When it comes to managing teams and projects effectively, managers can choose from many project management frameworks and methodologies.
Various factors — such as the type and size of projects and programs, stakeholder expectations on execution and delivery, and the amount of time your team has and needs to complete each task — combine to determine the best framework for achieving your organization’s goals and delivering optimal results consistently.
The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is an Agile project management framework focused on flexibility, continuous iteration and improvement, and cross-functional collaboration between teams and stakeholders.
It is especially useful for large-scale enterprise teams that work on extensive, complex, long-term projects, as it helps them stay on track and meet acceptable standards throughout every stage of the project.
In this article, we discuss all you need to know about SAFe: what it is, its core principles, and its four main levels. We’ll also share how to determine if SAFe is right for your company and when best to use the framework.
What is the Scaled Agile Framework?
The Scaled Agile Framework is an Agile framework methodology designed to manage and execute large, complex projects. It is especially useful in software development and enterprise product management as these teams tackle projects and programs on extended timelines with continuous improvements, upgrades, and iterations released and delivered to customers over time.
Think of your favorite mobile apps (e.g., Instagram or Spotify) or enterprise products (e.g., enterprise resource planning systems SAP and Oracle). The development teams behind these products most likely work with a tailored version of SAFe to iterate and deliver improved customer experiences, respond to product support requests, and keep up with their established product roadmaps.
SAFe Agile is one of the best project management approaches for large and fast organizations to scale Agile development practices and cater to expansive teams and projects without breaking the business workflows or facing avoidable communication issues. SAFe streamlines development projects with many moving parts, enhancing coordination and collaboration across teams and stakeholders.
What is the foundation of SAFe?
The Scaled Agile Framework was developed by Dean Leffingwell in the early 2000s to help organizations adopt Agile practices and principles on a large scale.
Before the development of SAFe, large teams and enterprises struggled to apply Agile practices effectively. Leffingwell recognized the need for a framework that could help organizations scale Agile practices in a way that was flexible and aligned with their needs and size.
SAFe is heavily based on Agile project management principles that promote flexibility, iteration, and collaboration. It incorporates elements of other Agile frameworks — including Lean product development, Scrum, and Kanban — to optimize project execution efficiency, streamline processes and workflows, and reduce waste in big-sized teams.
This includes typical Agile roles such as Product Manager, Scrum Master, and Development Team Member. It also includes standard Agile recurring events such as sprint planning, reviews, and retrospectives.
However, it is flexible and can be tailored to fit each organization’s needs. It’s important to note that SAFe also integrates elements of traditional project management approaches, such as systems thinking and value-driven development.
SAFE has been refined and updated over the years, with input from many organizations and experts in the field. Today, it is recognized as one of the most effective frameworks for scaling Agile practices and principles and has been adopted by many enterprise teams and organizations across the world.
What are the principles of SAFe?
Let’s take a look at the core principles of the Scaled Agile Framework:
- Lean-Agile mindset: A Lean-Agile mindset is central to SAFe Agile. It supports development teams in creating a culture of customer focus, continuous improvement, and collaboration.
- Customer focus: The Lean-Agile mindset places the customer at the center of everything and prioritizes their needs and expectations. This helps organizations deliver solutions that meet the needs of their customers and stakeholders.
- Continuous improvement: The Lean-Agile mindset encourages organizations to continuously evaluate and improve their processes and practices. This helps organizations respond to changing customer needs and expectations and stay ahead of the competition.
- Collaboration: The Lean-Agile mindset emphasizes collaboration and teamwork across all levels of the organization. This helps organizations align their efforts and deliver solutions more efficiently and effectively.
- Economic view: SAFe emphasizes delivering outcomes early and often to reduce delays, cut costs, and improve the organization’s financials.
- Systems thinking: SAFe Agile encourages systems thinking, a way of considering an organization as a system and viewing its processes and practices as interdependent and interconnected. This helps organizations understand the relationships between different parts of the system and make informed decisions that support its overall goals. Systems thinking makes it clear how various components of a system work together and how changes in one part of the system may affect other parts.
- Manage variability: Instead of avoiding variability or the need for adjustments in a project or product that are sure to come, SAFe encourages development teams to manage them effectively through proactive set-based designs and multiple options that can be narrowed down as teams move toward project or product completion.
- Incremental building: SAFe recommends building project solutions incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles, whereby each one improves on the previous one.
- Milestones based on evaluating working systems: SAFe encourages using working systems as models to track progress and gather stakeholder input throughout the development process, as this helps to make better decisions and plan realistic milestones. This allows teams to plan better and adjust to changing requirements and stakeholder expectations.
- Work in progress (WIP) limits: SAFe recommends visualizing and limiting work in progress, reducing batch sizes, and managing task queue lengths to quicken and manage the flow of work until a project or product is completed.
- Synchronized cadence: SAFe Agile uses a consistent rhythm of work called cadence, which includes standard Agile events such as sprint planning, sprint review, and sprint retrospective. These events are scheduled and held at the start and end of every sprint or project iteration to ensure teams are aligned and collaborating effectively.
