There are all kinds of Agile methods and tools and even more different kinds of Agile teams. Scrum, Kanban, Scrumban… development teams only have to choose their favorite one. But what about the whole company? How do you manage to align each agile team with the overall business strategy and hence to be agile at enterprise scale? With SAFe, you can make it happen.
What is SAFe?
SAFe is an agile management method that emerged a little late compared to its counterparts. This methodology was actually conceptualized and published by Dean Leffingwell – a management consultant and software developer – in 2011. According to the author itself, SAFe can be defined as a business framework, “a body of knowledge integrating skill sets, practices and values that have proven their worth and efficiency, making it possible to scale Agile across the enterprise through Lean, Agile and DevOps approaches.“
In other words, SAFe belongs to the Agile family, such as Scrum and Kanban… the only -but main- difference being that its framework is not restricted to a team’s functioning only; SAFe is rather meant to be part of the whole business strategy. This method considers agility as a business-wide, cross-functional process: that’s why we talk about Agile at Enterprise Scale. Bringing agility to the company through SAFe means setting a common language and common ground, to facilitate the development of software products to be delivered.
In that sense, Enterprise Agile Planning (EAP) tools can help you support this framework and agile methods.
Why should you use SAFe?
Generally, companies tend to go for SAFe when they feel the urge to bring more coherence to the whole business strategy, also to increase flexibility within each agile team… or even among anyone in the company. When you’re managing a huge number of team members, in order to deliver high-quality products to customers, you have to make sure anyone involving in the process is aligned; it means that in big corporations, agility – as a set of values and methods – must be present everywhere.
Even though it sounds great, we must point out that SAFe is not built for any kind of company: it only works if you’re dealing with multiple agile development teams, each composed of at least 50 people.
SAFe vs Scrum: what’s the difference?
SAFe and Scrum are considered to be the most popular agile project management methods. However, SAFe was actually conceived to overcome Scum limitations. Though if we consider Scrum as the “go-to” reference for single-team project management, SAFe is addressing cross-functional project management teams. As a matter of fact, Scrum is suitable for small manageable agile teams. But when the number of those small agile teams expands, the need for a larger framework is undeniable. And it’s where SAFe comes in line.
To say the least, the purpose of implementing SAFe (an agile framework at enterprise scale) is to encourage a profound, in-depth transformation of the organization, to promote agile values (just like Scrum) throughout all company departments, not only in IT or R&D depts (which is the case with Scrum). That way, we ensure that software development projects are truly aligned with and integrated into the corporate strategy, and that customers’ requirements and expectations are met. For short, Scrum enables one team to be agile; SAFe enables a whole enterprise to be agile, by aligning and synchronizing all teams to work towards common goals, with common processes and even SAFe tools for Enterprise Agile Planning.
However, scaling agile means going through a deployment that’s way more complex than Scrum. Let’s go through SAFe fundamentals.
The pillars of SAFe 5.0
« Lean-Agile » mindset can be considered as the psychological basis for SAFe integration into organizations. It is the personal, intellectual and leadership foundation for adopting and implementing SAFe principles and practices. This mindset is made up of several philosophies:
- Lean and Agile
- Systems thinking
Lean Agile approach is the cornerstone of both a new management approach and an improved corporate culture which facilitates business agility.
In addition to SAFe set of principles, there are also 5 core values:
- Alignement: SAFe is based on business goals as to enable all agile teams to face a fast moving market.
- Quality: it has both to be integrated at all levels and to be above agility requirements
- Programme execution
- Direction: Lean-Agile leadership is necessary to lead systems transformation
The framework of SAFe 5.0 (the latest version) is now based on ten principles, instead of nine, which have all evolved from Agile and Lean methodologies and also from performing organizations monitoring and remarks
- #1 Adopt an economic view: to achieve a Lean goal it is essential to understand the economic value of a given mission
- #2 Apply systems thinking: this means to integrate all the different aspects of both a system and its context into the conception, the development, the deployment and also the maintenance of the system itself
- #3 Take variability into account, preserving options: it is important to assume the continuous development variability and flexibility and encourage innovation
- #4 Build incrementally through fast and integrated learning cycles
- #5 Set milestones depending on an objective assessment of work systems
- #6 Visualize and limit WIP (Work In Progress), hence queue lengths, to deliver in the shortest sustainable lead-time
- #7 Define cadence and synchronize with cross-domain planning to ensure a regular rhythm of development process
- #8 Encourage and boost the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers
- #9 Decentralize decision-making to reduce delays, improve your workflow, ensure regular feedback and even improve access to innovation
- #10 Put value at the very heart of the corporate strategy
An agile method based on a three-level structure
SAFe 4.6 version used to divide roles, processes and practices into 4 different categories. Since the release of SAFe 5.0, « Program » and « Team » categories have been recategorized in “Essential”, which means we now only have 3 levels.
This level corresponds to agility implementation in the « top management ». This is the smallest and easiest configuration to apply in order to achieve business agility. Not only is it composed of different roles, events and artifacts, but it also integrates a panel of skills such as organizational agility and continuous learning culture.
As you can guess by its name, which implies a « large » framework, this configuration level defines even more roles, events and artifacts in addition to the ones described in the previous level. Why? Basically, to better meet big organizations’ needs. As well as « Portfolio » level, the « Large solution » encompasses the « Essential » frame and also an additional requirement, the « Enterprise solution delivery », describing how to apply Lean-Agile practices for both the delivery and deployment of more complex applications.
Although this level gathers two former configurations (Programme and Team), it still is the most minimalist one. It encompasses a restricted group of roles, events and artifacts which are essential to continuously deliver business solutions, while keeping on working through an Agile Release Train (learn more about how to speak SAFe).
Agile at scale: more than just SAFe
However, although there is no doubt that SAFe provides good guidelines for business reorganization, shifting the corporate culture and implementing a new set of values is surely the most important part of the change. Reshaping a company is not easy. Putting in place a new framework won’t work as a magical solution for scaling agile. Scaling Agile is not about switching from one framework to another; rather, it’s about being able to face and overcome our own limitations and embracing a new way of working, a new philosophy, to overcome them.
Moreover, implementing SAFe is not as simple as it is with other agile methods. For instance, it’s quick to understand and to start with Scrum or Kanban, or even to mix the two with Scrumban. For SAFe, not only do you have to implement the technical configuration of new tools and processes, but it also implies a significant amount of time to learn and adapt to the way it works. This is why, before getting started with SAFe Agile Framework, you should take time to deeply analyze and identify your needs, resources, and chances of success.
What if it was possible to scale agile without SAFe? In fact, there are other several frameworks you can choose to scale agile: LeSS, Nexus, Scrum@Scale… if you are willing to learn more about deploying agility at enterprise scale, check out the top 5 agile at scale methods.
At the end of the day, SAFe has its downsides too: both its framework complexity and all the different roles and events to take in and then put in place may move you away from the main goal of agility (whether at scale or not), which is focusing on value creation for your customers, being closer to them and hence meeting their expectations.