The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) has been around for almost eight years now, and over time the framework has evolved and grown to include all the changes happening in the software development industry. Since the framework was initially released in 2011, the industry has seen more Kanban, DevOps, lean product development, value stream, technical agility and project management approaches — and the framework has evolved to incorporate those necessary techniques.

“We are never really done. We always have new ideas and new explorations,” said Dean Leffingwell, the creator of SAFe and chief methodologists at Scaled Agile, Inc., the provider of SAFe. “We will keep moving and evolving because the challenge keeps moving and evolving, and we learn new things every single day.”

CollabNet VersonOne’s 12th annual State of Agile report found that today SAFe is the leading approach to scaling Agile. However, with all the additions made to the framework over the years, it can be intimidating or overwhelming when looking how to approach SAFe.

“SAFe is undeniably big, but the systems people are building are also really big. You have to have the right tool to address those problems,” said Leffingwell.

According to Andrey Mihailenko, CEO of Agile project management tools provider Targetprocess, it is all a matter of knowing where to start. SAFe provides an implementation roadmap. The roadmap provides a series of 12 steps  that describe strategies and an ordered set of activities proven to be effective in implementing SAFe.

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To successfully implement SAFe, it can take many months and there is no one-size-fits-all approach, according to Mihailenko. But beyond the roadmap, Targetprocess offers eight steps to provide a fast track proof of concept approach:

    1. The tipping point: Also known as the pivot point or business trigger. To get started, it is important to show why you are going on this journey, according to Mihailenko. Common tipping points include a product that is failing or new, proactive thinking from management. “Clearly understanding, and professing to all who will listen why you are embarking on such an important and labor-intensive transformation is imperative. Attempt to quantify the problems and business drivers so that you can create a believable problem baseline,” he said.
    2. Create the coalition: In addition to management, it is important to have a team that can drive the transformation vision, be change agents, and have organizational credibility. This includes hiring or training SAFe program consultants, training executives and other managers, and even creating a lean-agile center of excellence.
    3. Create the guiding vision: There should also be a coherent document in place that states the intent of the SAFe implementation. This shouldn’t be a list of design requirements, but rather a guide for achieving a solution to the problem. For instance, it can include value stream mapping, product envisioning and an analysis of strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats (SWOT).
    4. Communicate and begin training leaders: While management and leaders may be onboard, they actually have to know what their role is in this implementation. According to SAFe’s Leffingwell, when his team started out with the framework, they quickly realized training the team and excluding management doesn’t work. “The key to successful implementations of SAFe is to bring management on board with education. Show them the path, show them the benefits, introduce them to their new role and explain how that role is different,” he said. “It is a lot more coaching and leading than it is managing. Engage them in the journey because when they decide to take the leash and lead, everyone will naturally follow.”
    5. Empower others: Once the vision is established, and senior management is on board, then you need to empower the people who are going to do the tactical work and deliver the end-user value you are looking for. Here, you should define the teams, train them, and maintain a flexible process.
    6. Pilot launch: Starting small and having visible short-term wins can help build momentum for your SAFe implementation. Leffingwell suggested picking an area that is impactful enough to make waves throughout the organization, but not too much that you are “boiling the entire ocean.” “You take those wins and you use them to spread the word and knowledge base so others can succeed with it as well,” he said. “Pick things that matter, have scale, and succeed with those.” In addition, it is important not to get trapped into concrete plans, according to Targetprocess. The point of Agile is being able to change and adapt quickly.
    7. Launch and execute the ART: The Agile Release Train (ART) is a team of Agile teams that plans, commits and releases value. It typically consists of 50 to 150 people in distributed locations and time zones. Things to keep in mind when creating an ART are leadership support, understanding around products, and collaboration. ART can help form successful teams, engage in a learning experience, share knowledge and create more experienced team members.
    8. Extend and expand: The first step in this journey is about taking what you’ve learned from small successes and employing those lessons throughout the organization. Here, often a lean-Agile program office will take charge to lead overall improvements, continue to align value streams and new value streams, maintain enterprise value flow, and provide reliable Agile forecasting.

SAFe’s Leffingwell added that it is always important to make sure you are doing the basic practices of SAFe if you want to continue to be successful with your implementations. He explained that most failed initiatives he sees are because users are modifying SAFe and skipping important elements like bi-weekly systems demos or team collaboration.

“As in any transformation, the implementation phase never really ends,” said Mihailenko. “You are constantly re-evaluating your ART configurations, the teams themselves, and deciding on how to groom or throttle your adoption or propagation of the framework process across the company.”

Who should implement SAFe
The Scaled Agile Framework is often associated with large-scale transformations looking to apply Agile to hundreds or even thousands of people; however, Scaled Agile has worked to provide a number of different configurations of SAFe so it can be applied to almost any transformation.

“The different configurations of SAFe allow us to tailor it to only Essential SAFe — which provides support of a program and the teams under it as an Agile Release Train. This might be perfect for a company just starting out with SAFe or even a small to mid-sized company. Based on higher complexities or magnitudes of effort, the portfolio, large solution or even full SAFe configurations can be applied,” said Mihailenko.

When trying to figure out which teams should be using SAFe, Mihailenko said it all depends on what you are building, so that’s why it is important to understand value streams and product portfolios. For instance, an organization building Internet products is probably going to apply SAFe to front-end and back-end development,  UI/UX design, API development and middleware teams.

“A critical point to consider is that no matter what you are building, the integration points and conjoining components, almost always necessitates the need for a system team to oversee full system integration,” said Mihailenko. “So, whether you’re a publishing company developing digital media, a cable monolith creating streaming VOD products, or an advertising company creating SDKs or digital tools to fill your linear or non-linear advertising space, going SAFe will help you manage the complexities within your product and/or service value streams.”