SAFe Simply Explained (Part 1): Core Competencies and Principles

Annalena Simonis, Thursday 01 July 2021 | Reading time: 6 min.

What happens when agility meets large companies? Can large corporations still become flexible and adaptable? In this new blog series, we introduce you to the concept of SAFe and explain the basics of cross-company agility.

Agility should no longer be a new term for most project managers. High flexibility, adaptability and increased communication are just a few of the benefits that have led to significant improvements through the introduction of agile work processes in organizations. So agility in itself is nothing new for many companies. In most cases, however, previous experience is based only on the small-scale use of Scrum or other agile methods in individual departments. What usually started in software development can now be extended to the entire company and thus, change the way people collaborate. But it’s not that easy. Large corporations in particular, which are in urgent need of more agility due to entrenched structures, usually have the hardest time implementing an agile transformation. How do you build the framework for holistic agility? One widely used solution is SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework). In this new blog series, we will introduce the topic step by step and explain complex issues in a simple way. In this post, we start with the 7 core competencies and the 10 fundamental principles on which cross-enterprise agility is based on.


Origin and Basic idea

The Scaled Agile Framework was introduced in 2011 by Dean Leffingwell with the goal of taking advantage of existing agile methodologies and scaling them across the entire organization. SAFe is continuously improved and evolved, with the latest version 5 released in February 2021. The concept includes a set of principles, practices and workflows that enable larger organizations to move to an agile approach to working. SAFe picks up many already familiar elements and concepts from existing methods such as Scrum or Lean Project Management, which makes the transition easier for many companies. The basic idea and approach to scaling agility on an enterprise level is to introduce a cycle. Different levels of the company, from the agile team to the management level, work in coordinated cycles or paces to deliver common results at regular intervals.


7 Core Competencies of SAFe

The developers of SAFe have identified seven core competencies for organizations. Each competency consists of a set of interrelated knowledge, skills, and behaviors. By mastering the SAFe competencies, organizations can achieve business agility to quickly respond to changing market conditions, changing customer needs and new technologies. These are the seven core values - briefly and succinctly explained:

1. Lean Agile Leadership: Managers are the very core of lean agile development and business agility. They are the people who drive organizational change and effectiveness, support lifelong learning and the agile mindset, and lead by example. It is up to the management to create the right environment to positively influence teams and individuals.

2. Team and technical agility: Agile teams are the cornerstone of business agility. They must have the necessary technical skills and follow agile principles to deliver high-quality solutions to customers.

3. Agile Product Delivery: Agile Product Delivery is a customer-centric approach to define, create, and release a continuous flow of valuable products and services to customers and users. These capabilities support each other and create opportunities for sustained leadership in the marketplace and services. Thus, the goal is to create a continuous delivery pipeline that is customer-centric and creates real value.

4. Enterprise Solution Delivery: Organizations must apply lean agile principles to rapidly develop, deploy, and operate sophisticated enterprise solutions. This requires collaboration and alignment of processes.

5. Lean Portfolio Management: Achieving business agility requires a modernized approach to portfolio management that aligns strategy, financing and operations by applying lean agile principles.

6. Organizational Agility: In addition to the previously described competencies, companies must be able to react quickly to meet the challenges and opportunities of today's rapidly changing markets. This new reality requires more flexibility and adaptability than traditional hierarchical operating systems can provide. Everyone in the organization should therefore be trained in lean and agile methodologies and apply lean agile principles. These principles and mindsets are then applied to improve business processes and the corporate structure.

7. Continuous Learning Culture: A company should promote continuous learning and drive innovation to exceed the expectations of employees, customers and society. When each individual employee strives for personal growth, the company will also have the opportunity to grow beyond itself.


10 SAFe Principles

In addition to the 7 competencies that SAFe uses to strengthen the lean agile mentality in the company, there are also principles that have been defined to form the framework of the concept. These fixed, i.e. unalterable, ten principles aim to influence leadership behavior and decision making. They serve as a guideline and are intended to communicate the right mindset to all employees at all levels of the company.

#1 Take an economic view

#2 Apply systems thinking

#3 Assume variability; preserve options

#4 Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles

#5 Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems

#6 Visualize and limit WIP (work in progress), reduce batch sizes, and manage waiting times

#7 Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning

#8 Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers

#9 Decentralize decision-making

#10 Organize around value


In the second part of our series on the Scaled Agile Framework, we will introduce you to the most important roles in the agile enterprise according to SAFe 5. Until then, read more articles on similar topics:

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