SAFe®: Agile On Steroids — Scaled Agile Framework Explained

SAFe® is a scaling Agile framework popular with large corporations and hated by Agile practitioners

Maria Chec


There is a lot of love and hate towards the Scaled Agile Framework, especially hate among popular Agile practitioners. Wait, but what SAFe actually is? Do we even know what this battle is all about?

I worked in different companies as a SAFe practitioner, the RTE, a Release Train Engineer, and today I will explain the organized madness of SAFe in a standup style with a little help from ChatGPT, Miro, and a pinch of salt.

Are you in for a (un)SAFe tutorial?

SAFe Explained in a YouTube video

A Power Trip

Agile practitioners criticize SAFe for many different aspects: being overly prescriptive, stealing other people’s concepts and misusing them, being an undercover waterfall agent, and so on and so forth.

To best summarize their opinions we could say that:

SAFe is like the lovechild of a control freak and a Project Manager on a power trip.

SAFe Tutorial cover photo

Let’s not step on each other’s toes

Those who actually use it and are surrounded by the madness of working with multiple component teams in a big corporation have a different view.

For them, it’s all about bringing order to the chaos of multiple teams working on big projects. It’s like saying:

Hey, let’s get organized and make sure nobody’s stepping on each other’s toes…or at least minimize the number of times toes get squished.

Let’s see what the Scaled Agile Framework is all about.

SAFe 6.0 (sigh)

You’ve probably seen the image showing SAFe practices and techniques. It just got updated to SAFe 6.0.

SAFe 6.0 Roles, Tools and Practices

Each of the elements on the picture has a hyperlink and if you click on it, it will lead you to an extensive explanation of what it means. That’s probably how you landed on this article — by clicking on a few explanations and finding yourself thinking about the shopping list.

So here we go!

SAFe: Agile on Steroids

I guess we could call it, the “Big Boss of Agile” although some would argue it has just as much to do with Agile as the flat-earthers have to do with reason.

Now, imagine a bunch of small Agile teams trying to work together. In the beginning, it is easy just doing Scrum. But at some point, when they start multiplying like rabbits, with the corporation’s growth, things become messy.

Scaled Agile Framework, or SAFe for short, is like taking those adorable little Agile teams and throwing them into a blender. Yes, a blender! You know, one of those devices that spins things around at high speed and turns everything into a gooey mess? Well, SAFe is the Agile blender on steroids!

An Agile blender on steroids!

Picture this: you’ve got multiple teams working on different components. Yes, in the corporate world, we still stumble upon component teams, as opposed to cross-functional ones. So they all depend on each other. They all need to collaborate, share resources, and align their dependencies to avoid crashing into each other like bumper cars at the fair.

That’s where SAFe swoops in with its grand plan. It provides a set of rules, guidelines, and good practices that make these teams work together like a synchronized swimming troupe on caffeine.

Welcome to Epic Programs!

But here’s the kicker: SAFe is not just about teams — it’s about big, massive, hulking programs!

SAFe’s hulking programs

It’s like scaling up from a bicycle to a supersonic jet. Suddenly, you’re dealing with epic proportions, and you need a roadmap that could rival the size of a Tolkien novel.

SAFe introduces a hierarchy of roles, like a corporate version of Game of Thrones. You’ve got SAFe Program Managers, Release Train Engineers, SAFe Product Managers, SAFe Product Owners, SAFe Scrum Masters, and so on, all vying for power and control. It’s like a never-ending battle for the Iron Throne, but instead, it’s a battle for sprints, backlogs, and user stories.

PI Planning

And just when you think you’ve mastered the art of SAFe, they throw in the “PI Planning” event. PI Planning stands for Program Increment Planning.

“Increment” as in a Sprint but bigger, like a quarter. Basically quarterly planning.

It’s a massive gathering where all the teams come together, armed with sticky notes, markers, and enough coffee to power a small city. It’s like a nerd convention mixed with a military operation, or a geeky version of the Hunger Games.

The teams meticulously plan out the next few months with an intensity usually reserved for Olympic athletes. In the present world, the planning is done remotely on a fancy digital whiteboard, like Miro. I used to create our own version of the PI planning in Miro, now you have a ready-made template to use and save a lot of time.

At the PI planning event, you will get acquainted with SAFe’s fancy terminology which, as we already know, has been borrowed from Scrum, Jira, XP, etc. So you’ve got your Epics, Features, and User Stories flying around like buzzwords at a corporate jargon party. It’s like they have a secret language to make themselves feel important. Although here it’s more as if they try to feel Agile by borrowing all that Agile terminology. But let’s be real, folks, it’s just a fancy way of saying:

“Let’s break down this huge project into smaller, manageable chunks, so we don’t lose our minds.”

And that’s what PI Planning is about. The teams meet each quarter to define what they can do in the following three months. They are planning the work team by team and sprint by sprint. It looks like this (I know, not scary at all!):

PI Planning Template in Miro

I will get into more detail about all of this in the subsequent videos. Because PI Planning is the personal favorite of all SAFe practitioners and corporate management. It gives them the illusion of knowing what will happen in the next three months.

SAFe like a strict parent

Now, don’t get me wrong, SAFe has its perks. It’s like having a strict parent who sets boundaries and keeps you in line. Ehkm, we already agreed it’s hugely about control, right? You won’t find much self-organization in SAFe. As it comes pre-organized for you like a pre-cooked meal to throw into a microwave. And yes there are companies out there that appreciate that.

Because of its structure and guidelines, SAFe helps teams collaborate, communicate, and tackle massive projects without going completely bonkers. It’s like a life preserver in a sea of chaos, keeping you afloat when the waves of work threaten to drown you.

Anyone who, like me, worked on aligning 30 teams into one common objective, knows what kind of chaos I’m talking about.

So, buckle up, embrace the chaos, and dive into the wild world of the Scaled Agile Framework. It’s Agile on steroids, a rollercoaster of epic proportions, and a blend of organized madness. Just remember to keep your sense of humor intact, because in the land of SAFe, laughter is the only thing that can keep you sane!



Maria Chec

Agile Coach and Content Creator at Agile State of Mind and Head of Agile Practice in Fyllo