Introduction to Scaled Agile Framework SAFe

The historic battle between Waterfall and Agile methodologies has been continuously raging in the project management sphere. While both sides have their pros and cons, one big criticism lodged by Waterfall supporters is that the inherent open-ended nature of Agile approaches are incompatible with portfolio management approaches and scaling upon an enterprise-level would be impractical. 

But is that necessarily true? Today we will be looking into the solution to this supposed problem, the Scaled Agile Framework and understand how applying this framework is not only feasible but may be a valuable option for your organisation.

What is the Scaled Agile Framework SAFe?

The Scaled Agile Framework, also known by its abbreviation SAFe, is an agile-based framework that outlines the different principles, processes and best practices that enable agile practices to be implemented on an enterprise level. 

The framework acts as a collective body of knowledge that includes guidance on organisational structures, roles and responsibilities, key values and principles to uphold as well as how everyday activities can be best carried out. It often incorporates different approaches to various agile-based methodologies and practices such as Lean, Kanban, Scrum, and DevOps

The History of SAFe 

Dean Leffingwell, the author of Agile Software Requirements, created the Scaled Agile Framework in 2011 and originally named it the ‘Agile Enterprise Big Picture. It was made to fill the critical gap of translating existing agile frameworks such as Lean, Kanban and Scrum to teams, programs and portfolios. Abiding closely to the philosophy of continuous improvement, the Scaled Agile Framework has gone through several iterations and currently sits at version 5.0. You can have a look at SAFe’s catalogue of knowledge here.

Benefits of SAFe

SAFe is one of the most popular methodologies used by organisations today and this is mainly due to the vast array of benefits it offers organisations. Some key benefits include:

Improves organisational flexibility and agility 

By shifting delivery models to incremental cycles, organisations can easily pivot when marketplace changes occur or when customer demands shift. With its agile-based emphasis on value, SAFe enables organisations to get value-adding products and services out to customers faster and secure customer-based value.

Improves overall product or service quality

SAFe actively embeds customer feedback into its processes. When paired with the iterative and incremental delivery model, this allows teams to easily respond to and validate each iteration of their product or service. 

Improves enterprise-wide productivity

With its people-centric focus, SAFe enables organisations to make measurable improvements in their productivity by encouraging teams to eliminate unnecessary work, identify potential bottlenecks and continuously improve their processes to ensure they are able to work in the way that suits their team best. 

Improves employee engagement

An engaged team is a more productive team. When teams feel like they have autonomy over their projects and are actively a part of key decision-making processes, they are more likely to be motivated and invested in the success of the project itself. This critically minimises the chances for burnout and increases employee satisfaction.

SAFe strengths and weaknesses

No methodology can be a one-size-fits-all silver bullet. Every methodology has its strengths and flaws that can vary depending on the organisation and its context. Here are some key strengths and weaknesses of the SAFe approach.

SAFe Strengths

  • Facilitates better collaboration between cross-functional teams.
  • Enables the organisation to achieve greater transparency and visibility over its portfolio. 
  • Improves alignment between all aspects of the portfolio with the organisation’s strategic goals.
  • Elevates stakeholder engagement and investment by implementing clear customer feedback processes.

SAFe Weaknesses

  • The inclusion of upfront planning and process definition leads to reduced agility compared to pure agile approaches.
  • SAFe can be terminology heavy that can act as a big barrier to entry and proper adoption.
  • While it empowers teams, directives are still top-down in nature which is contradictory to pure Agile practices.
  • The emphasis on big picture planning can lead to excessive process overheads that hinder organisational agility.

SAFe Core Values

There are four Core Values that inform all SAFe principles and practices. They are the values of alignment, built-in quality, transparency and program execution. 

Value One: Alignment

Alignment is essential if organisations want to effectively respond to changes that arise. SAFe encourages organisations to build alignment processes throughout their organisations so all teams can easily understand the current state of the organisation and how they can adapt or adjust to meet the defined strategic objectives of the organisation. Being highly autonomous, teams can make decisions quickly and can easily synchronise with other teams across the portfolio and ensure the most value-adding projects are being prioritised.

Value two: Built-in quality

Within the SAFe framework, teams define what completion means and quality assurance is embedded into all practices and tasks. There are five key dimensions to built-in quality. They include flow, architecture and design quality, code quality, system quality, and release quality. Though these software-centric terms, these dimensions can be adapted to other contexts to ensure holistic quality control.

Value three: Transparency

Transparency is not something that is just achieved, it is gained. Teams have to learn to trust each other if they are to be truly open, honest and collaborative with one another. It is important to imbed trust-building behaviours such as inclusive decision-making and real-time progress visibility so all team members are on the same page and can collaborate effectively.

