the four or three levels of the scaled agile framework

Put simply: What are the four levels of the scaled agile framework?

Your company is planning an agile transformation? It plans to scale agile methods across teams – or has it already done so? Everyone talks about the different levels and configuration options in the context of, for example, scaled agile frameworks and scaled agile business value such as SAFe®? Yes, these terms are not that easy to understand.

With this article I am trying to help you understand the scaled agile framework levels and configurations (SAFe®in an easy way! Before I start, this article has nothing to do with the Large scale scrum framework (short: LeSS).

What are the three levels of the scaled agile framework?

In order to be able to scale agile methods, the (SAFe®) has different so-called levels.

To make it short, the 3 levels of scaled agile framework are team level, program level and portfolio level.

So within the scaled agile framework the level above team is program level, then comes portfolio level.

It has to be added that since the latest version of SAFe® 5.0, 3 levels of scaled agile framework are not enough anymore - another fourth level has been added. So the question that we should rather ask is, what are the four levels of the scaled agile framework?

Before we go any deeper, a quick note. We recently had 11 international senior agile practitioners as guests in one of our webinars, asking one question: How do you scale agile methods the right way?

The result of this is the following fantastic video recording that answers some of the key questions when scaling agile, for example:

  • Should you start your agile transformation rather bottom-up or top-down?
  • How do you align leadership on a common goal and vision?
  • How do you choose the right agile framework – and why is that actually not that important?

 My recommendation: take a look! The video is rather long, but every single minute is worth it.

What are the four levels of the scaled agile framework?

The four levels of the scaled agile framework are team level, program level, portfolio level and also include the large solution level. Now let us get a little deeper and discover how to raise the scaled agile business value.

  • Scaled Agile Framework Level 1: Team Level
    One or a few teams working on something. Within the scaled agile framework the level above team level is…
  • Scaled Agile Framework Level 2: Program level
    The Program Level contains many teams to deliver solutions via a so-called “Agile Release Train” (ART). An Agile Release Train (ART) is typically a number of 50 to 130 people - organized in sub-teams - working together to deliver value. An Agile Release Train is organized by so-called “teams-of-teams”.
  • Scaled Agile Framework Level 3: Large Solution Level
    In this case, two or more Agile Release Trains are necessary. We need a “teams-of-teams-of-teams'' to organize it. All the Agile Release Trains together are called a Solution Train.
  • Scaled Agile Framework Level 4: Portfolio Level
    In this case, the entire business (or business area) implemented the agile methodology. Therefore, you do not only have to organize IT-teams - you also have to organize your management practices through agile methodologies. Lean budgeting and strategic governance processes come into play. 

The four levels of the scaled agile framework and their configuration options in SAFe® – An illustration

To have a clear name for how you implement SAFe®, there are four more terms we should know: Essential SAFe®, Large solution SAFe®, Portfolio SAFe® and Full SAFe®.

These four do not explain the “level” SAFe® is implemented at, but in what configuration.

Phew, seems complicated. The following graphic tries to help you further understand how the terms play together.

The four levels of the scaled agile framework | Echometer

Large solution SAFe® is built on top of Essential SAFe®, but excludes portfolio management - because not the whole business (or business area) is using SAFe®.

If you are implementing SAFe® throughout a large company with hundreds of employees, multiple teams and lots of integrations, you are using Full SAFe®.

By the way, talking about agile transformation... one quick hint: Do you want to make sure that you are setting the right priorities in your agile transformation ? 

Fill out our agile maturity assessment for your agile transformation – it only takes 3 minutes! You will even get a benchmark based on the more than 300 participants we already have. Have fun 🙂

Agile Maturity Assessment

What are the four levels of the scaled agile framework? An example!

To make this model even clearer, I will use an example I found in a great video by Angelo Kalevela. 

You will probably know Google Drive? Google Drive has many sub-apps: Google Docs, Google Spreadsheets, Google Slides… Similar to Microsoft Office.

Let us imagine each of these sub-apps - for example Google Slides - is developed by one team. In that case, all these sub-teams or sub-apps taken together will form one Agile Release Train, working on one “program”. In other words, Google Drive on its own is one Agile Release Train that implemented the scaled agile framework on program level. 

If only the “Google Drive department” in Google would use the scaled agile framework, then we would say that it uses Essential SAFe®.

Essential SAFe scaled agile framework example | Echometer

Now this is important: Let us imagine Google Drive would be a company on its own and the management team and processes would be organized by agile methodologies (lean budgeting etc.). In that case - because the whole business uses agile methodologies - Google Drive implemented Portfolio SAFe®.

Portfolio SAFe scaled agile framework example | Echometer

The four levels of the scaled agile framework - Large Solutiion & Full SAFe

As we all know, Google is quite big and Google Drive is not the only “program” they are working on. There is for example also the “Google Daily Suite'' which includes Gmail, Google Calendar and Google contacts.

Again, if these sub-areas would be single teams, we could say we have another Agile Release Train working on another “program”.

If these two programs (and Agile Release Trains) work closely together - within the much bigger Google cooperation - they implemented a large solution safe configuration.

Large solution SAFe scaled agile framework example | Echometer

However, now let us imagine Google Drive and Google Daily would be a company on its own and the management team and processes would be organized by agile methodologies (lean budgeting etc.). 

In that case, because the whole business (consisting of more than one program and Agile Release train) uses agile methodologies - Google Drive implemented Full SAFe®.

Full SAFe scaled agile framework value stream example | Echometer

The four levels of the Scaled Agile Framework – Conclusion

Just to make this clear - I do not know how Google organizes. This is just an example!

And to make this also clear: The given explanation is simplicizing a lot of things. A lot of aspects of the scaled agile framework are missing and sometimes maybe even not 100% precise - this is simply to make it easier for you to get a basic understanding of the four levels of the scaled agile framework.

One question you might ask yourself is how one actually measures the success of agile methods in scaled environments. In short, to answer that please take a look at our blog post "Agility Health Radar: The 13 Most Popular Models".

SAFE®: © Scaled Agile, Inc. Explore Training at: https://www.scaledagile.com/training/calendar/

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