What Is the SAFe Agile Framework (Scaled Agile Framework)?

Large software development organizations often struggle to adopt and use Agile methodologies successfully. Why? Because when you have more employees, teams and complex application integrations, it is more likely that changes or tasks fall through the cracks.

The three most popular Agile methods, Scrum, Kanban, and Scrumban, can help teams stay on top of potential issues, but these are often difficult to scale across organizations. As brands have become more reliant on high-functioning software, frameworks for scaling Agile started to emerge over the last decade-plus to help organizations release software quickly and effectively.

In 2011, Dean Leffingwell, author of the book Agile Software Requirements, created the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). The goal of the SAFe Agile framework is to leverage the methodologies of Lean, Kanban, Scrum, Scrumban and Extreme Programming, but apply them across the organization — not to the individual team. Today, Scaled Agile, Inc., which owns and maintains SAFe, boasts more than one million practitioners in the Scaled Agile community, applying its tenets to thousands of organizations around the world.

As with any way of working, the SAFe Agile framework might be a great fit for some large-scale organizations, and not a fit for others. So, what is SAFe, and how do organizations follow it? In this blog, we’ll discuss SAFe core values and principles, and its advantages and disadvantages.

What is SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework)?

To put it simply, SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) is scalable Agile. SAFe essentially takes Agile and alters it, with the intention of making it work better for large-scale companies with massive, integrated applications that require multiple teams to develop and maintain.

The SAFe Agile framework promotes task alignment, team collaboration and delivery across a large number of connected Agile teams. As software development organizations grow, SAFe helps Agile scale and grow with them.

SAFe is one of a number of scaled Agile frameworks available to enterprises today, and arguably the most popular. Other scaled Agile frameworks include:

  • Large Scale Scrum (LeSS)

  • Scrum@Scale (SaS)

  • Disciplined Agile (DA)

  • Enterprise Kanban

SAFe core values

The SAFe core values provide guidance for organizations to follow for managing Agile teams at scale. The SAFe Agile framework also aids in effective DevOps team management, testing and delivery expectations.

SAFe core values include:

  • alignment

  • built-in quality

  • transparency

  • program execution

Alignment. Planning is required at all levels with specific goals. The organization broadly shares all planning and goal information. Alignment ensures all teams, roles and managers stay synchronized as the development process moves toward release.

Built-in quality. Agility never sacrifices application quality in SAFe. Quality and testing are part of all tasks, including architecture, design, code, system and release. QA is not a staged or rushed event that occurs at the last minute. Instead, SAFe uses continuous testing methodologies consistent with both DevOps and QAOps.

Transparency. The organization engages in trust-building behaviors from planning through testing to find issues sooner. All team members have real-time visibility into tasks and management decisions.

Program execution. This SAFe core value means delivering high-quality, working software and business value at a regular, planned cadence.

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SAFe principles

Along with Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) core values, the framework operates on nine shared SAFe principles. The SAFe principles exist to improve the organization as a whole by opening and inspiring leadership across functional and organizational boundaries. Essentially, the nine SAFe principles encourage every team member and every role to provide leadership and share ideas that contribute to business growth and success.

These are the SAFe principles:

  • Use an economic view

  • Apply a systems way of thinking

  • Assume variability and preserve options

  • Build incrementally with fast and integrated learning cycles

  • Base milestones on the objective evaluation of a working product

  • Limit WIP, reduce release sizes and manage iteration lengths

  • Use cadence and synchronize teams with cross-domain planning

  • Leverage the intrinsic motivation and talent of knowledge workers

  • Decentralize decision-making across the organization

While each of these SAFe principles is nuanced and sometimes difficult to implement in a real-world setting, they ultimately purport to inspire workers and make them more effective. Let’s briefly define each of these individual SAFe principles.

Use an economic view. Everyone plans and makes decisions with an understanding of the economic impact on the business.

Apply a systems way of thinking. Systems thinking means understanding how each person’s work affects the big picture for the company. Use systems thinking when designing or building a solution and include all value streams.

Assume variability and preserve options. Use set-based design and retain multiple versions of design options and requirements. Understanding these options enables the team to find the best approach as they progress through the development process.

Build incrementally with fast and integrated learning cycles. Teams plan and determine options for managing integration points within the system.

Base milestones on the objective evaluation of a working product. Evaluate the actual working feature or system, and use that information to guide your decisions. Even a demo of features and functionality supports better decision-making than open discussion, subjective analysis and theories.

Limit WIP, reduce release sizes, and manage iteration lengths. Limiting work in progress (WIP) keeps tasks moving across the board with a consistent flow, allowing for better visualization of progress.

Use cadence and synchronize teams with cross-domain planning. Keep teams in sync and operating on a standard cadence for greater team productivity.

Leverage the intrinsic motivation and talent of knowledge workers. Unleash the potential of each team member to lead and make credible decisions. Empower leaders to coach and serve the team rather than using a command-and-control management style.

Decentralize decision-making across the organization. Give teams the autonomy to collaborate and make decisions. This way helps work get done rather than waiting on management decisions.

