An Introduction to SAFe and Why You Really Should Care


The Scaled Agile Framework, pronounced “SAFe”, is a framework for implementing lean and agile methods at scale. It was pioneered by Dean Leffingwell and fully described in his book Agile Software Requirements. SAFe provides prescriptive guidance for the individual roles, teams, activities and artifacts necessary to scale agile from the team to program to the enterprise level.

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SAFe’s guidance is divided into three layers, each aligned to a level of abstraction matched to project scope within an enterprise. Actionable work is driven top down through cascading backlog queues and a simple, well defined taxonomy.

The Portfolio layer defines a framework for managing an enterprise project portfolio. The portfolio is implemented as a backlog of business and architectural “epics”, high level narratives aligned to strategic investment themes. Approved epics are delivered to the Program layer for further exposition and scheduling for implementation. 

The Program layer defines procedures for turning approved epics into proper product plans and is responsible for delivering a value stream to the organization. Activities include developing product visions, a backlog of high level “features” to be implemented, product roadmaps, and iterative release plans. Project features are batched up and delivered to the Team layer for implementation.

The Team layer prescribes a combination of Scrum management practices and XP technical practices to empower agile development teams to turn features into “user stories” and deliver working, valuable software in two weeks sprints.

 

Why You Really Should Care

So why am I raving about this? Agile has become the first choice for development teams building software, but true enterprise agile transformations are still rare. Adoption inside many enterprises has stalled due conflict with traditional waterfall business planning and budgeting processes. Here’s why I think SAFe can succeed at driving full scale enterprise agile adoption:

Simple. The epicfeatureuser story taxonomy is the heart of this framework and the key to tracing efforts through these layers to achieve synchronization, collaboration and business value delivery. Its simple to learn and easy to teach – a key ingredient to cultural transformation.

Comprehensive. The layered abstractions chosen for SAFe provide the just the right amount of focus at the executive, product management, and development team levels. The roles and procedures are well defined and cover the complete set of activities needed to manage a portfolio of enterprise IT projects. SAFe will educate and push agile up into the very heart of enterprise.

Actionable. SAFe provides concrete procedures and detailed steps on how to get each layer up and running. It’s very real, very approachable, and very doable.

Well Documented. Leffingwell’s Agile Software Requirements book is in truth a playbook for enterprise agile transformation. It describes every detail of the SAFe framework and is one of the best written technical books I’ve read in years. Dean and his associates have also done an outstanding job documenting and “open sourcing” the framework through it’s public website – scaledagileframework.com.

Proven in the Field. The framework has been through numerous iterations, and has evolved through a number of large scale adoptions by real world enterprises, large and mall. The latest version published on the web site (v2.5 as of this blog post) has been validated by these field implementations and all the major ALM software vendors have either adopted it directly or facilitate an implementation of SAFe within their product.

I honestly haven’t been this excited about a SDLC methodology in years (I read Dean’s book cover to cover in two days – a rarity for a technical book). I see SAFe as a natural and necessary evolution of Agile upwards into the enterprise to fill a missing void. It is quickly becoming the foundation for many of our client engagements.

Note: Scaled Agile Framework and SAFe are trademarks of Leffingwell, LLC.

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