Three elephants of Scaled Agile implementation

Key Facts


  • Since its invention in 2011, SAFe gained massive popularity. According to the official website of Scaled Agile, more than 1,000,000 practitioners and 20,000 enterprises worldwide use this framework. Gartner names SAFe the #1 most considered and adopted framework for scaling Agile.
  • Nonetheless and based on our experience, there are still three main fields (elephants) where fundamental issues arise during SAFe implementation:
    • Properly set up processes are the first crucial aspect of a successful SAFe implementation, and continuous learning is the key ingredient for improving these processes.
    • The second crucial aspect is values, specifically transparency and trust. Cultivating these values allows people to perform their best, leading to the best possible results for a company.
    • The third crucial aspect is leadership, which involves persistently driving change while empowering teams to take responsibility for the final product.

Introduction: What is SAFe and why is it taking over the world?

In today's fast-paced business environment, finding a balanced and successful way to run a business is more challenging than ever. In this race of searching for the panacea of business organization, we have plenty of different choices. Starting from the classical non-project approach, through the waterfall to various Agile methodologies, given a lot of studies showing efficiency and improvement from the use of Agile practices, a lot of companies choose this path for project implementation. Although the success rate of Agile approaches continues to be evaluated much more positively compared to classic project management1, big companies struggle to apply them to their processes across the organization. While classical Agile approaches provide higher flexibility and the ability to respond faster to market changes, they do not give enough alignment, coordination, and adherence to common goals between different product groups. Some organizations start to adopt Agile organically, just with one team. However, when they try to scale processes across several teams or departments, they fail to do so. The need for alignment, planning, cadence, roles, and communication, which may have seemed simple among a dozen team members, becomes challenging to implement across hundreds and even thousands of people2. Therefore, companies face a lot of difficulties trying to find out their path by rethinking Agile and creating a mixed methodology monsters. Most of them, eventually, do not achieve the desired results in terms of time to market, quality, and risk reduction. In 2011, a new approach, the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®), was invented. SAFe® is a set of organizational and workflow patterns for implementing Agile practices at an enterprise scope.It is a system for scaling Agile across teams, business units, and even entire organizations. The ten principles of this approach focus on comprising traditional Agile values, like decentralization, variability, and incremental delivery, with lean management and focus on value, economic view, and synchronization4. The framework is a body of knowledge that includes structured guidance on roles and responsibilities, how to plan and manage the work, and values to uphold. Agile teams are working according to SAFe principles to deliver value by means of PI planning, cadence, ARTs, and IP iterations. The idea is that small Agile teams are coordinated so that they could drive the company towards its strategic economic goals. Below is the table, with ten main SAFe elements, as a short reminder of the basics.

10 main SAFe elements

Since its invention, SAFe gained massive popularity. According to the official website of Scaled Agile, more than 1,000,000 practitioners and 20,000 enterprises worldwide use this framework. Gartner names SAFe the #1 most considered and adopted framework for scaling Agile. Almost one-third of all people who work in Agile teams now, do it in terms of scaling framework. 


10 main SAFe elements


But why did scaled frameworks become so popular? On the one hand, it comprises modern approaches with predictability and control that are important for large enterprises. On the other hand, the main reason would be its results. According to the survey, held among the users of these approaches, 74% claim the improvement in results and efficiency achieved using scaling frameworks.

Results that a company deciding to use SAFe can achieve.

Expected results of SAFe implementation look tremendously great: up to 50 % increase in engagement and productivity and up to 75% improvement in quality and time to market. No wonder that just by looking at the picture one can decide for this approach. There are two points we should mention here. Firstly, these figures are average among about twenty thousand enterprises and, therefore, cannot guarantee improvement in all cases. Secondly, it shows only the result, but not the path to this result. If by applying SAFe methodology, we would be able to achieve the above-mentioned progress, the question that immediately would arise is HOW. The goal of this blogpost is to share our experience with SAFe and to summarize three main fields where the most problems of implementation arise.

Three elephants preventing safe from failing

In Hindu mythology the Earth was flat and was supported by fourth elephants. People believed that these elephants were preventing it from failing. And like elephants that were supposed to hold the Earth, there are some factors that can support your Scaled Agile transformation and prevent it from failure. In this blogpost we summarized our experience in three dimensions: processes, values and leadership. We called these dimensions “elephants” for the sake of visibility. The fourth “elephant” of SAFe is considered to be company-specific factor. This “mystery elephant” should be the object of case-study for every company before start of SAFe transformation. Therefore, we are focusing in this blogpost on three elephants and will show you, how to enable their support.

Elephant one – Processes

For any changes in the work model to be successfully implemented, the right processes should be identified and proposed. Moreover, knowing that any meaningful change takes time and effort, one should take the most effective path for it. This general idea also applies to changes connected with SAFe implementation. The SAFe methodology proposes a roadmap of implementation that is not dependent on the initial state of the system. Both former waterfall and ad hoc Agile organizations should go through the same path of the implementation process. The infographic below shows all the steps that need to be taken for successful SAFe implementation.