- Intrinsic motivation: SAFe encourages leaders to motivate knowledge workers through intrinsically motivating means, such as offering adequate compensation, constructive feedback, and autonomy within the parameters of the project or product delivery requirements.
- Decentralized decision-making: SAFe encourages leaders to focus on more strategic decision-making and gives room for team members to self-organize and make time-critical decisions that keep the project moving forward.
- Value-based organization: SAFe outlines systems and processes to focus on and deliver customer value quickly and react to their changing needs and requests.
- Flow: SAFe minimizes workflow bottlenecks and optimizes efficiency to speed up value delivery. This is done using Agile practices such as Kanban templates and boards and limiting work in progress to maintain a consistent pace and progress toward completion.
- Team and technical agility: SAFe encourages teams to be cross-functional, self-organizing, and able to work with autonomy to make quick and impactful decisions without waiting on leadership. Technical agility is promoted to enable teams to deliver working solutions incrementally, with a focus on quality and fast feedback loops.
- Built-in quality: The SAFe framework emphasizes that quality assessments and reviews should be built into the execution and development process rather than added as a separate step at the end. This includes practices such as continuous integration, test-driven development, and pair programming.
- Program Increment (PI) planning: SAFe uses a time-boxed planning event called Program Increment (PI) planning, where the entire development team, stakeholders, and customers come together to plan the next increment of work. This event helps align the team’s efforts and ensure everyone is working toward the same goals.
What are the four levels of SAFe?
The Scaled Agile Framework is organized into four levels. Each level presents a different perspective and focus. Teams work together at different levels to create and deliver customer value and achieve the organization’s goals.
The four levels of SAFe, used as needed, provide a comprehensive, scalable framework for managing complex projects and delivering value across large teams. They are:
1. Essential SAFe
Essential SAFe is the most basic level of SAFe and is suitable for organizations that want to adopt Agile principles and practices but do not require the full scope of SAFe. Essential SAFe includes only the core elements of SAFe, such as Agile teams, iterations, and program backlogs, and is suitable for organizations with a maximum of three Agile teams.
For example, a small software development consultancy with a few dedicated teams and a limited number of projects may get the most benefits using Essential SAFe to introduce Agile practices firm-wide and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their delivery process.
2. Large Solution SAFe
Large Solution SAFe is suitable for teams with extensive and complex projects requiring coordination across teams and stakeholders. It includes additional elements such as value streams, solution backlogs, and architectural runways. Large Solution SAFe works best for organizations with up to 10 Agile teams.
An example could be a fast-growing engineering firm with multiple departments and projects. Such a company may choose Large Solution SAFe to manage and align its teams and projects and ensure that work is delivered efficiently, effectively, and on time.
3. Portfolio SAFe
The Portfolio SAFe level focuses on aligning the strategy and investment decisions of the organization with its business goals. It is responsible for defining the portfolio backlog and ensuring that the right projects are selected and prioritized.
The Portfolio SAFe level includes additional elements such as portfolio backlogs, portfolio Kanban, and program portfolio management. It is suitable for organizations that manage multiple programs and projects simultaneously.
For example, a large, diversified company with multiple business units and investment portfolios might choose Portfolio SAFe to keep its investments and strategies aligned with the business goals while ensuring its portfolios are delivering continuous improvement and value to customers and stakeholders.
4. Full SAFe
Full SAFe is the most comprehensive level. It is best for organizations working on complex programs, portfolios, and value streams across multiple teams and divisions. It includes all the elements of the Essential SAFe, Large Solution SAFe, and Portfolio SAFe levels.
An excellent example is a large, multinational organization with multiple departments, divisions, products, and portfolios. Full SAFe allows them to produce, iterate, and deliver increased customer and stakeholder value consistently.
Managers decide what level of SAFe is most beneficial for their teams and organizations depending on the size, complexity, and goals of the organization and its projects, both at the team and the organization-wide level. Scaling teams can choose the level of SAFe that best fits their needs and move to a higher level as their needs evolve.
Benefits of SAFe
There are many benefits to using the Scaled Agile Framework. Some of these are:
- Enhanced collaboration and teamwork: SAFe promotes cross-functional teamwork and collaboration between development teams and stakeholders, leading to better communication, employee engagement, and results.
- Improved efficiency and productivity: SAFe helps to create structure and processes for development teams to work on the most important and urgent tasks without communication issues. This helps streamline work, feedback, and progress tracking, improving efficiency and productivity.
- Faster time to market: SAFe helps product teams quickly respond to changing customer needs and market conditions, enabling them to bring new features and functionalities to market faster than competitors.
- Increased innovation and competitiveness: SAFe encourages continuous improvement, experimentation, and innovation, helping organizations stay ahead of the curve and remain competitive in their respective markets.
