What is SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) and How is it Different from Agile?

 More companies and enterprise-level organizations are adopting the SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) method to run projects.

More companies and enterprise-level organizations are adopting the SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) method to run projects.

Bob the BA specializes in agile project management development and training, but that doesn’t mean agile in the only project management option out there. More companies and enterprise-level organizations are adopting the SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) method to run projects.

While this option might seem more complex at first, it becomes clear why this strategy is preferred by large organizations. Here’s what you need to know about the SAFe model and how you can apply it to your brand.  

What Is SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework)?

The SAFe method uses the agile approach, but works to reduce its weaknesses and make it more usable for large companies. It strives to take the best of all project management options to create one “super” PM style.

“By leveraging classic Agile, Scrum, Lean and Kanban methodology, SAFe uplifts project management to the next level and transforms the entire organisation,” Hào Lǐ, release train engineer, writes.

SAFe is often easier for senior executives to adopt because they are already partly familiar with some of the concepts. The movement to SAFe feels less drastic than the dramatic shift required by agile management.

SAFe management follows a core set of principles teams use to improve their efficiency, Will Kelly writes at LiquidPlanner. These include:

  • Taking an economic view of planning

  • Assuming variability in projects

  • Preserving options to enable change

  • Decentralizing decision-making

Kelly emphasizes the idea that one project management concept won’t fit all businesses or all projects. And what works for one team may not work for another. SAFe provides an alternative for companies who want to move away from the traditional waterfall method but might not be ready to consider agile management.

Who Benefits from SAFe Management?

As mentioned, SAFe is commonly used by enterprises and large companies, and when you understand the methodology, you can see why.

“Historically, scrum, extreme programming and other agile methods tend to focus, and stop, at the team level,” Matt Heusser, software delivery consultant and writer, says at CIO. “SAFe presents a single, unified view of the work to executives, allowing them to drill down for details or up for trends and analysis.”

This type of agile project management is for companies of all sizes, including large organizations. “By large,” explains Heusser, “we mean more than a thousand people in IT, and more than 250 in software development, though it can be just as effective for teams of 50-100 people.”

“Agile is usually something seen as a ‘development’ thing, nothing to do with Top Management, and this is where Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) can help,” author of Organisational Mastery, Luis Gonçalves, writes. “SAFe brings [the whole] company together and more important; it creates a connection between top management and development, something that other frameworks were not able to solve.”

When management is involved, better decisions are made for the company as a whole, and development teams don’t have to work around corporate demands with their limited agile frameworks.

SAFe Project Management Can Scale Up or Down

While SAFe is promoted on a large scale, there are three different levels that organizations can practice: the portfolio level, the program level, and the team level. Each of these levels meet the needs of different size companies and can be adopted at different times. The team at Celerity described the levels and how they can be used:

  • The portfolio level focuses on the company as a whole and how it works to complete projects.

  • The program level is where agile release trains (ARTs) form. Teams work together to execute long-term development projects and move the company forward.

  • The team level uses agile development to execute sprints or iterations and complete tasks.

As you can see, these three levels account for all levels of the business. The practices can be applied to a portfolio of 2,000 employees in 30 departments or to a team of eight working on a project goals.

How Does SAFe Work?

 There are a lot of moving pieces in any project, and SAFe makes it possible for teams to consider all of these elements to move forward with their goals.

There are a lot of moving pieces in any project, and SAFe makes it possible for teams to consider all of these elements to move forward with their goals.

Like agile developers, there are experts who specialize in onboarding teams to SAFe methods and teaching others how it works. Anthony Crain is one of them. He’s the agile transformation lead at Blue Agility and is committed to helping organizations adopt SAFe. He relies on this form of management to make sure programs and projects are executed on time.

“A project is bigger than a simple change request,” he writes. “It takes a full team to accomplish, not an individual effort; it needs a manager to plan and track the project to completion; a project typically take a few months to a few years; and a project is a temporary thing.”

There are a lot of moving pieces in any project, and SAFe makes it possible for teams to consider all of these elements to move forward with their goals.

Start With the Right Team

To utilize the SAFe method effectively, you need the right team members. Without established leadership to bring projects and releases into fruition, companies are likely to miss deadlines or have to scale down.

Stephen Watts at BMC Software Solutions describes these roles and how they interact with others on the team:

  • Product manager: the team member with complete control over the content and product.

  • System architect: the team member with design authority over the program.

  • Release train engineer: the RTE is the ScrumMaster who makes sure team members are in alignment.

  • UX designer: the team member who provides design elements to the project and supports multiple functions.

  • Release management team: the people on the ground who are involved in the release, and who ensure a smooth development and successful launch.

While the RTE is responsible for keeping everyone on track daily and weekly, the product manager focuses on what is being designed while the systems architect works to improve how it is designed.

SAFe and Agile Are Similar

SAFe uses elements from agile management in its methodology, but enhances the process and improves it to make it easier for other teams to adopt.

“The Scaled Agile Framework indeed subscribes to the ethos of the Agile manifesto,” Anshuman Singh writes at Digité. “Those who have undergone any initiation to SAFe would confirm that at Team level, SAFe works very much like standard Scrum.”