12 Steps of SAFe implementation

The official SAFe framework claims that the roadmap is the same for all systems, regardless of their previous state. Our experience in different projects shows the necessity of the initial state of the organisation. Depending on practices the company used before switching to Scaled Agile, it is possible to make the following division:

  1. Scaling from a small Agile team
    1. A start-up that grows into a big company
    2. Independent Agile business unit, in which experience is shared for the whole organization
  2. Transformation from Waterfall or other classical project approaches
  3. Transformation from a non-project organization

Given that bigger difficulties and flaws stemming from the initial state of the system are already known, it is easier to avoid mistakes during implementation. For example, while allocating roles or defining project artefacts, one may consider that a company never worked with Agile processes and focus more on learning an explanation of basic concepts. Changing culture and behaviours will also be needed in this case. And purely Agile teams coming into SAFe will need to be focused on the explanation of cadences and common values to give the understanding, of why it is necessary to align with other teams within the organisation. Therefore, we would give an overview of these initial states of the system. It would allow an understanding of what should be in focus during the implementation of SAFe in each of these systems.

Initial state 1: small Agile team

1.1 Start-up that grows into a big company
Starting a start-up with a team of ten people is a good reason to use pure Agile practices. However, when this start-up is scaling rapidly and the team already exceeds one hundred people, standard Agile methodology will not work as effectively, and there will be a need for other ways of organizing processes. Scaling Agile is difficult because one needs to find a perfect balance between collective alignment and local flexibility, or with simpler words, between control and freedom. Some Agile adherents even claim that this balance is not possible to achieve. It is quite clear, why this path is difficult for most teams. If in the classic Agile approach, a team can choose the weight of story points, the length of iteration and take other important decisions, in SAFe there is a need to synchronize actions of many teams and reach a general convention about all main artefacts. Of course, if the team is given less freedom, it may result in lower motivation and hence lower productivity. Therefore, for a transformation of a start-up to a SAFe organization, it is important to focus on the explanation of bigger common goals and the necessity for alignment.

1.2 Independent Agile business unit, which experience is shared for the whole organization
Imagine that there is a company, where Agile is applied in one or several IT-teams, for example in mobile development, and the rest of the company works in the classic Waterfall or non-project approach. Given the results of the Agile team may motivate to expand this approach to the whole company, there is a high probability of facing difficulties with it. Firstly, if something worked on a small team, it will not automatically work with a large group of people. It means, that one cannot simply scale Agile by using the same practices, which a small team had, for a 1000-person organization. It will not be as simple as that. There would be a need to transform the whole organization and introduce common values, processes, tooling, and metrics. In the chapter about values (Elephant two), we will go into the details of mindset changes necessary for this transformation.

Initial state 2: Transformation from Waterfall or other classical project approaches

If in the first case with the Agile team the biggest difficulty was that the team used to have a lot of freedom, here we have a vice-versa situation. In the classical project approaches the delivery process is planned in detail and leaves little freedom to take decisions during the implementation. Project managers, as “heads of the project” are responsible for estimation of work packages and the whole project plan. A team in this case plays the role of “hands,” implementing already taken decisions. When we try to transform processes, it is difficult for people in the beginning to be ready to start making decisions. As the experience of many projects shows, team members try to avoid taking responsibility by transferring all questions to higher management or their team. In the following sections we will come to the problem of values and discuss it more in detail. In this part, we would focus on processes that would help people to adapt. The iterative development process in comparison to classical project approaches allows trying, and failing, making changes, and achieving results. If there is a failure at the initial stages of the project, it is always easier to adapt and to transform, in comparison to failures revealed only at the point of going live. The early failures save time and resources of the team. Moreover, the focus is shifted from a project to a product-oriented approach and from short-term goals to bigger-picture aims. The focus here should be on empowering people to take responsibility by providing them with a set of processes, allowing them to learn by doing and failing.

Initial state 3: Transformation from a non-project organization

When transforming from non-project culture to SAFe, all the issues of the previous part are applied. However, there are additional difficulties to be considered. Firstly, during the introduction of new processes, higher learning and involvement of all future Agile team members and leadership is necessary. Employees need to learn basic concepts of the project approach and the difference between project and their previous methods of work. For example, the project always has boundaries, such as time, money, and scope. It is easy in terms of logic and best practices to introduce SAFe for development, IT, and other business areas where the delivery can be incremental, it might be difficult to do it beyond IT, as the delivery process of other departments might be far from incremental. There are not many existing cases of successful implementation of SAFe for legal, commercial, HR and other business supporting functions. Nevertheless, even in these areas we know exceptionally good examples of transformation. In HR, for instance, some functions like hiring or payoffs will still be non-project, but one can have effective projects in employee motivation, involvement, and other spheres. We had an experience of incremental projects for employer brand, where different incentives for employees were tested continuously to learn the most effective ones. And learning is the next step of the path along processes.

