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UX in SAFe? Trains!? What?

Working with UX in Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)


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Dina Zuko

a year ago | 5 min read

Train!? Runways? What??? I must say I was confused when I started working with SAFe. Sure, I had heard of SAFe but it wasn’t until I started working with it that I started to understand the complexity.

I guess that all of you reading this have worked with, or are currently working in an agile team, using frameworks like Scrum or Kanban. As you probably know the agile teams are self-organized and consist of a product owner, scrum master, and the development team members. The UX or UI designers do not have a specific role in the agile team, the designer is just a “development team member”.

Agile teams can be viewed as separate islands within the organization. The agile teams have their separate backlogs. They may or may not collaborate with other teams in the organization. They may or may not know how to ask for a feature from other teams. They may or may not know what the other teams in the company are working with.

In many organizations, the big picture is missing. Teams are focused on what they are currently working with and may not be aware of company goals. It is perhaps difficult to ask for help from other teams, or difficult to collaborate with other teams when something big needs to be done. These kinds of difficulties can hopefully be solved by using the Scaled Agile Framework, SAFe.

What is the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)?

Scaled Agile Framework, SAFe, was developed by Scaled Agile back in 2010. SAFe is a set of workflow patterns for implementing lean-agile practices at the enterprise level. It described a framework, called the “Agile Enterprise Big Picture”, that visualized how to apply Lean and Agile practices and principles to the teams but also at the enterprise level.

The concepts behind the Big Picture drew from the knowledge pools of Lean, Kanban, Scrum, and Extreme Programming (XP), as well as Don Reinertsen’s The Principles of Product Development Flow.

Today, SAFe is the world’s leading framework for enterprise agility according to Scale Agile. On their to the information on the Scaled Agile website, the world’s most successful brands are using SAFe. Over 70% of US Fortune 100 enterprises have Certified SAFe professionals continuously delivering value on a regular and predictable schedule. The companies using SAFe have experienced:

  • 30–75% faster time to market
  • 10–50% increased employee engagement
  • 25–75% increase in productivity
  • 20–50% improvements in quality

SAFe in practice

So what does it mean to work in an organization that is using SAFe? Well, for me, it was quite confusing in the begging. The first thing I did when I started my new job in August 2020 was to take part in a two-day online SAFe course. The new terminology was confusing. They were talking about trains, runways, big-picture, roadmaps… Confusing…

I eventually understood that the difference between working in an ordinary Scrum team and SAFe is that every Scrum-team is part of an Agile Release Train, ART. Every 10 weeks there is Program Increment, PI, planning, an event that serves as the heartbeat of the ART, aligning all the teams on the ART to a shared mission and vision.

During the PI planning, the teams discuss which features will deliver the biggest value for the end-user. It is called business value. At the end of the PI planning, the teams commit to delivering a specific business value at the end of the increment (until the next PI planning).

You can find more info on PI planning at Scaled Agile PI Planning.

UX in SAFe — The double diamond

In SAFe version 5.0 that was released in January 2020, the double diamond was added. It represents consumer centricity and design thinking. Yay!

Link to image

SAFe version 5.0 puts the customer at the center of every decision. It emphasizes listening to both external and internal “customers” to better understand their needs. SAFe stresses the importance to make sure that we don’t get lost in the mechanics of the process because ultimately, our “customers” determine whether a value was received or not.

Link to image

Version 5.0 encompasses creative problem-solving. It also promotes user personas, empathy maps, and journey maps to better understand user needs and deliver value. Great stuff.

For more about the double diamond, Scaled Agile — Design Thinking.

Where is my place as a UX designer?

In SAFe the UX designer can either be part of a specific team, an ART, or a Shared Service.

UX designer in a Scrum team

Being part of a specific Scrum team in SAFe is pretty much the same as being a designer in a Scrum team in an organization that does not use SAFe. Except that you have a PI planning every 10 weeks and should have a better understanding of the companies visions and goals.

UX designer in an Agile Release Train, ART

When the UX designer is placed at the ART level the designer will work with all the teams within the ART. During the PI planning, the designer will plan to distribute her time among the teams in the ART. It might be that several designers or/and researchers are working with the same ART.

UX design as a Shared Service

Shared Services represents the specialty roles, people, and services required for the success of an ART but that cannot be dedicated full-time. Because these individuals have specialized skills, often single-sourced and typically quite busy, each ART must plan to engage the shared services personnel it needs, when it needs them.

This means that the different ARTs would ask for help from UX Shared Service when they need their skills. But since consumer centricity and design thinking are a significant part of SAFe 5.0 the ARTs should more or less need UX expertise all the time. So maybe a UX Shared Service should be a compliment with specialized skills, assisting the UX designer in teams and ARTs.

Since I only have a few months of experience working with SAFe I can’t really offer advice on the best way to this. I am mainly working within my Scrum team but I am also helping other teams in my train. Confusing is a word a have used a few times in this article and it is. Is SAFe perhaps too complex? Almost all the data and information I have shared with you in this article is from Scaled Agile, the developers of SAFe.

Not much is written about it which is interesting since it is the new “leading framework for enterprise agility”. I found one article written by Sean Dexter, a UX and product designer at Cigna, “Beware SAFe (the Scaled Agile Framework for Enterprise), an Unholy Incarnation of Darkness”. As you could probably guess he is not a fan. Read it, it is quite intriguing.

As I said, I am new to SAfe. I really have no clue if it is any good yet. Maybe it will turn out to be great or as Jared Spool puts it, “SAFe is an agile organization’s fast path to mediocrity.”

Thank you for reading.

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