Multiple teams might be working together with SAFe to develop iterations, but they all follow the same timeline, cadence and delivery dates. This is essential for keeping everyone on track and keeping the project moving forward.

SAFe Terms You Need to Know

 SAFe has a few terms that need to be defined in order to better understand SAFe approach to project management and Agile.

SAFe has a few terms that need to be defined in order to better understand SAFe approach to project management and Agile.

While SAFe and agile certainly share multiple common terms, there are enough differences to throw off a development team the first few times they are used. This is particularly true if SAFe is used outside of the software development fields and in traditional businesses or non-tech industries. Understanding common terms can help ease the transition within your team.

Value Streams

A value stream is the basis of the SAFe framework. Each consists of a sequence of steps used to provide value to customers.

The team at VersionOne interviewed Dean Leffingwell, creator of SAFe, about value streams and how to use them. He said value streams are cross-departmental, and teams form agile release trains to execute the development steps in those value streams to reach the designated goal.

Agile Release Trains

Those agile release trains are another essential part of your SAFe development plan.

Software engineer Andrew Powell-Morse emphasizes the importance of agile release trains (ARTs) within the Scaled Agile Framework. As he defines it at Airbrake: “An ART is a self-organizing, long-lived group of Agile Teams (a team of teams, if you will), whose purpose is to plan, commit, and execute solutions together.”

Basically, an ART brings together multiple elements and skills to provide solutions and execute value, creating a less siloed approach to development and release.

Program Increments

Program increments are similar to iterations in development frameworks. Increments typically last 8-12 weeks, according to Kendis.io, but they can be adjusted according to project needs. Kendis came up with a useful chart to show how program increments work.

Essentially, self-organizing teams board an agile release train (that the team of teams mentioned earlier). These teams create program increments and develop a cadence to accomplish their goals. This allows teams to scale up and scale down their work depending on the project, and develops a pattern to stay on track throughout the development process.  

Sprint, Cadence, and Integration: Know the Difference

Not only is there a lot of terminology involved with SAFe and other agile concepts, it’s also easy to get the terms confused because of their similarities. The tem at SoftwarePlant broke down the differences in a few of these concepts, so you can see what terms are similar and how they differ:

  • Sprint: a short period of time (typically one to four weeks) where team members need to deliver some aspect of the project to the project manager or client.

  • Iteration: a repeating cycle of time where team members need to deliver aspects of projects to the team. All sprints are iterations, but not all iterations are sprints. Some will use this term interchangeably when describing various aspects of projects.

  • Cadence: a unit of time to describe the length of a sprint or iteration and the repetition of the iterations. A cadence might be two to eight weeks, but the number needs to remain consistent, so it becomes a predictive rhythm in the development process.

When used together, a project management teams can divide their iterations into eight sprints, each with a cadence of two weeks. From this sentence, teams can deduce that a deliverable is expected of them every two weeks over eight iterations.

Other concepts in SAFe are already commonly used in most business environments, or can be reviewed when researching the Agile framework.

Why is SAFe Development Effective?

 There are additional guides around the web that project managers can read to learn about SAFe to share with their teams.

There are additional guides around the web that project managers can read to learn about SAFe to share with their teams.

There are additional guides around the web that project managers can read to learn about SAFe. These pieces also show the value that comes with implementing SAFe systems. For example, the team at Guru99 created a useful tutorial on the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), broken down into bite-sized sections for teams who want a high-level introduction of this concept. A few benefits of SAFe include:

  • It is highly approachable and usable across teams.

  • It offers useful links to common agile practices.

  • It merges the world of agile development with enterprise practices and cultures.

  • It increases transparency on all levels and increases opportunities for feedback.

The Guru99 team explains that SAFe isn’t useful for teams that fail to meet their deadlines, finish projects or continuously drive value. The main focus is on developing working systems and their business outcomes.  

SAFe is also gaining tracking with other project management tools. The product roadmap software company Aha! created a project management guide discussing SAFe and how it can benefit teams. In particular, SAFe uses the concept of “weighted shortest job first” (WSJF) to determine what needs to be cleared by the backlog. The WSFJ is the cost of delay (loss to the company or customer if postponed) divided by job duration (or the time and resources required to complete the task).

This basic formula helps teams identify high-priority tasks that can significantly improve the business and reduce the overall backlog.   

Learn More and See SAFe in Action

If you want to learn more about SAFe and how it can be used in your industry then there are plenty of resources available. The team at Scaled Agile has multiple case studies from a variety of industries that adopt SAFe operations. One in particular is Air France - KLM, which wanted to scale agile practices across the company to improve its time-to-market with business applications. The results were immediate:

  • SAFe teams released applications 17 times into the live environment in seven months as opposed to every six months.

  • The releases were 20 percent more effective than those of waterfall teams.

  • The company gained a 20 percent market share in the small and medium logistics market.

When done well, these practices can have significant impact that pay off in the long run. Scaled Agile also has guides, training materials, and opportunities to learn more about SAFe and apply it to your organization.

Just because one form of project management is gaining traction in your industry doesn’t necessarily mean it is right for your business. Knowing your options, and testing strategies like Agile and SAFe, can help you find the ideal project management strategy for your team.

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