Scaling Agile with SAFe

Anyone who’s been working in and around Agile teams for a while, and who’s seen the great benefits of using a framework like Scrum to improve productivity at the team-level, inevitably starts to ponder how such principles and practices can be scaled up to suit larger organisations.

I’ve learned through many years of experience that what masquerades as ‘Agile’ at many large businesses is actually a gloss of buzzwords, tools and processes that obscures the fact that development practices have actually changed very little from the waterfall days.

Overcoming obstacles to Lean-Agile implementation

While there might be a number of Scrum teams attempting to self-organise and coordinating work between themselves the layer of management above are still locked into a mindset of deadlines, contracts and rigid processes which all but kills the benefits of using Agile teams. Unless the business leadership fully assimilates Agile and Lean values then the stand-ups, retros and Scrum of Scrum meetings are all just window dressing.

That’s not to say that business leaders don’t see the benefits of Agile: reduced time to market, improved productivity, better quality products and happier customers. Often they’re not only aware that such gains are possible but are desperate to realise them. The problem is that change entails risk. When confronted with what sounds like management consultant-engineered hype around ‘collaboration’, ‘cross-functional teams’ and ‘valuing people over processes’, business leaders are often more likely to stick with what they know than take a punt on something that sounds new age or wishy-washy.

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is, at least in part I think, an attempt to provide a pattern for Lean-Agile software and systems development at large organisations which dispels the idea that Agile lacks rigour or transparency. The brainchild of Dean Leffingwell, SAFe is a knowledge base with guidance on how to organise work at each level of the business, and on how those different levels should interact.

The Scaled Agile Framework is currently in version 4.0 and is most commonly embodied in the following interactive chart.


SAFe divides the business into 3 levels:

  • Portfolio, where high-level strategy is formulated and budgets are allocated (it’s important to note here that it’s Agile Release Trains that are funded, not individual projects or programs);
  • Program, the teams of Agile teams (collectively known as an Agile Release Train) building and testing solutions towards a common shared goal;
  • and Team, the cross-functional, self-organising teams of people actually building software.

This is already starting to sound a bit complicated and there certainly isn’t enough room here to start digging into the various concepts, practices and features of SAFe at each of these three levels – though I’d certainly recommend poking around the website during an idle hour.

For now, I’d just like to share my key takeaways from my recent SAFe Program Consultant training that I attended. They centre around three things that management have to be prepared to do if they want to realise the benefits of Lean-Agile working:

  1. 1. Embrace Lean-Agile values
  2. 2. Implement Lean-Agile practices
  3. 3. Lead the change

Embracing Lean-Agile values

For a successful implementation of Lean-Agile practices management has to fully embrace the core values. These can be articulated in a number of ways but the central premise is to release value in as short a sustainable lead time as possible.

Top unpack that a little, the aim of Lean-Agile practices is generate value (i.e. benefits) for the end user quickly. That means not over-designing or over-engineering products but instead recognising that customers want the most valuable features of the product now and are prepared to wait for further improvements.

We’ve talked about this at length before but traditional waterfall styles of software development aim to create a fully realised product at the end of a long lead time. Lean-Agile by contrast aims to release the most valuable features as soon as possible and improve the product through further incremental releases.

This obviously speeds up time-to-market considerably. It also allows for early feedback from end-users, helping developers innovate around the users’ emerging needs to deliver more value overall.

The sustainability part of the equation ensures that quality and relationships aren’t neglected – poor quality products and low staff morale are not sustainable.

Implementing Lean-Agile practices

This is where SAFe comes in. It emphasises the following key principles.

  • Value – It’s essential to identify how the business creates value and to organise around these value streams. This is about clear leadership and communication – strategic themes provide guidance and empower decision makers, as does Lean-Agile budgeting and enterprise architecture.
  • Agile Release Trains – Teams of Agile teams build value. By communication through visions and roadmaps, by sharing a goal and by coordinating work in a visible way, the Agile teams are both highly productive and highly transparent.
  • Systems thinking – Rather than attempting to segregate the different levels or functions it’s important to think about how each affects the others and how they interact. Often the biggest gains are to be made not at the micro level but at the macro.
  • Agile teams – I shouldn’t need to expound upon this one.
  • Program Increments – If the smallest plan-do-check-adjust cycle in the SAFe framework is the daily sprint, the largest is the Program Increment. A PI combines multiple teams into an amount of value and timeframe that the enterprise can focus on – setting the mission but imposing minimal constraints so that teams (who are more capable of understanding and reacting to the end results) are empowered to take responsibility and solve problems.

Leading the implementation

Only management have the ability to change an organisation, so the implementation of Lean-Agile practices requires that managers take the lead. Often this is a challenge because implementing new ways of working often comes with a built-in admission that the old ways were wrong – and no one likes admitting that they were wrong.

Luckily Lean-Agile practices are not overly concerned with ‘rightness’ but with finding the way together through a strong, value-oriented mission, through a commitment to lifelong learning, developing people, inspiring them and unlocking their intrinsic motivation to become masters of what they do.


My journey with SAFe has only just begun but I can already tell that it’s going to have a big impact on the way I approach scaling Agile for larger organisations. The idea that management’s adoption of Lean-Agile values is key to successful implementation is a very important concept and is often overlooked by businesses who are looking to ‘Agilify’ piecemeal, team by team or department by department. Where the real gains of recognising value streams are to be made is at the next level up, and the next level beyond that.

I’m running a workshop on SAFe at Manifesto this coming Tuesday 23rd February, so do get in touch if you’d like to attend.

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