Understanding the Scaled Agile Framework: Principles, Benefits, and More

You are no doubt familiar with agile—the iterative approach to software development and project management. It employs a set of practices and methods that deliver better value to customers by releasing software in small, consumable increments.

As is the case with many other software development methods available today, agile has its share of tools and resources designed to help developers get the most out of it. This article focuses on the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), its history, its core principles, why and when you should use it, and its benefits.

When you finish, you will have a greater understanding of the scaled agile framework and a better idea of how to implement it in your software development environment.

Let’s begin with some basics.

What is a Scaled Agile Framework?

The scaled agile framework alternately referred to as SAFe, is a set of workflow and organizational patterns designed to implement agile practices on an enterprise scale. The structure consists of a body of knowledge that encompasses structured guidance on responsibilities and roles, how to plan and manage work, and upholding appropriate values.

Formed around three bodies of knowledge (agile software development, systems thinking, and lean product development), SAFe promotes alignment, collaboration, and delivery across multiple agile teams.

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A History of the Scaled Agile Framework

SAFe’s first version was developed in the field and released in 2011—subsequently elaborated upon further by a veteran software professional and methodologist Dean Leffingwell.

SAFEe began as “The Agile Enterprise Big Picture,” known as SAFe 1.0, then evolved in the ensuing nine years through versions 2.0, 3.0, LSE, 4.0, 4.5, and 4.6, until finally, we arrive at the present day, and SAFe 5.0.

Why Should We Use a Scaled Agile Framework?

Although SAFe brings a lot of advantages to the table (and we’ll cover them later!), there is a right time and place for using the framework. Perhaps instead of asking why we should use a SAFe framework, we should ask, “When should we use a scaled agile framework?”

Here are the situations when you should use a scaled agile framework:

  • When teams need or want to work independently
  • When a team intends to implement agile across more extensive multi-team portfolios and programs consistently
  • When multiple teams are running their agile implementation brand, and they are regularly encountering failures, delays, and obstacles
  • When the project manager wants to scale agile across the organization but is uncertain what new roles need to be created, what existing roles need to change, and how those changes should look
  • When you have tried to implement agile across your organization, but you’re experiencing difficulties in achieving a consistent, uniform strategy across the range of business departments
  • When an organization takes note of its competitors’ success with SAFe and wants to recreate that success in their DevOps department

Here is a real-life case of how one famous company uses the agile framework for maximum results.

Scaled Agile Framework Core Principles

The scaled agile framework is built on nine core principles, taken from existing agile and lean principles. They are:

  • Take an economic view (e.g., understand financial implications of delays, operating within small budgets, understanding economic trade-offs) to give the team optimal lead time while providing the best product development flow
  • Use the framework to implement systems thinking into three key areas: the solution (e.g., the deliverable product), value streams, and the enterprise building the system
  • Assume market and technical variability, thereby preserving options and encouraging innovation
  • Build incrementally using fast, integrated learning cycles and milestones, incorporates customer feedback and reduces risks
  • Base your project’s milestones on objective estimation and the evaluation of actual working systems
  • Visualize and limit the quantity of work in progress (WIP), reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths to create a continuous flow. Limit the amount of overlapping work and the complexity of each item
  • Apply cadence (timing) and synchronize with cross-domain planning. This principle fosters collaboration, reduces complexity, enforces quality, and helps the team react better to uncertainty
  • Unlock the intrinsic motivation and unleash the potential of knowledge workers by having leaders behave more like coaches, rather than as command-and-control bosses
  • Decentralize the decision-making process, giving teams more autonomy. This freedom, in turn, helps the teams become more agile and effective by making informed choices

Differences Between SAFe and Other Agile Practices

SAFe isn’t the only agile practice available to developers. There are other Agile practices out there, and each one offers benefits. Let’s check out a few and see how they stack up against SAFe.

SAFe versus DAD. Disciplined agile delivery (DAD) emphasizes a product’s end-to-end lifecycle, and is guided by these seven principles:

o   Delight customers

o   Be awesome

o   Pragmatism

o   Context counts

o   Choice is good

o   Optimize workflow

o   Enterprise awareness

DAD focuses on people first and is the first level of disciplined agile, a practice that provides lightweight, agile governance. It lets organizations define the agile path that works best for them.

