Why Essential SAFe Is Both More and Less Than You Need at Small to Mid-Scale

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Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own. – Bruce Lee

Executive Overview

Most companies using SAFe have mostly just adopted Essential SAFe. There are a few reasons for this:

  • getting teams in a program working together gives significant improvement
  • it is a relatively easy first step
  • it does not require significant change by business stakeholders
  • the higher levels are cumbersome, confusing and complicated

If your organization is large, starting at the program level often makes sense since changing how the program is being driven is likely beyond the initial scope of your adoption.  The benefits of the benefits of Essential SAFe are a good starting point and deferring the adoption of effective portfolio and product management may be advisable. But if you are a small to mid-size company, it is often better to start with improving the entire value stream as the real problems you are having are likely being cause before the work hits the team.

The challenge in this case is that SAFe’s portfolio and program management methods are designed for very large organizations. Even if they were effective (which their successful adoption rates indicate they are not) they’d still be to large and cumbersome for smaller organizations.

This chapter discusses why while Essential SAFe is an adequate approach for small to mid-sized organizations’ programs, it puts these organizations in a kind of “Catch-22” situation where the higher levels of SAFe are too much while not using them is insufficient.

The Growth of SAFe

SAFe has grown from the program level up to an approach for extremely large organizations. There are several challenges with this, however. First, very few companies really have very large development organizations.  Most very large companies have hundreds of small to midsize development organizations. Second, growing from the bottom up, as SAFe has, has caused it to be extremely complicated. It is useful to see what this growth has done to SAFe’s overall design.

Figure 1 shows Essential SAFe. This is reasonably similar to the first versions of SAFe.

Figure 1: Essential SAFe

If you have more than one program, however, you’ll need Large Solution SAFe, as shown in figure 2.

Figure 2: Large Solution SAFe

Portfolio SAFe adds additional concepts as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Portfolio SAFe

And finally there’s Full SAFe.

Figure 4: Full SAFe

Most large companies, however, are collections of smaller, loosely coupled development groups. It is usually suggested that they adopt Essential SAFe. However, each of them still has need for many of the concepts at the higher levels as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Essential SAFe leaves out many critical concepts.

This creates a dilemma for any small company who wants to just use Essential SAFe or for small development organizations in large companies – you either have to adopt more than you need or you have to leave out much of what you need.

In Summary

Essential SAFe definitely provides a lot of goodness and is worth both investigating and implementing. But it’s worth noting that Essential SAFe will provide just a backbone for an Agile adoption at both small and mid-scale. There will be practices that need to be adjusted, some discarded and some added.

A Word On SAFe Training at Small to Mid-Scale

All of SAFe’s training is designed around full SAFe. To become a SAFe Program Consultant or SAFe Agilist, one must pass an exam that covers scope well beyond what it needed by small to mid-scale organizations. This means that not all of the time taken for training is useful and takes away from other things that are needed. More importantly, the ability to train with SAFe’s materials after the class is not as attractive the materials are not focused on the needs of the organization and some of the advanced courses are not relevant – so few pertinent courses are available.

The most important aspect of a workshop should be how people work together with their associates and be oriented around:

1) the context of the people being trained
2) increasing collaboration
3) learning by doing actual work
4) needed essential skills

Training in frameworks is important. But when people are given the skills they need from the start, less knowledge of the framework is needed to move forward. This is especially true when these essential skills are learned together. Not having these essential skills leaves them unprepared & often causes resistance to the framework, which, by itself, is not helping.

Unfortunately, this type of training cannot be done with certification, since certification requires a focus on the framework. But what’s required is less framework and more how to do the work. Fortunately, there are many qualified, non-certified trainers out there who are more concerned with you getting what you need.

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