Agility for the enterprise using the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

The classical paradigm of agile project management for software development reflects on smaller teams of software developers planning and delivering work in iterations. But what about bigger organizations – large enterprises with hundreds, if not thousands of workers in IT?

Introducing agile project management at scale is not as straight-forward as in more consistent environments. Large enterprises consist of complex organizational structures combining multiple teams, entities and responsibilities.

More teams, more problems

When engaging multiple teams to work on the same product, new challenges appear. How do you ensure everyone stays aligned with strategic objectives? How do you guarantee workers putting effort towards work items with the highest priority? How do you encourage teams to take ownership of their results?

At one of our key clients in the financial industry, Projectworx has been using the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) to deal some of this concerns. We’ve been adhering to core principles for the past year, applying scaled, agile project management using a multinational array of virtual teams. Since we’ve been getting some successes, allow us to briefly share what SAFe is, and how it can help your organization to excel in agile project management as well.

Key concepts of the Scaled Agile Framework

The SAFe framework focuses on alignment and collaboration cross-organization. Release planning processes involve the entire team structure in a sort of scrum of scrums, but with centralized leadership deciding what priorities are and what tasks should be tackled first. By using a continuous delivery pipeline, SAFe is especially useful for organizations that want to have a more predictable, stable release schedule while, at the same time, increasing agility.

A multi-levelled approach to agile delivery

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) starts from three organisational levels: the portfolio level, the programme level, and the team level. Let’s discuss the essentials of each level from a top-down perspective, starting with strategic initiatives downwards through the organization:

  • First, we have the Portfolio level. Here, top-level management decides on Investment Themes to acquire funding for the run phase. A Portfolio Backlog is built out of Epics, with each Epic describing an initiative that creates value for the Portfolio.
  • Next, we have the Programme level. Here, the focus is put towards a specific value stream. Epics created at the Portfolio level are broken down into more manageable chunks called Features and Enablers
  • Finally, the Team level. Here, Features and Enablers are divided even further into Stories. Using Scrum, small teams work on these Stories iteratively, in sprints.

All aboard the Agile Release Train

We’ve mentioned earlier that releases are planned similarly to a scrum of scrums. In effect, multiple teams working on the Team level join forces in what SAFe calls a Release Train. The fundamental idea is that an Agile Release Train commits to delivering solutions together – with all teams working within a specific business value stream. The focus here is on more long-term engagements with cross-functional teams, as opposed to traditional project-based collaboration where virtual teams are disbanded after a project has been delivered.

Using Agile Release Trains, SAFe ensures teams deliver end-to-end value by prioritizing work and producing solutions compatible at a higher level than just the team itself. By ensuring all roles are present to deliver requirements, build the software, test the result and exploit the business benefit, decision-making is facilitated and delays are minimized.

Program Increments set cadence

At its core, SAFe is timeboxed in Program Increments: 8 to 12 weeks comprised of multiple development iterations or sprints, followed by a planning iteration. This creates a level of predictability in releases and allows development teams to schedule and deliver work according to a predetermined rhythm.

Programme Increment planning iterations are a fundamental concept in SAFe, where face-to-face meetings between all members of the Agile Release Train facilitate discussion on the business context and vision. This scrum of scrums is headed by a Release Train Engineer.

By working in Program Increments, stakeholders and teams are aligned throughout the delivery of the PI objectives. By involving everyone in planning, it is ensured that demand matches up with capacity and that any dependencies are discovered early on in the process. Finally, the face to face experience allows for increased engagement and builds trust among all attendees.

Prescription medicine in multiple flavours

The Scaled Agile Framework has many upsides, and we have nothing but praise for any initiative that promotes the implements good lean and agile practices for corporate environments. But just like many other methodologies, SAFe isn’t perfect. One of the main criticisms is it’s lack of adaptability to specific organizational contexts. The framework comes in different versions – the all-encompassing Full SAFe and its derivatives Essential SAFe, Portfolio SAFe, Large Solution SAFe – but offers little guidance on optimizing the methodology-organizational fit.