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What is SAFe? The Scaled Agile Framework explained

What is SAFe? The Scaled Agile Framework explained

If your organization is seeking efficient project delivery, decreased time-to-market, and increased stakeholder value, then the Scaled Agile Framework may be right for you.

Larger organizations tend to move more slowly than smaller, more nimble competitors, and are more change-resistant. Much of this can be chalked up to the more deep-rooted cultural issues of being a larger incumbent, and to policy- and process-based barriers, as bureaucracy tends to flourish in broader corporate environments.

Still, many larger organizations seek to capture the benefits of agile development, for which they may not be naturally suited. The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is a powerful tool that can be adopted to help larger organizations overcome issues that negatively impact project success.

SAFe offers large organizations a framework for becoming more agile so that their deliverables can reach the market faster. Here is an overview of SAFe and its benefits and principles, as well as tips on how to effectively implement the framework and its methodologies.

Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) definition

The Scaled Agile Framework encompasses a set of principles, processes and best practices that helps larger organizations adopt agile methodologies, such as Lean and Scrum, to develop and deliver high-quality products and services faster.

SAFe is particularly well-suited for complex projects that involve multiple large teams at the project, program, and portfolio levels. The current version, SAFe 4.6, focuses on five core competencies that help enterprises to “successfully navigate digital disruption and to effectively respond to volatile market conditions, changing customer needs, and emerging technologies,” according to Scaled Agile, the framework’s provider.

These five competencies are:

Lean agile leadership: Leaders should drive and support organizational change and operational effectiveness. Ultimately, it is the leadership team that has the authority to influence individuals and teams to achieve their potential.

Team and technical agility: Teams must possess certain vital skills and adhere to Lean agile practices to create well-designed solutions quickly. Ensuring the technical agility of teams is especially important as they are the ones who ultimately perform the actual work that will be delivered to your customers.

DevOps and release on demand: The establishment of a continual, ongoing pipeline for deliverables is vital for creating value to meet your customers’ needs.

Business solutions and Lean systems engineering: The more organizations facilitate Lean agile practices to drive blueprints, development and deployment, the more innovative they can be.

Lean portfolio management: A sound organizational strategy that includes financial considerations, portfolio management and compliance-related aspects is essential to SAFe success.

Benefits of SAFe

SAFe provides larger organizations with a way to leverage the benefits of Scrum and Kanban in a more scalable way. It enables larger organizations to manage projects with a higher degree of agility, offering a way for stakeholders across multiple groups to get feedback faster. This accelerated feedback loop leads to higher engagement levels, increased productivity and job satisfaction, and improved work quality.

SAFe vs. DAD vs. LeSS

While SAFe focuses on alignment, teamwork, and provisioning across a large number of agile teams, there are other popular frameworks for scaling agile at larger organizations, including Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS) and Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD). It is important to understand each of these frameworks so that your organization can select the best option for your projects.


Practitioners created the Scaled Agile Framework by investing in three main bodies of knowledge: agile software system development, systems thinking and Lean product development. It has been a well-recognized approach to scaling agile practices.

Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD)

DAD is focused on the end-to-end lifecycle of products, from inception to delivery. It is driven by seven principles: delight customers, be awesome, pragmatism, context counts, choice is good, optimize flow, and enterprise awareness.

Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS)

LeSS focuses on getting all teams seeing the entire product rather than taking the view from a “my part” perspective.

For a deeper comparison of these and other scaling agile frameworks, see “SAFe vs. LeSS vs. DAD vs. LeadingAgile.”

SAFe Principles

SAFe is built on nine key principles derived from existing Lean and agile principles:

  1. Take an economic view to allow for optimal lead time while providing the best quality and value.
  2. Implement systems thinking into all facets of development.
  3. Assume market and technical variability by preserving choices and encouraging innovation.
  4. Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles that allow customer feedback and reduce risks.
  5. Base milestones on objective estimation and evaluation of working systems to ensure there is an economic benefit.
  6. Limit the amount of work in progress, decrease batch sizes, and manage queue lengths to enable continuous flow.
  7. Apply cadence (timing), synchronize with cross-domain formation to recognize business opportunities and allow for corrective action as needed.
  8. Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers to reach their unseen potential.
  9. Decentralize decision-making to become more agile and effective.

Implementing SAFe

There are 12 general steps organizations should follow to implement SAFe, although it is important to note that each step should be modified as needed to fit your organizational needs.

Recognize and communicate the need for change

There are many factors that may prompt the need for organizational change, including shifts in industry legislation, best practices, or desired goals. Regardless of the reason, company leadership needs identify and communicate the business reasons for the shift to SAFe, and then mentor and motivate the stakeholders involved and ensure all planned activities are aligned with the vision for change.

Identify and train change agents

Leadership must then identify people from across the organization who can be change agents and facilitate their training as Certified SAFe Program Consultants. In turn, these change agents will be responsible for training business leaders and other stakeholders in SAFe practices and processes.

Get executives and managers on board

Executives also need to be trained so that they can influence employees and model behavior around the same Lean agile views and practices.

Create a Lean agile center of excellence

To ensure the entire organization is committed to Lean agile practices, it is worthwhile to create a center of excellence (CoE). This will help ensure company-wide optimized performance rather than simply practicing agile project management within specific domains.      

Identify value streams and agile release trains (ARTs)

To help drive home the importance of SAFe across the organization, it is vital to identify value streams and ARTs. Value streams refer to the value that a business provides its customers, while ARTs are the agile teams that develop solutions that create value. It is this combination of people, internal processes, and technology that will deliver value to your customers.

Prioritize and roadmap

Once organizational goals have been established, goals must be prioritized and a roadmap must be set out to accomplish the overall vision for you SAFe transformation. Implementation involves first selecting the first value stream, then selecting the first ART, and repeating this process.

Define parameters for each ART launch

To successfully launch each ART, your organization must first define the ART, set deadlines, assemble agile teams, train personnel, and perform readiness assessments. It’s also important to undertake backlog program preparation.

Train teams and ensure everyone understands their role

The individuals that work as a team to develop the business systems as essential to each ART’s success. Everyone on these teams must fully grasp their role and possess the skills needed to do their job successfully.

Execute your ART

Proper execution relies on excelling in each of these SAFe roles:

  • Iteration planning
  • Backlog refinement
  • Daily standups
  • Iteration reviews and system demos
  • Iteration retrospectives
  • Scrum-of-Scrums, PO Sync, and ART Sync

Launch more ARTs and value streams

Launch each subsequent, prioritized ART in the same manner as above, by preparing for launch, training teams, coaching ART execution, and giving each ART the necessary time and effort to succeed without skipping steps or diligence.

Extend to the portfolio level to lead business transformation

With the previous steps now complete, it is time to apply all of them at the

portfolio level to set the overall culture, improve company-wide performance, and increase goal attainment.

Sustain and improve operational effectiveness company-wide.

Sustaining operational effectiveness depends on seeking ways to take advantage of new opportunities and find improvements. In this stage, business leaders should be operating in a continuous Lean agile mindset.

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