SAFe Planning and Execution Series Overview

In this first post of our SAFe Planning and Execution Series, we will introduce the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) and its key principles, components, and levels. We’ll also discuss the prerequisites for adopting SAFe. In the following posts, we will dive deeper into

to provide a comprehensive understanding of SAFe Planning and Execution.

A Brief Introduction to SAFe

The Scaled Agile Framework, or SAFe, has become an essential tool for organizations looking to achieve agility and streamline their software development processes. This blog post will concisely overview SAFe, focusing on its important components and structure. It will serve as a foundation for the upcoming posts, where we will dive deeper into the specific aspects of SAFe planning.

At the heart of SAFe, transforming business needs into working software flows through three primary levels: Portfolio, Program, and Delivery. The backlog (portfolio backlog, program backlog, and team backlog) captures the work undertaken at each level, serving as a dynamic repository of requirements, features, and tasks.

Maintaining a continuous flow of work from strategy formulation to product deployment with minimal delays between each processing level achieves agility. The Inspect and Adapt (or Check and Adjust) process examines and adjusts the completed work. This process is part of a feedback loop, enabling course corrections within the three levels. The feedback loops enable rapid course corrections and adjustments, ensuring the organization can adapt to changing market conditions and customer needs.

Key Principles of SAFe

At the core of SAFe are principles derived from Agile, Lean, and Systems Thinking, which form the framework’s foundation, guiding organizations toward achieving true agility. To keep this introduction concise, we’ll touch on a few essential principles:

By adhering to these principles, organizations can effectively navigate the complexities of large-scale software development, optimize value delivery, and foster a culture of continuous improvement.

To read more about Lean-Agile principles, click here.

Strategic Themes

Individual business units typically have portfolios of revenue-generating (or revenue-supporting) products and services within an enterprise. To ensure that these portfolios align with the organization’s overall goals, SAFe introduces the concept of strategic themes.

Strategic themes are portfolio-level business objectives that provide competitive differentiation and strategic advantage. They offer crucial business context for portfolio strategy and decision-making, representing elements of the enterprise’s strategic intent. In other words, strategic themes bridge the organization’s high-level goals and individual portfolios.

Enterprise executives and Lean Portfolio Management (LPM) work closely to establish strategic themes. They analyze various inputs to create a set of strategic themes for each SAFe portfolio. These differentiated business objectives communicate the enterprise’s strategic intent to the portfolio level, ensuring that all efforts align with the organization’s overall goals and vision.

SAFe Requirements Model - Big Picture

Portfolio Management

Portfolio Management is an essential component of the SAFe framework. It involves the centralized management of one or more portfolios to achieve strategic objectives. In this section, we’ll explore the key elements of Portfolio Management: Epics, Portfolio Flow, and Lean Budgets.

A portfolio is a collection of programs or products managed as a group to achieve strategic objectives. The Portfolio Vision describes the future state of a portfolio’s value streams and solutions, which is a critical input for identifying potential epics needed to achieve this future state.

The Lean Portfolio Management (LPM) competency aligns strategy and execution by applying Lean and systems thinking approaches to strategy and investment funding, Agile portfolio operations, and governance. Portfolio management decides which initiatives to implement and in what order or priority.


SAFe packages the initiatives selected to implement the strategy as epics. An Epic is a significant solution development initiative that requires multiple releases (or program increments) to realize fully. Epics are containers for everything needed to provide a solution.

Each epic should have a vision, roadmap, and MVP (minimum viable product) definition. Once the portfolio level fully defines and approves epics, programs pull them from the portfolio backlog and deliver them incrementally via a series of Program Increments (PIs), each typically spanning a 10-12-week time box.

Portfolio Flow

Portfolio Flow describes a state in which Lean Portfolio Management provides a continuous flow of new epics to Solution Trains and Agile Release Trains (ARTs) to achieve the portfolio’s vision and strategic themes. The organization refines epics in the business portfolio via an intake workflow using a kanban, which steers individual epics through a series of workflow states, each representing increasing stages of refinement.

The Portfolio Backlog is a Kanban system used to capture and manage the business and enabler epics intended to create and evolve the portfolio’s products, services, and solutions. Each of the levels in the SAFe framework, including portfolio management, is intended to operate as a feedback loop. This is the heart of the empirical method: Plan-Do-Check-Adjust (or, Build-Measure-Learn).

A fast feedback loop at the portfolio level is essential for ensuring rapid strategy adjustment in response to the changing demands of customers and the market environment.

Lean Budgets

Lean Budgets is a financial governance approach that funds value streams instead of projects, accelerating value delivery and reducing the overhead and costs associated with traditional project cost accounting. Lean Budget Guardrails describe a specific portfolio’s budgeting, spending, and governance policies and practices.

It maintains appropriate levels of oversight through allocating value stream budgets and applying Lean budget guardrails. This approach enables organizations to be more agile and responsive to the dynamic business environment, ensuring continuous alignment of investments with the organization’s strategic objectives.

Program Management

The SAFe framework progresses to Program Management as the next level, where development teams can build tangible product features by translating individual business initiatives (epics).


Features are the primary components that development teams focus on to deliver business value. The strategic objectives set by the portfolio level align with these features. At the program level, teams estimate based on their production capacities (team velocities), with planning granularity at the level of features.

The organization employs mechanisms to ensure alignment between business stakeholders and delivery teams on business outcomes and value. This alignment ensures that the program delivers the maximum possible value while minimizing the risk of miscommunication or misalignment.

Program Flow

At the program level, the tracking granularity is at the feature level. The program-level PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Adjust) cycle responds to emerging program risks, preserving maximum business value.