Why is the SAFe Agile Framework useful?

The Scaled Agile Framework provides an approach for large organizations attempting to coordinate and manage multiple teams in an Agile way. The SAFe Agile framework, and other Agile scaling frameworks, helps apply the tenets of the methodology for those teams operating on complex, integrated applications, or parts of applications.

The SAFe Agile framework is also designed to manage DevOps and QAOps teams who typically use continuous integration and deployment methods.

Other Agile methodologies, like Scrum, are difficult to manage for large organizations with multiple teams. Essentially, the SAFe Agile framework allows for the use of these methodologies in an enterprise business setting. Keeping dozens of teams and hundreds of team members on the same page is no easy task. The SAFe Agile framework provides the structure and prescriptive advice to better manage larger teams within these enterprise-sized organizations.

Advantages of the SAFe Agile framework

When done right, large-scale organizations can realize several Scaled Agile Framework benefits. The Scaled Agile community continues to grow each year as organizations around the world adopt SAFe Agile framework practices, a testament to its effectiveness. Advantages of the SAFe Agile framework include:

  • Consistency of functionality and UX

  • Predictability of release schedules

  • Empowered team members

One major SAFe advantage is it better ensures the released product works as expected across integration points, including back-end connections and built-in third-party software. The released product not only functions as a whole but also gains consistency in its look and feel, as if it was all built by the same team rather than by different teams. In an age where the user’s experience and perspective of the digital product determines success or failure, the SAFe Agile framework can go a long way toward achieving customer satisfaction and even improving brand reputation.

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The SAFe Agile framework increases the predictability of release schedules as well. Coordinated planning between the customer, sales, marketing and operations teams ultimately determine the product release schedule.

SAFe also builds stronger teams with higher levels of engagement. With the SAFe Agile framework, team members share in decision-making, purpose, goals and work objectives. Each team has the authority to make decisions and propose improvements. This SAFe advantage enables teams to better leverage the talent of employees and keep them engaged through management transparency and shared goals.

Disadvantages of the SAFe Agile framework

Some organizations are fundamentally different from others. Not all ways of working will fit into a prescriptive framework like the Scaled Agile Framework. Disadvantages of SAFe include:

  • Increased administrative management

  • Longer planning cycles across collaborative teams

  • Excessive jargon and complex task definitions

  • Challenges getting large numbers of teams to collaborate

To keep on track with SAFe core values and principles, leaders must take a proactive approach that requires constant management. Some claim that SAFe is overly prescriptive, but a strict approach might be table stakes to keep disparate, large teams and management adhering to principles.

More collaboration introduces more delay. For example, SAFe requires documentation for planning outcomes and design decisions, which only become more complicated with feedback from different teams. While all this collaboration ultimately has a positive effect on the product, it takes some extra effort to get there.

Agile is a set of simple principles, which is why it resonated so strongly throughout the software development community. The SAFe Agile framework, however, dials up scale — and, thus, the complexity. Some argue that SAFe strays a bit too far, or isn’t even Agile anymore. While the SAFe framework can be useful for many organizations, it’s not always an easy path. Patience and persistence are key, especially as it pertains to fostering collaboration across many teams. Easier said than done, but better done than not.

What are the differences between Scaled Agile and Agile?

Scaled Agile refers explicitly to any effort that intends to expand and synchronize Agile efforts across an organization, including Scaled Agile Framework alternatives mentioned above. Scaled Agile can also refer to Scaled Agile, Inc., the company that maintains SAFe.

The SAFe Agile framework and Agile itself also differ. SAFe operating processes differ from standard Agile practices in several ways. First, SAFe is designed to efficiently manage and coordinate work for a large number of teams. Synchronizing multiple teams’ work before a release is an added value of SAFe.

The SAFe Agile framework also uses a role called a release train engineer to bring together code from all teams and merge it. Once work is merged from multiple sprints, the release train engineer creates a test candidate build. Unlike other Agile methodologies, the SAFe Agile framework includes a scheduled and specific test execution period. Once testing completes, the teams correct any designated defects and then retest.

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Once the release code passes a determined level of software quality, the release is scheduled. Thus, the SAFe Agile framework creates a predictable release schedule with an identifiable and complete set of application features.

Agile is similar to SAFe in that it has established principles, but isn’t prescriptive in how it recommends organizations complete that work. Rather, as outlined by the Agile Manifesto, Agile intends to change organizations’ way of thinking and interacting, and SAFe intends to change their way of working and collaborating.

What the SAFe Agile framework means for you

The SAFe Agile framework boils down to a method to manage larger numbers of teams working on the same, or related software applications. SAFe ensures Agile and DevOps teams coordinate work to ensure the design and application functionality are consistent across teams. Similar to the Waterfall methodology, SAFe gathers and merges code changes from several development teams into a release candidate build for testing before releasing to customers.

SAFe provides a workable solution that enables large enterprises to experience the benefits of Agile in an organized, coordinated and quality-controlled manner, albeit one that might take some time to implement and master.

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Amy Reichert
Freelance QA SME/Test Engineer
Reading time: 10 min

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