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Avoiding the Pitfalls of SAFe

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

There are multiple Agile scaling frameworks out there. However, it is clear who is dominating the market and despite its notable detractors in the Agile community there are many adopting the Scaled Agile Framework ( SAFe).

In our complex world that is moving faster and faster the attraction of structure and predictability is understandable. However viewing SAFe as a process to be adhered to can lead to unintended consequences. Here we present some of the common pitfalls along with suggestions to help you stay safely out of trouble.

Force Fitting Teams Into Trains

SAFe is intended for the development of large systems. Most IT organizations have large portfolios of small applications rather than large systems. Rather than co-dependent teams collaborating to develop and evolve one large system a team might have multiple applications they are responsible for. It can be valuable to have a common cadence and create a sense of common purpose. However forcing teams that are largely independent into a train can cause unnecessary overhead and waste.

Unnecessary Solution Trains

Adding an extra layer creates complexity, overhead and impedes the ability to respond quickly. The guidance for Agile Release Trains is that they consist of 50-125 individuals. Beyond that, the guidance is to have multiple trains organized into a Solution Train. Unless you are building a very large system then you should not be implementing the Solution Layer.

Scaling Too Early

Many make the mistake of scaling before they have established a good flow at the team level. Before introducing PI Planning ensure teams have a good rhythm of making and meeting commitments at the team level.

Over Preparing for PI Planning

PI Planning is a time for everyone to come together and establish a shared understanding of the upcoming objectives. However, in the anxiety to have the event go smoothly, many over prepare for PI Planning and expect commitments around prior decisions. PI Planning is not the blessing of a plan, it is planning and you should expect: learning to occur, constructive conflict to flourish and course corrections to be made.

Too Many Features

Once features become too numerous, all clarity is lost, planning becomes lengthy and tedious and many of the problems we experienced with the waterfall approach start to reemerge. Strategy is about communication. Make sure your features are meaningful to your customer and if your roadmap can't fit on one slide without using a tiny little font then you probably have too many features.

Not Creating Real Objectives

Customers don’t want stories, they want their problems solved. Clearly articulated objectives help provide clear line of sight to the real business needs and empower teams to better deliver value. Aim for objectives that are significant, concrete, action oriented and inspirational.

Staffing Every Role

SAFe covers a great deal of possibilities for agility at scale and so its guidance is broad and generic. Your scope will be narrower. Staffing all the roles in SAFe will lead to a lot of unnecessary overhead. Think of SAFe’s roles as a checklist of responsibilities to be met. Do we need a release train engineer if there are three teams in a train? Maybe not. It is quite possible that the responsibility can be met by one of the Scrum Masters. Does each team need a dedicated Product Owner, not necessarily but all the responsibilities need to be addressed.

Not Broadening Your Horizons

SAFe is not the fountain of all Agile knowledge. It is a knowledge base of proven practices for agility at scale. Much of the content in SAFe is derived from other work and modified by Scaled Agile. To get a deeper understanding of much of SAFe’s content, to stay abreast of new developments and ultimately transcend SAFe, go to the original source for your knowledge and training.

Over Valuing Training and Certification

It takes many months or even years to become comfortable with a new way of working. Do not mistake knowledge for understanding and proficiency. Although just-in-time training is valuable for level setting and accelerating knowledge acquisition, it cannot replace experience. One cannot become an expert in agility at scale by attending a mere 2 day Leading SAFe class.


Scaled Agile has always emphasized that SAFe is a framework that must be tailored to your organizational context. However, either the pull of the past is too strong or the impedance of tailoring is too much for many. Regardless, we must find a way to overcome these challenges as adopting SAFe myopically impedes true agility and places each Agile transformation in jeopardy.

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