  • SAFe versus Large Scale Scrum. Large scale scrum (LeSS) is best suited for teams that have already mastered scrum and are comfortable with doing away with the management paradigm completely. LeSS provides a minimalist approach to roles, artifacts, and structure. SAFe offers four configurations to handle larger teams, and LeSS offers only two: LeSS for two to eight teams, and LeSS Huge for over eight teams
  • SAFe versus Scrum@Scale. Scrum@Scale creates a network of scrum teams using scale-free architecture, which means that essential scrum events and roles are scaled linearly—without bringing in new process dynamics. In short, everyone is part of an interchangeable scrum team
  • SAFe versus Spotify. Spotify’s model is a people-driven set of autonomous practices used to coordinate agile teams. It emphasizes people into “squads”—analogous to scrum teams—that are cross-functional and self-organizing, which are then grouped into larger units called “tribes.” Spotify works best with organizations that embrace a culture that emphasizes allowing for mistakes, learning, and taking controlled risks

Levels of a Scaled Agile Framework

Before we talk about levels, there are two different methods of SAFe implementation:

  • SAFe 3.0
  • SAFe 4.0
  • SAFe 5.0

SAFe 3.0 implementation has three levels: Portfolio, Program, and Team, and generally used for smaller deployments with 100 or fewer people, and programs that don’t need significant collaboration.

SAFe 4.0 implementation has four levels: Portfolio, Value Stream, Program, and Team. Level four covers solutions that usually require hundreds of users to develop, deploy, and maintain software.

SAFe 5.0 implementation introduces a new level—Essential SAFe, which is a combination of Team and Program levels.

  • Team Level. SAFe teams are self-organizing, self-managing, cross-functional units. They define, build, and test stories taken from the Team Backlog. Every team is part of an Agile Release Train (ART)
  • Program Level. SAFe’s value stream is delivered by long-lived Agile Release Trains (ART) at the program level. ART consists of between five and 12 agile teams, encompassing all the infrastructure and roles needed to produce thoroughly tested, functioning, system-level software. This level incorporates a prioritized list of features, overseen by a product or program manager who has authority over content
  • Portfolio Level. Portfolio is SAFE’s highest level, providing the basic building blocks for organizing lean-agile enterprise value flow utilizing one or more value streams. Portfolio develops systems and solutions described in strategic terms and themes while providing basic budgeting and governance mechanisms
  • Value Stream Level. The value stream level is new for SAFe 4.0 and is considered optional. It’s geared towards large, independent enterprises that have Suppliers and complex solutions, and face the most substantial system challenges. It supports the synchronization of multiple suppliers and ARTs, handling thousands of potential practitioners if needed
Learn all about the Scaled Agile Framework, its application, configuration, and more with the Leading SAFe 5 Agilist Certification Training. Enroll now

Benefits of a Scaled Agile Framework

SAFe offers a lot of advantages, including:

  • Helps cross-functional teams collaborate more efficiently
  • Enables organizations to gain greater transparency, allowing stakeholders in multiple groups to acquire feedback faster
  • Aligns the project’s aspects with the organization’s broader business goals
  • Helps larger businesses to leverage Scrum and Kanban benefits in a more scalable way
  • Drives a faster time to market.

In the interests of full disclosure, SAFe isn’t perfect. Its weaknesses include:

  • Since it requires significant process definition and up-front planning, some don’t consider SAFe a purely agile framework
  • It takes more of a top-down approach as opposed to a team-based approach
  • SAFe’s emphasis on the big picture often results in longer planning cycles more fixed roles in development cycles

Do You Want to Get Certified in SAFe?

Considering SAFe’s popularity, team leaders should be well-versed in implementing and using the framework. Certification shows organizations that you have verified SAFe qualifications, a significant advantage when a company is looking for an agile team leader or agile coach position.

Simplilearn offers a Leading SAFe 5 Agilist certification training course that teaches you the Lean-Agile principles and practices of SAFe. It’s a two-day course that helps you to understand the Lean-Agile mindset, execute with Agile Release Trains, build an Agile Portfolio, and learn how to lead a Lean-Agile transformation in any organization.

Agile coaches in the US earn an annual average of $97,319—going as high as $132,000. Furthermore, agile is considered the new norm, so demand is high and will stay that way for the foreseeable future. So, if you’re looking for a secure career with robust earning power, then consider becoming an agile coach. Simplilearn can help you get that career off the ground, so check it out today!

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