- Better alignment with business goals and objectives: SAFe aligns the activities of development teams with the broader goals and objectives of the organization, ensuring that available resources are invested in the right programs and delivering the most value to stakeholders.
Is SAFe right for your company?
So far, we have established that the Scaled Agile Framework is best for large-sized enterprise organizations running multiple projects and programs simultaneously. Other criteria to determine if SAFe is right for your organization include:
- Complex projects: If your organization’s projects are extensive, complex, and typically time-intensive, SAFe is an excellent framework to help your teams deliver high-quality outcomes effectively and consistently.
- Multi-team projects: If your company often works on multi-team projects with both internal and external collaborators and stakeholders, SAFe may be a good fit. SAFe helps coordinate teams working on different components of a product or solution.
- Enterprise-level projects: SAFe scales Agile development practices to enterprise-level projects. It is designed to meet the needs of large organizations.
- Agile adoption: If your company is looking to adopt Agile development practices, SAFe provides a structured approach for scaling Agile and incorporating elements of Lean product development.
- Alignment and collaboration: SAFe provides a framework for aligning goals and strategies across the entire organization and ensuring everyone is working towards the same goals. If your teams need alignment and collaboration, SAFe may be the right choice.
It is essential to clarify that SAFe may be the wrong fit for some big organizations or projects. If your company works on small, simple projects with a single team, SAFe may be too bulky to adopt. A more lightweight Agile framework such as Scrum would be a better option.
SAFe may also not be suitable for companies that have:
- Rigid hierarchical structures: SAFe is designed to promote collaboration and alignment across teams and departments. However, if a company has a rigid hierarchical structure, SAFe may not be an effective strategy for breaking down silos and encouraging collaboration.
- Limited resources: SAFe requires a significant investment of time, money, and resources to implement successfully. If a company has limited resources, it may not be able to dedicate the necessary resources to implement SAFe fully.
- A strong commitment to traditional project management methods: SAFe is based on Agile development practices, which can be very different from traditional project management methods such as Waterfall. If a company is committed to traditional project management methods, it may not be receptive to the changes required by SAFe.
- A highly regulated environment: SAFe is designed to promote flexibility and adaptability. If a company operates in a highly regulated environment, it may not be able to take advantage of the benefits of SAFe.
Overall, assessing the specific needs and constraints of a company and its projects is vital before deciding whether SAFe is the right fit. A different Agile framework or a hybrid approach may be more suitable for your business.
When should you use SAFe?
The choice between the Scaled Agile Framework and other Agile methodologies — such as Scrum, Kanban, Lean, Scrumban, etc. — depends on the specific needs, requirements, and constraints of your projects, programs, and entire organization.
Every methodology has strengths and weaknesses, so organizations should carefully evaluate their needs and choose the best method for their specific requirements. Let’s look at the most common Agile methods compared to SAFe.
Scrum is suitable for complex, rapidly changing projects involving many stakeholders. It provides a structured approach based on iterative and incremental development. This methodology works best for small to medium-sized projects with a small number of team members.
For example, a software development project with a team of five to 10 developers could use Scrum to manage their work and ensure they deliver high-quality products.
Kanban is a visual Agile project management method that uses cards and boards to visualize the flow of work for a project to be completed. It is more suited to projects with a high degree of uncertainty and shorter deadlines.
For example, a marketing team working on a major advertising campaign could use Kanban to ensure they meet deadlines and deliver expected ROI.
The Lean-Agile methodology focuses on continuous improvement and delivering value to customers. This methodology emphasizes reducing waste and improving efficiency.
A manufacturing company could use Lean to optimize its production process and improve its bottom line.
Scrumban is a hybrid of Scrum and Kanban that combines the best elements of both methodologies. It is recommended for projects that require a high degree of flexibility.
For example, a software development team working on a project with many stakeholders and rapid changes could use Scrumban to manage their work effectively.
Comparison to SAFe
SAFe combines the best of these methodologies to enable quick and efficient scaling of foundational Agile principles to support big, complex projects in enterprise-sized organizations. The framework is suitable for organizations with multiple teams working on multiple projects simultaneously.
For example, a large enterprise organization with hundreds of team members contributing to the same projects could use SAFe to coordinate efforts and ensure everyone is aligned with the company’s overarching goals and objectives.
Implement SAFe in your organization with Wrike
Implementing the Scaled Agile Framework in your organization doesn’t have to be complicated. If you already work with solid project management practices — Agile or traditional — you can identify areas where you need to optimize efficiency and support your teams to collaborate and iterate faster without compromising on the output quality.
Modern project management software platforms such as Wrike provide the infrastructure to create streamlined workflows and better team communication and collaboration practices. They also offer Agile templates to help save time and codify your business processes and workflows for easy replication and scaling across teams, regardless of size.
Are you an enterprise project or product manager looking to optimize your processes and deliver more consistent, high-quality outcomes for customers and stakeholders? Implement SAFe today with the help of Wrike’s powerful work management solution — get started with a free two-week trial.