Which SAFe configuration is “right” for you?

If you have been working with Agile methods for the past couple of years, I am confident that you have heard about SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework). Many companies are finding tremendous success with this framework, and you are probably trying to decide if you should jump on the bandwagon. Since I will be publishing a few other articles to dive deeper into the topic of whether SAFe is right for your organization, let’s pretend for a moment that you have already decided to experiment with SAFe to see whether it will provide meaningful benefit to your company. If this is the case, you will need to make yet another decision: which SAFe configuration is best?

As a quick refresher on the SAFe framework, there are four individual configurations to choose from, which vary in terms of complexity and scale. I have compiled a few details on the differences so that you can gain a general understanding.

1. Essential SAFe

This is the most basic configuration of the four options offered by SAFe, which includes a single ART (Agile Release Train). Remember, by design, an ART should consist of somewhere between 50 to 125 people to optimize communication and collaboration. If your project is larger than 125, or smaller than 50, you may still make this work for your situation assuming that you are somewhere close to those lower and higher limits. If your project team has 10 people or 200 people, Essential SAFe will likely not work for you.

2. Large Solution

The second largest configuration of SAFe is designed for multiple ARTs, which means you are expected to have a very large program with multiple project teams. The biggest difference between Large Solution and Essential is the sheer size as well as the concept of a “Solution Train” which encapsulates all of your Release Trains. As you might imagine, this option is intended to bring together many different products that are inter-related into a single organizational structure to enable communication and alignment to take place on a regular basis. Two or more ARTs means you will likely have a total somewhere near hundreds of people.

3. Portfolio

The third option that SAFe offers is arguably very similar to Essential SAFe in that this architecture contains a single ART, but augments it with an additional layer called “Portfolio.” The Portfolio layer is designed to enable business leaders within organizations to apply lean-Agile principles and practices to prioritize work through definition of value streams.

4. Full SAFe

The final and largest configuration provided by SAFe is Full SAFe, which resembles a consolidation of Portfolio SAFe and Large Solution SAFe. If you take Large Solution and stack the Portfolio layer on top, then the end result would be Full SAFe. Very few organizations will need this construct, at least not immediately when adopting SAFe.

Now that you have somewhat of an idea of the differences between the four options, how do you know which is right for you? Here are a few factors to consider:

  • Has your team applied any type of scaling methods for Agile previously? If no, Essential SAFe would be the perfect place to start.
  • How mature are the current Agile teams in terms of their technical practices? If they have been successfully delivering products or services to customers using Agile methods for many years, perhaps Portfolio SAFe may be a good option.
  • Do you have more than 200 people on a project? If so, consider launching two separate trains, possibly one before the other instead of simultaneously so that the first train can serve as the experimentation and provide learnings that can accelerate adoption for the second train.

Clock_black_coralIn closing, when it comes to adopting SAFe, one important key is to be patient. Rallying people to change how they work on a large scale is no small feat, and it will take time and persistence. Since Essential SAFe is the simplest of the four configurations, it will be the best place to start in most situations. Be sure to invest in seasoned Agile Coaches and trainers who can help you launch the train towards a successful outcome.

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Eugene Lai
Eugene Lai