Understanding the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)


If there’s one buzzword that’s dominated the last five years, it’s “agile.” It’s one of those all-too-vague terms that’s overused, undervalued, and certainly misused by a large chunk of the dev teams trying to jam it into their software development lifecycle or web development flow. It’s not that the tech community doesn’t understand the core message behind agile or even that agile is difficult to achieve (given the budget and training).

The problem with agile is that it’s incredibly variable and difficult to scale. Iterative development isn’t new. And, despite the “word on the street,” developers weren’t stuck in a Waterfall-loop for the past fifty years. Many agile components have been floating around the dev space since the ’80s. The Agile Manifesto — which popularized the term and (in some cases) many of the practices — may have been the Big Bang of iterative development, but it wasn’t the spark. These loosely-defined components (e.g., iterative, short cycles, collaborative, etc.) that sit at the heart of Agile have been manifesting in the air for decades.

So, when we look at the larger agile space, almost every organization has its own “version” of agile. In some ways, that’s great. The power of agile is its innate flexibility. Unfortunately, this variability makes it difficult to scale agile, since many are trying to scale a one-of-a-kind framework. There’s no roadmap… or is there?

Recently, Mobomo was certified in the Scaled Agile Framework (i.e., SAFe). This flexible, scalable, and enterprise-centric agile framework helps organizations build robust, end-to-end agile practices that go beyond product and delivery methods. SAFe penetrates core business models and rethinks how organizations can approach agile in a structured, meaningful, and impactful way.

What is SAFe?

Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is an agile-based framework that gives organizations the strategies and guidance they need to execute lean-agile practices at scale. When we look at the average enterprise — which is jam-packed with ongoing projects — finding ways to deliver continuous value that meets business goals and visions is tricky enough. Trying to deliver that value at scale in an environment that’s constantly changing is downright challenging. SAFe goes well-beyond building agile teams; it helps define how enterprises can deliver, scale, and manage these projects — as well as how they can breed innovative and iterative practices into their culture.

The SAFe Framework (as of version 5.0) defines 7 “buckets” that enterprises can create to breed agile into their organizations. We’ll split these into three more buckets (which will make sense at the end).

Bucket #1: Teams & Delivery

  1. Team & Technical Agility

These are teams (5 – 11 people) that are dedicated to building a single project. This team will use a lean-driven method (e.g., Kanban, SCRUM, etc.) to deliver product value in iterations. This should all be pretty familiar to most agile companies. You have your product leads, daily collaborative standup meetings, iteration reviews, and all the other baseline agile components packaged into this team.

  1. Agile Product Delivery

Each team delivers products iteratively and continuously while putting the customer front-and-center of the process. The lead of each team (i.e., the product leads) will essentially act as the customer. Their job is to drive customer-centric value into the projects by championing the customer’s pain points and value levers during project iterations. You can set up the product delivery pipeline in your own way. Remember, SAFe isn’t set-in-stone; it’s simply a framework. Some teams are DevOps pros, and others prefer various versions of shift-left development.

  1. Enterprise Solution Delivery

Here’s where things get scalable. The average enterprise has a giant portfolio of projects they’re working on, right? SAFe has you create agile teams for each project and then move all of those teams under the same umbrella (called an “Agile Release Train” or ART). Each ART (you can have multiple) is intensely collaborative. So, you have all of these agile groups working on their own projects, but they’re also collaborating with other teams working on similar projects to generate a massive ecosystem of interconnected projects. Trains have their own “train engineer” (which is a coach for the entire train), project managers, and a system architect.

Bucket #2: Product Choice & Culture

  1. Lean Portfolio Management

Alright, we have these awesome ARTs filled with agile teams all using agile-driven methodologies to develop amazing projects. But how do you choose the right project, to begin with? It’s tricky — 45% of businesses don’t understand their projects or how to properly manage them. Lean portfolio management (lean PPM) is used to marry mid-horizon strategies with project execution. It aligns your strategy, funding, and execution to help you pick the right projects at the right place and time.

We won’t dive too deep into PPM. There’s a ton going on in this ecosystem. Gartner recently released a whitepaper suggesting that Strategic Project Management (SPM) and Adaptive Project Management (APM) are two bifurcations of PPM that businesses need to pay attention to carefully, and PPM has its own massive ecosystem of vendors and tech solutions.

  1. Organizational Agility

Having tight agile teams existing in these agile ecosystems with strong leadership is great. But how do you build on that? SAFe calls for organizational agility via lean business operations and strategic agility. In a nutshell, you want to apply the execution side of agile to the strategy side. The goal here is to create an agile workplace from top-to-bottom that can instantly respond to threats and create value as the world around your business changes.

  1. Continuous Learning Culture

On the cultural side, SAFe calls for a culture of continuous learning and innovation. Again, these are difficult to dissect in a blog post, and the way these cultural values are projected will vary by organization. But it’s important to note that SAFe calls for agile changes in culture, strategy, and project execution. It’s a three-layered cake.

Bucket #3: Leadership

  1. Lean-Agile Leadership

Let’s end on leadership. This is the lever that unlocks everything. Enterprise leaders (whether that be c-level, EMPOs, IT leaders, etc.) have to lead by example. Don’t treat agile as a trendy new toy. It’s a change in the way your organization approaches nearly everything. So, the mindset, principles, values, and actions an organization makes have to be tied to that agile core.


SAFe Best Practices

Let’s quickly cover a few SAFe best-practices.

  1. Keep teams small: Agile works best when teams are small. Don’t try to scale out these massive teams to work on a huge project. Each team in the ART doesn’t have to be project-independent. You can have 10 teams working on a single project; you just have to break that project down into key components.
  2. Use SAFe to your organization’s size: SAFe has some defined standards for team and train sizes, but those are for enterprises. In fact, SAFe has a few different frameworks to help you, which each depend on your size.
  3. Effectively manage your portfolio: Make sure you manage that portfolio. Pushing out the wrong projects will completely break your agile efforts. You can nail teams, ARTs, culture, and strategy, but if you don’t align strategy with execution and choose the best-fit projects, you’ll end with a loss.
  4. Be you: Are you a Kanban fanatic? Prefer SCRUM? Sweet! Use it. SAFe is a framework, not a brick wall. Feel free to use some of your own preferred methodologies.
  5. Change leaders before business models: This is crucial. You can’t expect employees to change if you don’t. Effective agile is a top-down effort.


Mobomo & SAFe

At Mobomo, we’re big advocates of agile. We’ve used agile practices to create projects for NASA, USGS, the US Navy, and thousands of private companies across the globe. As we grew, we saw a need for agility at scale. Recently, we became fully SAFe certified. This is important for us, as a company, but it’s also important for our customers. You expect value-driven, customer-centric solutions that adapt and evolve over time. We’re going to continue to deliver that value to you.

Want to learn more about Mobomo’s services? Interested in our agile practices? Contact us. Let’s talk about it.