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Scaling Agile: All You Need to Know About SAFe®

With technology and market demands evolving at breakneck speed, organizations are under immense pressure to radically transform the way they do business. The Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®) is a popular method to advance digital business transformation. It lays out how to implement agile software development practices at an enterprise scale. Read on to find out more about the core components of the framework, what has changed in the latest version, and how to go about implementing it yourself!

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Staying competitive in today’s digital market all but necessitates agility: the ability to thrive in the digital age by empowering your company to quickly respond to market changes and leverage technological innovation. This applies to both software development and the business as a whole: while Agile comes from the software world, it has now been extended into an organizational philosophy and framework.

Business agility goes beyond isolated groups of people (e.g. the software or product team) doing and being Agile within your company. In order to be considered an Agile business, everyone involved, all the way from IT to finance to support and marketing, needs to embody Lean and Agile practices. Truly agile companies also foster a culture of continuous learning within their organization which is supported by their leadership teams with relevant values and principles.

An Agile transition generally starts with the software team(s) experimenting with Agile methodologies. For enterprise use, there are several frameworks that help scale the Agile approach, and extend it to the entire organization. If you’re looking for more information on scaling Agile methods, then you’ve come to the right place: the SAFe® Agile methodology is one of the structured frameworks that will get your organisation from where it is to where it wants to be. 

The Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®)

The Scaled Agile Framework®, also known as SAFe, is a set of organizational principles, processes, and best practices for implementing Agile methodologies at an enterprise scale. Originally released in 2011 by Dean Leffingwell and Drew Jemilo, the SAFe Agile process provides a comprehensive guideline to the roles, responsibilities, workflow patterns, and values that help companies adopt Agile working methods. 

SAFe covers the application of Agile principles to five main business areas, namely:

  1. Architecture
  2. Integration
  3. Governance
  4. Funding
  5. Roles

These five aspects are assessed and tackled on four different levels within an organization:

  1. Essential SAFe
  2. Large Solution SAFe
  3. Portfolio SAFe
  4. Full SAFe

Scaled Agile for enterprises promotes alignment between various Agile teams in the same organization, in order to foster Agile collaboration and delivery. The foundation for this framework comes from three main schools of thought: systems thinking, Agile software development, and lean methodologies. SAFe also puts a significant emphasis on focusing on customer needs before anything else, leveraging Agile product delivery and innovation to grow, and organizing a parallel operating system for organisations which is based on value streams instead of hierarchical departments.

Related reading:

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®) Architecture

SAFe® 5: what you need to know

SAFe 5 is the latest version of the Scaled Agile Framework which was launched in January 2020. From February 10th, 2021 onwards, this iteration of the framework has been referred to as SAFe 5 for Lean Enterprises. Like its predecessor and similar guidelines such as the scaled scrum framework, SAFe 5 provides a transformation guideline for businesses who want to stay competitive and relevant in the digital age. The framework is largely considered to be the “Operating System for Business Agility” as it helps organizations deliver high-quality products and services faster, better, and more consistently.

Benefits of scaled Agile methods

SAFe 5 follows ten main principles and outlines seven core components that represent the steps businesses need to take to move towards organizational agility. Following these can help organizations of all different sizes and capacities around the world improve their: 

  • Time-to-market
  • Customer satisfaction levels
  • Employee engagement
  • Product quality
  • ROI overall

It can also help to transform and modernize company culture by empowering people to make quick decisions, use resources wisely, and put the right people in charge of the right projects. SAFe Agile project management also emphasizes that it’s not down to the framework to realize a successful transformation: it’s the organization’s people, particularly transformational leaders, who can make it happen by leading by example.

The 10 basic principles of SAFe® 5

SAFe 5 is based on ten fundamental principles which come from Agile and Lean development concepts. These principles provide guidance to organizations working on improving their overall business agility, and can be seen throughout the Agile at scale frameworks:

  1. Take an economic view
  2. Apply systems thinking
  3. Assume variability; preserve options
  4. Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles
  5. Base milestones on the objective evaluation of working systems
  6. Visualize and limit WIP, reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths
  7. Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning
  8. Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers
  9. Decentralize decision-making
  10. Organize around value

Learn more:

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®) in a Nutshell

What’s new in SAFe® 5

SAFe 5 introduces an improved look and feel for the framework overview focusing on Business Agility, as well as a collection of other changes: 

  • Two of the competencies have been renamed: Business Solutions and Lean System Engineering is now ‘Enterprise Solution Delivery’, while DevOps and Release on Demand became ‘Agile Product Delivery’
  • Two completely new competencies were introduced: Organizational Agility and Continuous Learning Culture
  • New OKRs (objectives and key results) to measure and assess Business Agility have been added
  • Program and Team levels have been merged into one ‘Essential’ category
  • Customer centricity has been put in the middle of the framework as a focal point
  • The Portfolio Vision TOWS was added to focus on strategies for future improvement.

Related reading:

Your Roadmap for the Agile Scaling Framework Landscape

7 core components of the Scaled Agile Framework

As the Scaled Agile Framework for enterprise, SAFe features 7 core competencies that represent the steps your business needs to take in order to achieve organizational agility:

  • Team and technical agility

In order to achieve business-wide agility, Agile development practices must be firmly in place at the team level. This competency describes those Lean-Agile ways of working and skills which characterize Agile teams. Using them should lead to higher quality products, more customer satisfaction, increased productivity, and quicker delivery times.

  • Agile product delivery

This refers to a customer-focused approach to consistently delivering high-quality services and products to clients. Agile product delivery creates a sustainable market and allows the organization to leverage innovative solutions to enchant customers and keep them coming back for more.

  • Enterprise solution delivery

Enterprise systems are incredibly complex; many have been around for decades and require a huge number of resources to operate. This competency outlines how to effectively apply Lean-Agile practices on an enterprise level for large-scale solutions like sophisticated networks and software applications.

  • Lean portfolio management

Until this stage, the competencies focus on the practical and technical aspects of applying Lean-Agile principles to business operations. This competency focuses on the why and the how, specifically in relation to strategy, funding, and governance. 

  • Organizational agility

Pre-existing hierarchical systems struggle to respond to changes in the market and technological disruption. This competency outlines how businesses can leverage innovation, remain competitive, and take advantage of new opportunities in a structured and strategic way.

  • Continuous learning culture

This competency is new to SAFe 5 and describes a set of values and practices which promote continuous learning for the enterprise as a whole. Since there is no ‘final state’ when it comes to business agility, harnessing a continuous learning mindset is incredibly important, as it helps increase consistent improvements and innovations across the board.

  • Lean-Agile Leadership

Also new to SAFe 5, this is where the framework recognizes the importance of the people involved in the journey towards business agility. Lean-Agile leaders empower organizational change by supporting individuals and teams with the resources, practices, and values that set them up for success.

Learn more:

Scaling Agile in Large Enterprises: LeSS, DAD or SAFe®?

Challenges of the Scaled Agile Framework

Many companies find that the hardest part of trying to achieve business agility and scale Agile is creating a culture and mindset shift as well as transforming the way work management runs.

If you’re on the hunt for practical tips and tricks for scaling Agile at an enterprise level, check out our eBook on the topic here:

Scaled Agile Framework: the eBook

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