The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) was developed in the mid-2000s by Dean Leffingwell to help organizations develop better software products and bring them to market faster using Agile, Lean and Systems Thinking practices on scale of the whole enterprise.
The idea is to develop an overall vision of how work flows from Product Managers (or other stakeholders), through governance, to programs and development teams to reach external customers or internal users.
Many organizations begin by experimenting with Agile practices at the scale of one or two teams. In time and place, when they succeed, they seek to replicate that success across the entire enterprise. This usually leads to significantly greater adoption and adaptation challenges than for specific small-scale projects.
Team, Program and Portfolio
SAFe requires team collaboration and alignment while also seeking to centralize decision-making. The framework has three levels: team, program and portfolio; and many possible configurations depending on teams’ sizes.
The framework allows companies to have an overview of their processes by mapping roles, responsibilities and tasks related to software development. It also helps to question the alignment of development initiatives with business objectives, to better measure success and to identify possible improvements in work processes.
A central idea behind SAFe is to enable Agile and Lean values and principles to be applied across the organization while maintaining overall decision-making ability from top to bottom, in a context where teams rather work from the bottom up to the top.
One of its great advantages is that it is a relatively light framework that improves development effectiveness while maintaining the necessary centralization of governance at the organizational level.
Leadership and Business Strategies
Beyond software development, SAFe also extends the Lean Agile principles to leaders who address top-level strategic issues. The framework helps manage complex projects that involve multiple teams and large-scale strategies.
SAFe puts forward a consistent approach to planning, producing and delivering value: the Agile Release Train (ART). It is a kind of organizational container that brings together several Agile teams working at a constant pace of eight to twelve weeks called PI (Program Increment).
At the beginning of each PI, the ART meets to plan the increment that will be delivered. This opportunity to work as a “team of teams” helps organizations identify the risks, obstacles and dependencies of the different teams in order to prepare for them. ART teams can use ceremonies like the Scrum of Scrums to stay in sync, as well as regular demos to inspect and adapt the product from a customer-centric (user’s) point of view. At the end of each PI, the ART inspects and adapts the What and How of the delivery.
Therefore, SAFe helps in many ways to maintain alignment with business objectives through its centralized decision-making from top to bottom.
Watch out for old habits…
It also creates administrative roles to coordinate multiple projects, launches and dependencies; which can sometimes look like a waterfall approach. Thus, when removing some decisional freedom for development teams, care must be taken not to slow down the development process and limit the inherent flexibility of the Agile environment.
As developers, testers, Product Owners, and other front-line players move away from decision-making, they are less able to understand the software’s life cycle as a whole and the business strategy that supports it. This can affect their ability to conduct informed and collaborative planning sessions. This can even lead to longer cycles and more fixed roles, which contradicts the idea of short sprints deliveries to quickly bring to market and create a continuous improvement loop to ensure quality at each stage.
All that said, SAFe offers many benefits, including making it possible for medium and large organizations to adopt a much more Agile development approach. As with all methodologies, we must be aware that there is no quick fix. No framework can solve all problems, but it’s a good starting point, especially with the help of experienced coaches.
Pyxis offers three SAFe courses: