How to Manage Unplanned Work in SAFe?

At the time of this writing, which is early-2023, Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe) remains the most popular framework in use around the world for scaling Agile teams. Despite its popularity, SAFe is not perfect by any means—no framework is perfect for every situation.

One of the missing components of SAFe is a prescribed approach to handling unplanned work, which is likely a common occurrence for any organization attempting to adapt to an increasingly dynamic business environment. While SAFe does not provide specific guidance on how to manage unexpected surprises, there are a few elements within the framework that you can leverage to reduce the negative effects of such situations.

What is “Unplanned Work”?

Before we explore options to manage unplanned work using SAFe, it’s important to first clarify what “unplanned work” means.

For this discussion, let’s assume that “unplanned work” is equivalent to new requirements that have arisen during execution of a Program Increment (PI) that was identified by stakeholders and/or driven by unforeseen business conditions. In this context, “unplanned work” does not include “discovered” work—specific tasks that the team identifies throughout the PI that needs to be done to fulfill a previously planned Feature or Capability. While the techniques used to address either scenario may be similar, for simplicity, we’ll focus on the former definition.

What Does Success Look Like?

The ability to manage change effectively is key to any Agile initiative. Whether you are adopting SAFe or not, your team must be able to handle unexpected events gracefully  to deliver on your commitments. So, what does “success” mean in this context?

Successful management of unplanned events typically translates to effective delivery of value despite changes in the business environment, which could originate from customer or competitor behavior. Hence, if your team is effective in handling changes in their backlog, you will be able to maximize your chances of successfully meeting the PI Objectives and business goals.

Techniques for Dealing With Change

If your team is applying SAFe, there is limited guidance to assist you in managing changes in requirements. However, if you explore some of the guidance more closely, you will fine some hidden tips that can help you.

Keep an Eye on the Amount of Change With Requirements Volatility

One of the keys to managing changing requirements is to establish and maintain a metric that you may not have heard of: Requirements Volatility. This metric is similar to predictability, but is a leading indicator that enables your Agile Release Train (ART) to keep an eye on the amount of change that occurs within your requirements.

SAFe has several backlogs for maintaining and managing work at various levels, with the Portfolio Backlog at the top of the hierarchy. Most teams that are operating Portfolio-level SAFe will leverage this backlog to manage the high-level business requirements, usually stated in the form of business cases or initiatives. Since this backlog, as with all the other backlogs, is intended to be organic and continuously evolving, it is often difficult to understand the amount of change that is occurring, since there is no “baseline” or “freeze period” that takes place. This means that in order to deploy a metric like Requirements Volatility, you have to take a snapshot in time at regular intervals in order to assess the level of change.

Measuring Volatility

When might be the right intervals to take snapshots? As I mentioned previously, SAFe does not provide any guidance on this, but one approach that I have observed to be effective is to take a measurement at PI boundaries (at minimum) in order to evaluate how much change has occurred within the backlog. This will enable you to determine how many new requirements/epics have been introduced within that period of time.

If you are experiencing significant shifts in priorities within your PI, you may want to take the same measurement at the Program level (within the Program backlog). You could also do the same for the Team-level backlog as well if you observe massive changes in requirements, which is both undesirable and potentially destructive to your ART.

While there will likely be a cost associated with measuring and tracking volatility of requirements, you may observe trends that could alter how work is introduced and/or prioritized, which is an important factor that could dictate the effectiveness of the ART.

Applying Capacity Allocation to Handle Unexpected Change

Another technique that you may consider for managing requirements is Capacity Allocation of your backlogs. Within the backlog at each level of SAFe, you can determine how to organize and plan your work to ensure an optimal balance between Enablers, Features, and Technical Debt. This helps you deliver short-term value and foundational infrastructure to prepare for longer-term functionality that you will need in the future.

One method you could explore is to encourage your teams to only plan up to 80 percent of maximum capacity in order to provide a buffer for expected changes in requirements; if your stakeholders have a tendency to change priorities frequently or unexpectedly, having the extra capacity to address these situations can improve your teams’ ability to continue delivering valuable system capabilities.

One recommendation in this situation is to continue educating your customers and stakeholders about requirements management; help them understand that constant change is not ideal and potentially damaging. Even if your team can deal with this effectively, it is ‌not sustainable and not good for morale.

Closing Thoughts

While we all know that change is inevitable and should be embraced, there is no perfect system for dealing with unplanned work. A significant contributor to how we experience change is our relationships—our level of collaboration with the customers, stakeholders, and our teams is ultimately what will determine the outcomes of any project.

So, if you are in a situation where things aren’t going as expected, try to experiment with some techniques I shared and encourage the team to come up with new ideas as well.

And, if you need more advice or guidance from an Agile expert, download our white paper, Using Lean-Agile Principles to Execute Organizational Transformations, or explore our SAFe coaching and consulting solutions.

SAFe and Scaled Agile Framework are registered trademarks of Scaled Agile, Inc.

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Eugene Lai, Contributor
Eugene Lai, Contributor