One challenge some organisations face with establishing Agile Project Management or development practices is that team to team or project to project there can be differences in approach. This is not necessarily a bad thing but can cause some problems around consistency of processes, which in turn impedes governance as well as continuous improvement through adoption of best practice universally.

Perhaps the biggest challenge however is that there could be a gap between business strategic planning (long term) and team planning (short term). Connecting strategic goals to project outcomes can prove difficult (especially if the strategic goals change) as can the regular monitoring of the benefits projects deliver to corporate Key Performance Indicators.

Definition: What is Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)?
Definition of Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

SAFe provides a publicly available framework of processes and enterprise practices that can be applied from the top of the organisation to the team level, which solves many of these problems. Importantly, SAFe supports scalability and rapid adoption of Agile practices and mitigates the risk that certain practices lose integrity as they are customised per project. If your organisation does not have a Project Portfolio Management (PPM) framework, SAFe can provide an easy to adopt approach which you can implement easily in Agile tools such as Jira. It also introduces the concept of Lean Portfolio Management to connect strategy to execution and control cost as well as Value Streams to support continuous delivery of value.

A way to think of a PPM hierarchy using SAFe is:

  • Portfolio
  • Value Stream and Agile Release Trains
  • Program (time boxed into Program Increments (PI))
  • Teams

Each level will manage a prioritised Backlog, which will inform the lower levels of the hierarchy. Given SAFe will also establish consistent practices, it also enables the rolling up of data to continuously track and manage value realisation and outcomes as well as support organisational ‘pivots’ should external factors force a change.

Key differences of SAFe to a traditional

For organisations managing a Portfolio of mostly Waterfall Projects, SAFe does provide a significant contrast to a traditional approach. Some key examples are:

Demand Management

  • This is one of the most critical parts of any PPM framework and needs careful consideration.
  • Ideally all Portfolios have it however in a traditional approach it is difficult to prioritise projects and business cases tend to get approved based on relationships or best sales pitch. Given the difficulty in prioritisation, more projects get accepted than the organisation has the capacity to manage, which adds risk.
  • SAFe Demand Management is based on continuous flow of value and has short cycle review periods for control and prioritisation, which can overcome the issues related to overload.

Detailed Project Plan

  • Traditional Project Plans and the investment Business case can span multiple years with a higher risk planning assumptions are incorrect the longer the timeline.
  • The Lean-Agile approach establishes lightweight Epic-only business cases which make them easier to control and to provide greater certainty that what the business case promises will be delivered.

Waterfall milestones

  • Not a bad thing at all to have milestones in a waterfall plan however they can be subjective or different project to project. As a result portfolio reporting can contain hundreds of milestones given they are unique to each project.
  • The alternative approach can create standardised, objective and fact-based milestones which can easily be managed within an Agile Project Management tool.

Using SAFe

SAFe is one of many frameworks out there to support a Lean Agile approach and it may suit some organisations over others. The benefit of SAFe is that most of the information needed to get started is freely available and continuously adapted to remain current. Another benefit is there is an accreditation framework, which can support adoption and capability for key Project roles all the way up to Portfolio level. Ultimately it will be up to you as to what suits you best and the makeup of your Project Portfolio.

Scaled Agile Framework FAQs

What does SAFe mean?

SAFe in project management is an acronym for Scaled Agile Framework.

What is a Scaled Agile Framework?

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is a set of integrated principles, workflows, knowledge (or competency areas) and practices that enable organizations to adopt Agile at scale.

What are the three levels of the Scaled Agile Framework?

A way to think of a PPM hierarchy using SAFe is:

  1. Portfolio
  2. Program (time boxed into Program Increments)
  3. Teams

Each level will manage a prioritised Backlog, which will inform the lower levels of the hierarchy.