who have just started getting to know SAFe are often intimidated by this framework, because it’s admittedly quite a large collection of ideas and techniques. But, since it is a framework and not an instruction manual, it does not have to be adopted, learned by heart, and applied completely or consecutively. In practice, there are a few core concepts and core processes that are applicable to almost every organization.

Tip: before closely studying SAFe, it’s useful to find an answer to the question ‘What is Agile?’. Without prior knowledge of Agile, it’s hard to understand the substance of SAFe.

The purpose of the Scaled Agile Framework

SAFe was created by Dean Leffingwell because he realized that Scrum, another extremely popular piece of theory from the Agile range of thought, came with limitations. Those limitations are mostly experienced by larger developing organizations of 200 people or more. Scrum is created for small, Agile, maneuverable teams. However, when it comes to organizations of a greater size, there would be too many Scrum teams in existence to work efficiently. These teams require an overarching structure, because otherwise, no one will be able to remember what project is whose responsibility. SAFe offers the structure needed to ensure teams are working efficiently, even when there are many of them.

At the same time, this is a concept that many proponents of Agile criticize when it comes to SAFe: the notion that it would not be very Agile to embed teams within a larger structure. In practice, however, we see that this structure is simply necessary to avoid chaos.

SAFe builds on Scrum

SAFe is built on Scrum, the same method Dean Leffingwell realized was limited. But he also saw the benefits of Scrum. These benefits included short-cycle sprint backlogs, which means remaining maneuverable without becoming chaotic. These also included the transparency fostered by the presence of Kanban boards, as well as the benefit of a logical division between the team coach (Scrum Master) and the substantive expert (Product Owner).

However, for 200 or more teams, SAFe introduced the Team of Teams. The metaphor being used here is that of a train with multiple cars, with each car representing a different team. That’s how we got to the concept of the Agile Release Train (ART). Furthermore, SAFe introduces a ‘Sprint of Sprints’, which is also called a Program Increment.

This is not where the series of introductions and elements stops. In fact, we are still far from it. But the rhythm of Trains and Program Increments forms the very foundation of SAFe. They’re followed by concepts like Lean Portfolio Management and Value Stream Mapping, and everything else that goes with a ‘Lean-Agile’ organization.

Why is SAFe this popular?

There are many frameworks that play into the wishes of large organizations to become more maneuverable. Nexus, Scrum of Scrums, Large Scale Scrum, and many others. The major benefit to SAFe is that it not only does it introduce Agile principles and practices, but it also incorporates the lessons of Lean, DevOps and, in version 5.0, Design Thinking. This valuable combination of ground-breaking ideas about project management, product development, and software development, integrated into one complete package that can be applied in many large companies, has led to SAFe becoming the leading framework for large organizations.

Implementation in phases

To provide organizations who want to implement SAFe with more practical tools, Scaled Agile has defined a clear, step-by-step plan with 12 steps of implementation.

Eelco Rustenburg, a partner at Gladwell Academy, has sorted through these steps and combine them into four optimal outcomes. Successful transformations into an Agile organization have led to this list of outcomes. By applying the ideas according to the SAFe model, a (very) large organization can:

  1. Increase the quality of its output
  2. Get more work done
  3. Increase employee commitment
  4. Speed up delivery on their promises

Check out the second blog about the Scaled Agile Framework, in which I’ll go further into the available content and the use of the framework itself.

About the Author: Boris de Jong – What Is SAFe?

Boris de Jong is an Agile and SAFe trainer at Gladwell Academy. With a background in political science and journalism, as well as in theater, Boris works on making the abstract parts of working Agile in organizations more concrete and palpable. To achieve this, he uses a personal, people-oriented style, which is why his clear-cut articles are filled with practical examples, descriptive metaphors, and telling anecdotes.

His talent as a storyteller and knowledge of politics and administration are also put to use in his work as an Agile trainer. With a feel for context and a storyteller’s sense of flair, he makes sure Agile methods and principles are both tangible and comprehensible.

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Written by Gladwell Academy, but most of our content is created by trainers and partnering experts!