Value four: Program Execution

Being able to execute programs effectively is the main purpose and goal of the SAFe approach. SAFe prioritises optimising working systems, maintaining alignment and achieving business outcomes to make sure teams are always delivering the most value at any given moment. 

SAFe Principles

The SAFe principles are the vehicle through which the core value of SAFe can be achieved and thus inform the everyday practices and activities within the organisation. Here are the ten key principles of SAFe.

Principle One: Take an economic view

Every decision and delay has an impact on projects. By taking an economic view on all decisions, teams can clearly understand the economic implications of each delay and thus strive to achieve the shortest lead-time with the least wastage. Several techniques that can be implemented include effective job sequencing, analysis of economic trade-offs, and operating on lean budgets.

Principle Two: Apply systems thinking

Systems thinking is an approach that encourages teams to move away from linear mindsets and solutions-building to more linear formats that look at the greater interconnected relationships between different components of a problem. Systems thinking shows that simply optimising one component of the problem does not equate to an overall optimization of a system.

Organisations that apply SAFe understand that improving a system requires a deeper understanding of the overarching aim of the system itself. For example, improving team productivity may involve more than implementing a new project management solution. To be truly effective it may require the elimination of siloes, the formation of cross-functional structures and the creation of collaborative cultures. 

Principle Three: Assume variability; preserve options

Traditional project design and methodologies typically build off a singular design-and-requirement option during the early stages of development. In the case that the starting point itself proves to be wrong, this approach means that all future adjustments would only serve to mitigate a problem rather than fully optimising a system. 

SAFe chooses to take a more open-ended approach that actively considers multiple requirements and design options to give teams the flexibility they need to adapt to oncoming changes. Empirical data can then be used to create more specific designs that generate the best economic outcome for the organisation.

Principle Four: Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning

Much like the lean values, SAFe emphasizes the importance of continuously learning, adjusting and adapting. By introducing intentional learning cycles and structures, teams can make sure they are always optimising and maximising their resources and processes through each iteration of the project.

Principle Five: Base milestones on the objective evaluation of working systems

Rather than evaluating progress based on pre-determined sequential phase-gate models, SAFe takes the more interactive route by using different integration points to act as objective milestones that evaluate the solution or product throughout the development lifecycle. The traditional approach often does not mitigate risk as well as intended whereas the SAFe approach enables more frequent financial, technical and value-based evaluation to ensure each iteration of the project with secure the intended value or returns.

Principle Six: Visualise and limit WIP, reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths

One of the key goals of Lean enterprises is to achieve a state of continuous flow in which new requirements and capabilities can easily move from concept to value. Key ways of achieving such flow include:

  • Visualizing and limiting the amount of work in progress (WIP)
  • Reducing the batch size of work
  • Managing queue lengths to minimise wait times

Principle Seven: Apply cadence, synchronize the cross-domain planning

Cadence refers to the continual rhythm for development and is important to improving project and planning predictability. Synchronisation ensures multiple perspectives are considered, evaluated and integrated at the same time. Utilizing a consistent development cadence and synchronization along with cross-domain planning gives organisations the mechanisms they need to effectively operate in an increasingly fast-paced and ever-changing market.

Principle Eight: Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers

Organisations that use SAFe understand that individuals are the backbone of a successful project and they are not motivated by money alone. In fact, research has shown that many employees are citing a  lack of feeling valued by the organisation (54 per cent) and managers (52 per cent) as well as the lack of sense of belonging (51 per cent) being the top three reasons why employees resign. Providing a sense of autonomy and purpose by generating an environment that encourages collaboration and empowers employees to achieve more is critical to achieving higher levels of employee engagement and productivity.

Principle Nine: Decentralise decision-making

One of the critical critiques of traditional waterfall levels is the amount of time wasted on seeking approval through the chain of command. The fast delivery cycles SAFe aims for requires a decentralized decision-making process that aims to reduce delays, improve development flow, enable feedback to be received faster and allow for a more innovative solution to be generated in the most effective manner. 

However, on an enterprise level, organisations are often making significant strategic goals that need to consider the global economic contexts that would require more centralized decision-making processes. In order to facilitate both needs, the SAFe approach encourages proper training and empowerment of employees along with a robust decision-making framework to help ensure a fast flow of value.

Principle Ten: Organise around value

Organising around value over benefits is a relatively new concept as organisations have traditionally sought clear benefits or sheer financial figures as their benchmark for success. However, the digital age demands excessive speed and flexibility from organisations in order to keep up with new innovations and respond to the changing customer needs. The focus on value enables SAFe organisations to easily pivot their portfolio of investments as success dimensions are considered in terms of value, specifically customer-based value, and decisions are made with the goal of achieving the most value for the organisation.

Read more: Project Benefits vs Project Value

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