The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®) is a popular framework for applying agile practices at scales of tens or hundreds of agile teams. It is provided by Scaled Agile, Inc and is oriented around synchronising teams, grouped into release trains and at larger scales into solution trains.
The focus on synchronisation is designed to handle situations where significant inter-team coupling and dependencies exist. It is less appropriate when the product value streams and the technical architecture are well factored such that coupling is low and delivery dependencies are minimal. In these cases, simpler team and multi-team practices such as Scrum, XP, Kanban and Scrum of Scrum are more appropriate. Compared to these frameworks, SAFe defines more distinct roles and processes and is more prescriptive. Within SAFe, teams are expected to follow what is known as SAFe ScrumXP or SAFe Team Kanban.
Many team-level practices described in the Scaled Agile glossary are well aligned with simpler, team-level frameworks — encouraging self-organising, autonomous, cross-functional teams that can release on demand — and are well described. The differences come in with the introduction of the core concept of the Program Increment (PI) and the associated PI Planning.
A Program Increment (PI) is a timebox during which an Agile Release Train (ART) delivers incremental value in the form of working, tested software and systems. PIs are typically 8–12 weeks long. Program Increment (PI) Planning is [an] ... event that serves as the heartbeat of the Agile Release Train (ART), aligning all the teams on the ART to a shared mission and Vision. PI planning is essential to SAFe: If you are not doing it, you are not doing SAFe.
The recommended cadence of most PI-level events is frequent — many times per PI.
Since SAFe has such a strong focus on inter-team processes designed to work with and manage dependencies, this carries the risk of reduced focus on removing such dependencies by refactoring value streams and technical architectures. In highly functioning, well-designed organisational-technical systems, such dependencies would be reduced or eliminated to the point where a framework such as SAFe would not be necessary. The incremental stripping back of SAFe practices and its eventual removal could be a valuable goal for organisations wishing to realise their business agility potential fully.