What the F*%$ is SAFe? A Manager’s Guide to the Mystery of Scaled Agile

I know some managers who are haunted by the words “SAFe” and “scaled agile” in their dreams. It’s because they haven’t got the faintest clue what they mean, but they feel they should, because they work in the agile space.

Problem is, when they do start reading about it, everything they read is as clear as a windshield that’s being pelted with snow and mud and the wipers aren’t working and now they’ve crashed into a tree.

“Planning Intervals”? “Essential SAFe” and “Large Solution SAFe”? “Agile Release Trains”?

Just push me into a ravine and be done with it.

Unfortunately, there’s no getting away from new jargon in the world of tech. What we can get away from is people not explaining these new terms properly.

So let’s remedy that.

Multiple agile teams working together in an agile way

That’s essentially all “scaled agile” is. More than one agile team doing agile together. SAFe, the Scaled Agile Framework, is one of the ways of making this happen.

A methodology like Scrum or Kanban is good for one agile team (of about 8 people). A methodology like SAFe is good for 50+ developers and engineers working on products across 6 or more teams. Importantly, though, SAFe doesn’t just cover the people making the products. It covers everyone, business teams and upper management included. SAFe is a framework that’s designed to span the entire organization.

SAFe operates roughly on three levels: portfolio, program, and project/team. First let’s look at the differences, because this confuses people too. Then we’ll look at how they’re managed in SAFe.

Portfolio vs program vs project

A project is usually defined as a temporary endeavour to achieve an end result. In Jira, the meaning is slightly different as Jira projects aren’t always temporary (although they can be). Often they are just used to represent a specific team and all its work.

A program is a collection of related projects that are managed together.

A portfolio is a collection of programs, projects, and other work designed to fulfil an overarching business objective, aka the “portfolio vision”.

Let’s use ourselves as a practical example. Tempo’s goal is to enable organizations to transform and improve how they work. We have a portfolio to achieve that goal, and within it, we have programs that revolve around our Atlassian apps, apps which support organizational transformation and agile at scale. Within the Custom Charts program, which is all about improving data reporting, we have projects for development, marketing, sales, support, and events.

How is work managed at the 3 levels in SAFe?

1. Portfolio level

The individuals working at the portfolio level are responsible for setting organizational objectives and goals, defining strategy, determining value streams (i.e. the actions required to deliver value to a customer), and allocating budgets.

They’re also responsible for monitoring and measuring, at the highest level, the projects and programs developed to achieve the portfolio vision.

2. Program level

At the program level, you have a collection of different teams working together to deliver solutions in a value stream. This is called the Agile Release Train (ART). In charge of the ART is the Release Train Engineer, which is like a chief Scrum Master for the entire train. Basically, a program manager.

The Agile Release Train delivers value through Planning Intervals (PI). A Planning Interval, previously known as a Program Increment, is a bit like a sprint but for the whole train. It is a set period of 8-12 weeks during which all the teams in the ART work together to release something in the program. They do this in 4-6 iterations or sprints that each take 2-3 weeks. So think of a PI as a big sprint made up of little sprints.

A PI will start with the entire train hearing the portfolio vision. Each individual team then goes away and plans how they will deliver their part of the value stream.

Scrum Masters/product owners for each individual team will meet twice weekly with the Release Train Engineer to discuss progress with stakeholders.

The program level is regarded as the most important of all the Scaled Agile Framework levels.

3. Project/Team

SAFe at the project or team level is, well, what your teams have already been doing (assuming they’re already agile themselves of course).

So SAFe at the team level is individual teams doing Scrum, Kanban, Scrumban etc. to work on their part of the value stream for the Agile Release Train, cooperating with the other teams and ART stakeholders when necessary.

Many teams adopt a specific type of Scrum or Kanban called SAFe Scrum or SAFe Team Kanban to do this.

Catching the (Agile Release) Train

Why is it called the Agile Release Train? 2 reasons.

1. Dates are fixed – like train timetables

Unlike team-level agile where scope and deadlines are variable, dates for work commencement and releasing something in SAFe are fixed. Just like a train departs and arrives at specified times according to its timetable.

2. You can catch another train if you miss it

Trains are frequent, so if you miss one you can simply catch the next. This makes it easier to explain to stakeholders why it’s not the end of the world if you miss a release – another train will be along soon. (Anyone accustomed to British trains probably won’t understand this analogy.)


The gist of SAFe is this: multiple agile teams working together to make and release portions of a program.

Sure, it’s a massive subject and this article only covers a few of the highlights. Basically, what we’ve talked about here is another of the fancy terms we mentioned earlier – Essential SAFe. Essential SAFe is the foundation or entry level for implementing SAFe, i.e. the basic minimum requirements for Agile Release Trains to deliver solutions. It’s your starting point.

There’s also more you’d need to know about Essential SAFe in order to implement SAFe in your organization. Things like ART Flow and Design Thinking and Built-In Quality. And then, as your teams and requirements grow, that’s when you’ll need to go beyond Essential SAFe to consider things like Large Solution SAFe, Portfolio SAFe, and Full SAFe.

However, in the interests of your brain not melting and dribbling out of your ears, let’s save those for another day!

In a future blog, we’ll talk about about SAFe in Jira and how you can report on SAFe with Custom Charts, since a big aspect of SAFe is overseeing progress across the whole Agile Release Train.

If you’re looking for tools to help implement SAFe in your organization, consider Tempo’s modular suite of solutions, designed to overcome the common challenges and pitfalls of enterprise-scale agile.

Christopher is a self-confessed nerd who’d probably take the cake on Mastermind if Star Trek: Voyager was his specialist subject. He writes fiction about time travel, conspiracies and aliens; loves roller coasters, hiking and Christmas; and hates carpet, rom-coms and anything with chilli in it. He’s written extensively for technology companies and Atlassian partners and specializes in translating complicated technical concepts, specs and jargon into readable, benefits-driven copy that casual readers will understand.