Scaled Agile Framework

Common Problems with the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

With every project management approach, project managers will face some challenges. As with other Agile approaches like Scrum or Lean, the Scaled Agile Framework has its own unique uphill battles you will need to overcome if you use this approach for your team. Because SAFe was designed specifically for large organizations, challenges may be difficult to spot and even more difficult to remedy.

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Before you apply SAFe principles to your organization, you first need to learn more about what SAFe is, why organizations choose this approach, and common problems with Scaled Agile your teams may face.

What is SAFe?

Agile principles focus on increasing efficiency through continuous, iterative development. While many organizations may want to reap the benefits of Agile, adjusting your entire organizational structure probably won’t be a feasible option.

Thus, the Scaled Agile Framework was developed in 2011 to allow large organizations to use Agile principles, but in a way that was not wholly disruptive to their current operations. Agile approaches were scaled to meet the needs of large organizations, allowing close collaboration between teams and alignment across the entire organization. Decision-making processes are more centralized to promote faster response and development times.

The SAFe approach includes three levels:

  • The Program level, which is focused on the roles that are needed to continuously deliver projects
  • The Portfolio level, which is focused principles, actions, and team member roles needed to identify and manage value streams
  • The Team level, which is focused on the roles, activities, events, and processes implemented by teams to ensure successful delivery

Why Should Teams Use the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)?

What value does SAFe hold for organizations? In large organizations, it can feel impossible to totally transform your entire operations to fit with all-encompassing Agile structures (like Scrum). Instead, SAFe was designed for large corporations to use Agile principles, without requiring a total overhaul of the organizational structure. It’s a framework scaled to suit large organizations (typically 100+ employees) with multiple departments, while other approaches may be better suited for smaller businesses.  

SAFe makes it possible for large organizations to gain efficiency in their software development practices. This approach keeps the big organizational picture in mind. Instead of being totally transformative, SAFe preserves your organizational hierarchy and goals, while fitting in Agile processes as needed. SAFe doesn’t require restructuring of your entire organization, but you will need to put in the effort to assign teams who can work together within the SAFe approach.

Common Problems When Using Scaled Agile (SAFe)

When using SAFe, it’s important to know that SAFe is not a fix-all solution. If problems exist in your organization before you apply SAFe to your project management operations, those problems are likely to still exist even with SAFe. Depending on the problem, SAFe might actually make matters worse.

Here are some common problems with scaled Agile approaches that could arise in your company.

  • Lack of Flexibility – Of the Agile approaches, SAFe is one of the more rigid. There is little room for adjustment to the approach, making it difficult to adapt the framework to any specific needs your organization may have. In addition to the rigidity of SAFe, you are also likely to see team members stuck in their defined roles. With other Agile approaches, team members thrive because they are given ownership over their own tasks – taking responsibility for which objectives they plan to complete and where they lend their effort and skills – SAFe tends to keep team members in their specific roles.
  • Primarily Top-Down Decision Making – As opposed to the egalitarian nature of other Agile frameworks, decision-making powers in the SAFe structure are generally left to the managers and organizational leaders. Too much decision-making at the top can put undue burden on project managers and can cause other team members to be disengaged. Without power and a say in decisions, these employees may feel that SAFe isn’t very different from the traditional approaches they used before.
  • Misunderstanding of Epics – With other Agile approaches, the word “epic” refers to long-term, ongoing projects. The definition with SAFe is a little different. In this approach, epics are substantial enterprise initiatives that need to be evaluated for their potential return on investment before they can be initiated. Due to the different definitions, it’s easy to see how teams can get confused.
  • Prioritizing Epics – Prioritizing your projects is a challenge with many operational systems. Determining which epics have the greatest potential for impact and prioritizing them over other projects can lead to difficult decisions.
  • Conducting Release Planning Sessions – Release planning sessions, the equivalent of spring planning in other Agile approaches, is a large, in-person meeting to kick off projects. With SAFe, bringing this many people together and efficiently running this meeting can be a challenge. Getting positive results and clear direction from this meeting is a typical problem with Scaled Agile, too.
  • Producing High-Quality Code – As with any software development approach, it’s imperative that the processes result in high-quality code. Due to the large-scale nature of SAFe, it can be difficult to run quality assessments on every bit of code that’s written.
  • Organizing Work – One major downfall of using SAFe in large corporations is the tendency to organize work into massive batches. Ideally, Agile projects are broken into small, manageable timelines (generally called Sprints). Because SAFe coordinates large teams and hundreds of people, this organizational structure leans more toward large batching of work. Due to large batching, another issue emerges – difficulty estimating work timelines. Teams may not be able to accurately estimate how long tasks will take or predict what impediments may stand in the way of task completion.

Although problems with a scaled Agile approach may arise, a project manager trained and certified in SAFe can anticipate and avoid these challenges with the right strategies. The first step is to be aware that these problems exist and create plans to avoid these pitfalls.

If you want to apply SAFe within your organization, you should consider pursuing training before starting the process. Finding the right SAFe training partner can have a major impact on the success of your efforts. With enough training and preparation, you can maximize the benefits of SAFe in your organization, while minimizing the problems with scaled Agile.

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Erin Aldridge, PMP, PMI-ACP, & CSPO
Director of Product Development at
Erin Aldridge, PMP, PMI-ACP, & CSPO