September 09, 2021

5 Features That Make Essential SAFe Unique

The Scaled Agile Framework® is a process management model that is quite different from all project management methods. Discover five characteristics that differentiate Essential SAFe® from other methods and why we believe they are unique.

Gerald Aquila

Gerald Aquila

656 words • 6 minutes

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In the following points, we will dive into five unique characteristics of the Essential SAFe framework and what makes them that special.

New to the topic? Try reading our introduction to Essential SAFe first.

Feature 1: Agile Release Train (ART)

The Agile Release Train (ART) is the main organizational structure in the Essential SAFe configuration. The unique characteristic of an ART, which is also the difference to project management, is its duration: an ART has a specific start but no defined end date — it just keeps running.

An Agile Release Train consists of a program level (the ART itself) and a team level (the agile teams the ART coordinates):

  • On the program level, the ART uses a Program Increment as a specific period. Learn more about that feature in the next point.
  • On the team level, the ART's timeline is organized into two-week Sprints, also called "Iterations." These Iterations are always a part of a Program Increment. All agile teams within an ART are Sprint-synchronized to these Iterations. The agile teams usually use Scrum to implement their actual units of work.

Feature 2: Program Increment (PI)

But how do agile teams break down new requirements? This is where a Program Increment (PI) comes into play.

A Program Increment combines a fixed number of Iterations (on team level) into longer "time-boxes" (on program level) within an Agile Release Train. So, the ART is divided into PIs that are typically 8-12 weeks long. In sync with this, the agile teams deliver incremental value within their time frame, hence Iterations.

In general, a Program Increment serves as an overall planning and control measure for an ART. This feature makes Essential SAFe very flexible and enables incremental planning one level above agile teams.

ART SAFe Figure 1: The Agile Release Train

Feature 3: PI Planning Event

Now to perhaps to the most important element of Essential SAFe: the PI Planning Event.

PI Planning defines a (usually hybrid) event where all come together (agile teams, management, and engineers) to plan the upcoming Program Increment. In this two-day meeting, the participants break down features into stories and enablers, identify dependencies and risks, and most importantly, agree on a common plan.

The Program Increment is then executed and controlled according to the agreed plan. However, the last Iteration in each PI is intentionally not planned through, as it is reserved as buffer time and for planning the following PI. In this way, the Agile Release Train can continue at full speed.

Feature 4: Features, Stories, and Enablers

But, when and how do we input new requirements? Business requirements are called "Features" in Essential SAFe and are somewhat like Epics in Scrum. Agile teams break these Features down into User Stories and so-called "Enablers," which are their units of work on the team level.

From a Scrum perspective, Enablers are just like Stories — the main difference is that Enablers are technical stories (necessary to deliver a feature, but not "visible" to the user). In contrast, SAFe stories are real user stories, i.e., they directly contribute value to a feature and are typically visible to the end-user.

Feature 5: Continuous Integration & Solution Delivery

The core concept in Essential SAFe and what makes it an unprecedented framework is its continuous integration (at least internal) and ongoing incremental delivery. This concept ensures that the Agile Release Train never slows down and guarantees consistent quality and early collection of customer feedback.

In SAFe, the agile teams develop multiple Solutions like products, software – anything that delivers value to the customer. Unlike the continuous integration above, Solution deliveries can occur anytime because they are based on business needs. Typically, these deliveries are aligned to Program Increments.

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Relevant Project Management Terms

Agile Teams  

Agile teams consist of 5-11 people who define, develop, test, and deliver an increment in a given iteration (1-4 weeks). They work with agile methods such as Scrum, Kanban, or extreme programming (XP). In SAFe®, multiple agile teams form an agile release train.

Agile Release Train (ART)  

An agile release train consists of multiple agile teams (between 50 and 125 people) who work together to deliver solutions for a program. One characteristic of an ART is that its program is constantly being developed, so it has no end date. The division of an ART into multiple program increments enables flexible and incremental planning.

Program Increment (PI)  

A program increment is a specific period in an agile release train during which agile teams deliver software and systems. Releases can occur at any time and frequency. A PI is between 8-12 weeks long and helps teams work at a specific pace and deliver results faster. At the beginning of each iteration, a PI planning takes place.

Program Increment (PI)-Planning  

Program increment planning is an event where all agile teams from an agile release train plan the next program increment together. This two-day event occurs with every PI change (every 8-12 weeks) and is organized by the release train engineer. The goal is to structure agile teams and involve them in the planning and prioritization process of features.

Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®)  

The main goal of SAFe® is to help product development teams work more continuously and efficiently and execute releases more predictably. Innovativeness and quick reaction to market changes are the focus of this process management model. SAFe® is aimed at companies with more than 100 developers.

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