The primary goal of the program level is to maximize the delivery of value. To achieve this, delivery teams consume refined product features using a feature intake Kanban, which elaborates epics until they are ready. Features refined to this state of readiness are considered part of the program backlog.

The organization evaluates the scope of what can be delivered in a PI using knowledge of team velocities. To derive a viable PI (Program Increment) Plan, program backlog items are broken down into iteration-sized pieces called user stories and estimated. This process ensures that the program operates efficiently and effectively, incrementally delivering value and adapting to the dynamic business environment.

Development Value Streams

A Development Value Stream is the sequence of activities needed to convert a business hypothesis into a digitally-enabled solution that delivers customer value. By organizing people around the Development Value Stream, workflow, efficiency, and time to market can be improved, optimizing the flow of value to the customer across divisions and functional departments.

Teams within the Development Value Stream produce features incrementally via short iterations that deliver production-quality code. Most teams use the Scrum framework to accomplish this, employing sprint planning, daily stand-ups, sprint reviews, and sprint retrospectives to deliver working subsets of their PI objectives every two weeks.

Additional practices, such as Test-Driven Development (TDD) and test automation, are used to ensure that quality is built into every iteration. Systems and software developers, product managers, engineers, scientists, and IT practitioners work primarily in the Development Value Stream, focusing on delivering value to customers through digitally-enabled solutions.

The SAFe Requirements Hierarchy

The SAFe Requirements Hierarchy is a cascading sequence of transformation patterns that continuously convert business initiatives into working software. The hierarchy includes three main elements: Epics, Features, and User Stories.

Epics Features Stories decomposition

  • Epics: Defined by business stakeholders, epics represent individual initiatives needed to implement a strategy. Epics identify specific problems to be solved and provide a high-level solution scope.
  • Features represent solutions to the problems defined in the epics. At the program level, features provide capabilities or services to actual users and are broken down from epics.
  • User Stories: Delivery teams break features into iteration-sized pieces called user stories. These small slices of user functionality can be delivered in single iterations and help teams build out features incrementally.

The SAFe hierarchy stores Epics, Features, and User Stories in separate backlogs at each level – which helps to maintain alignment and effective delivery of business value across the organization.

To further illustrate the SAFe Requirements Hierarchy, let’s consider how to deliver a single epic over four Program Increments:

  1. The business portfolio represents a backlog of epics that usually take multiple PIs to realize fully. 
  2. At the program level, the organization breaks down epics into PI-sized pieces called features, scoping, and sizing them to enable delivery in a single PI.
  3. Delivery teams take features and break them into iteration-sized fragments called user stories, allowing them to deliver small slices of user functionality within single iterations.

To read more about SAFe Portfolio-level requirements management, click here.

To read more about SAFe Program-level requirements management, click here.

To read more about SAFe Team-level requirements management, click here.

For an overview of the SAFe requirements model, click here.

To read about requirements dependency management in multi-team environments, click here.

Prerequisites for Adopting SAFe

It is essential to understand the prerequisites that need to be in place for a successful SAFe implementation. Ensuring your organization has the necessary foundation for adopting SAFe will help smooth the transition and allow for a more effective framework rollout. 

  • Established Teams: Teams, including Product Owners and Scrum Masters, should be proficient in all basic team practices. If not, address this immediately through training.
  • Value Streams Identified: The organization should address any required organizational alignment (or realignment) to ensure strong alignment between business and delivery teams. Designing both operational (order to cash) and development (concept to release) value streams is essential.
  • Agile Release Trains (ARTs) Identified: ARTs support development value streams and should be designed to release value independently. Organize multiple trains by feature areas, ideally allowing each ART to release independently.
  • Cross-Functional Teams: Teams should possess all required skills to deliver valuable, working software. They should know how to produce small slices of valuable functionality as the output of every iteration through user stories that meet the INVEST criteria.
  • Continuous Integration and Test Automation: These practices should be in place or development, ensuring that production-ready software is the output of every iteration. Minimizing lead time from change to production is the goal.

In addition to these prerequisites, further roles and practices are necessary at the program and portfolio levels. We will explore these in subsequent posts in this series.

To read more about implementing Agile in multi-team environments, click here.

To read about the benefits of implementing Agile, click here.


In this blog post, we’ve explored the key elements of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) and how they work together to enable organizations to deliver value quickly and effectively. Let’s recap the main points:

Summary of SAFe Operating Levels

  • At the Portfolio Level, the organization translates business strategy into initiatives represented by epics, which they refine and make ready for consumption by program teams.
  • At the Program Level, the organization fully defines features regarding benefits and acceptance criteria, proposing initial user stories at a headline-level detail.
  • At the Team Level: User stories are refined further through backlog grooming until they are sufficiently well-defined to be implemented via sprints.

SAFe Process Flow Summary

  • The SAFe framework uses interconnected backlogs at the Portfolio, Program, and Team levels, each providing increasing detail and granularity.
  • The output of one set of practices feeds another via backlogs of ready work, realized as a series of interconnected Kanbans.
  • All framework levels run concurrently and largely independently, with the flow between each level managed by appropriately sized backlogs.
  • The SAFe framework provides Definitions of Ready and templates for Epics, Features, and User Stories to ensure a smooth flow between levels.
  • Each backlog is owned and managed by a Product Owner at the Portfolio, Program, and Team levels.

This summary provides a high-level overview of the steps required to define, plan, and deliver work from the business portfolio to working software. The next step is to consider the mechanics and governance mechanisms needed to support these processes consistently. 

Each of the three major operational areas includes a set of practices, artifacts, and roles. In the following posts, we’ll elaborate on these parts of the framework, discussing Lean and Kanban principles, the House of Lean, and prerequisites for adopting SAFe.