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

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.

Why the Higher Levels of SAFe Are too Much for Small to Mid-Sized Organizations

Let’s first look at SAFe from a value stream perspective as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: SAFe from a value stream perspective

Figure 1 shows SAFe’s big picture where the backlogs and roles are laid out in a value stream. This visualization is useful since we can now see how work flows across the organization.

When looking at SAFe this way we can see two major problems. First, there are many roles required – certainly more than is needed at small to mid-scale. And, I’d contend, even at large scale. In addition, the concepts used are confusing because of their overloading, redefinition and just incorrect use. This is illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Why SAFe’s Full version is too complicated to use.

The Challenge of Just Using Essential SAFe at Small to Mid-Sized Organizations

The complexity of the upper levels of SAFe is why most organizations stick with Essential SAFe and don’t adopt the higher levels. But this leaves organizations without a way to trace strategies to the work being done as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: The gap caused by not applying the higher levels of SAFe.

This gap is very problematic however. It means that it will be difficult to focus on the most important work and teams will likely continue to be forced to work on multiple projects at once. This tends to create additional, unplanned, work which causes multi-tasking and a downward spiral of effectiveness. But it is not really an option to use SAFe’s higher levels as I’ll now discuss.

Essential SAFe’s Choices for Agile portfolio management are not effective while being confusing

Essential SAFe has a couple of buttons to imply portfolio and solution management are important at the program level. And, in fact, they are. But Essential SAFe’s guidance here is based on the full SAFe level. These higher levels have grown over time by adding more and more concepts in a piecemeal, disjointed fashion.

This has resulted in a confusing array of overloaded, redefined and misused terms in SAFe.  While this may sound harsh it is unfortunately true and partially explains why relatively few companies actually adopt the higher levels.

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.



The next FLEX course is currently being scheduled in August 2019 in southern Orange County, CA.

If you want to learn more about FLEX you can take an online course at the Net Objectives University.

If you want to learn about how to adopt FLEX in your organization please contact the author, Al Shalloway.