Continuous learning as a crucial safe process

The roadmap of SAFe implementation that we have reviewed in the previous section consists of twelve steps. Although it is not possible to say, which step is the most important, because a company needs to go through all of them, we want to focus on the necessity of establishing of proper continuous learning process. The whole roadmap of SAFe implementation is focused on training. As it is stated in official SAFe methodology, firstly, we train our leaders and managers, who could drive processes, and then we train teams. Usually, there are several officially recognized institutions in each country, where it is possible to receive the necessary training and be allowed then to pass SAFe certification. However, two issues often arise within this process of learning.

Firstly, time spent during training and additional reading may not provide enough capabilities to lead the implementation of changes. For some people, it is just an additional certificate for their LinkedIn portfolio. And no structural changes happen in their companies as a result. For others, visioners, it might be a great interesting direction, but it will take them much more than two days (standard length of SAFe training), to learn how to go this path.

Secondly, the knowledge received in the training should be successfully transferred. And it is much more difficult to explain and implement new processes than just to get acquainted and understand them. Given that most of training participants have full-time jobs with corresponding responsibilities, it becomes difficult for them to drive the change in parallel. Therefore, it is advised to set up a continuous learning system by creating a “Center of Excellence.” Of course, all corresponding processes need to be updated to allow the center to drive the changes. For example, give the necessary authority to make decisions. The Center of Excellence provides guidance and experience. Lately, it became increasingly popular among different enterprises to create centers of excellence, which comprise experts in the field and provide comprehensive support, standards, reference architectures, new use cases and other best practices. There are different examples of such centers: RPA13, Mobile technologies, SAP, and others. The team is full-time involved in the work of the center and plays the role of a single point of contact for all arising questions in the sphere of the center. The same idea is proposed for SAFe implementation. An enthusiastic and devoted team will drive changes within a company, spending 100% of their work time on these needs. One can train existing employees and involve external consulting for implementation or hire SAFe experts. Important here is to resort to best practices, which are widespread and available for learning. Throughout the implementation journey, it is not enough to give a high-level guidance on the scaled Agile. It is necessary to go through this road with expertise and best practices. This approach will help to reach transformation goals and not to give up on the first difficulty. Another part of continuous learning is the process of teams getting knowledge and experience in SAFe processes. Agile teams learn how to gain maximum cooperation and efficiency from the work together. Usually, in SAFe every release is divided into sprints (iterations) and each fifth of them is devoted to learning. The teams can get trainings or work on innovative solutions. This sprint can also be used for closing tasks from previous sprints, for minimization of technical debt or preparation for PI Planning. Even though the temptation to use this time for progressing in current release goals might be high, especially if KPIs are at stake, management and teams should remember the initial goal of this time and try to invest at least part of it in the learning and development.

Throughout the project, teams are not the only ones who are learning. Program management always analyses and evolves processes to find out best ways to organize tracking and progress on the program level by setting up overarching structures and rules, changing and adapting them based on release results and encouraging teams to be a part of bigger goals. There is always a difficult path to finding a right balance between the freedom of teams and coherence within a program.

On the one hand, some of the best practices and especially in the beginning should be acquired from experienced advisors, either external or internal. From our experience, usually companies resort to external support at the beginning for the center of excellence, then grow and educate internal experts who replace external advisors, becoming a single point of contact for all SAFerelated questions.

On the other hand, all best practices should be adapted for a particular project through its implementation. The trade-off between freedom and control for teams is based on a variety of factors, such as Agile experience, program goals (to deliver the product asap or to regard the project as a learning process), the company´s culture and many other factors. For steering and managing purposes we need to ensure common rules and processes, such as cadences or common metrics that help to analyse progress. The teams should be able to make decisions and take responsibility for them, otherwise, we would end up in a total control type of project. Therefore, too much control is as bad as too much freedom. The further we go throughout the project, the more we understand, what the best trade-off should be.

Our first elephant that holds SAFe organization is processes and the lack of common processes increases the time to market and makes transformation impossible. However, every process is as good, as the people following it and they should be trained and led through the implementation path. Therefore, continuous learning is the most important ingredient of successfully working processes. In the next section we will focus deeper on values and people behind them.

Elephant two – Values

In this part we will have a closer look at values to explain why they are an inevitable part of every successful SAFe implementation. Firstly, let us review the proposed SAFe values, secondly, we will analyse, why it is so difficult to implement them and, finally, we will consider ideas for successful values implementation gained from the experience of our projects.

SAFe as an approach has 10 values
#1 Take an economic view
#2 Apply systems thinking
#3 Assume variability; preserve options
#4 Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles
#5 Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems
#6 Visualize and limit WIP, reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths
#7 Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning
#8 Unlock the intrinsic motivation of Knowledge workers
#9 Decentralize decision-making
#10 Organize around value

These values are needed to be implemented while formulating Strategic themes (company goals). Portfolio vision is derived from them and then split into the backlog for teams. Some companies also use Objective Key Results (OKR) to set up goals and metrics because it provides clarity in vision and enhances strategic alignment across the portfolio. Another way of monitoring business outcomes are milestones, which help to organize and visualize customer value. Each of these attitudes has its benefits, however, during the implementation, one should be consistent in the use of tools. As every Agile methodology, SAFe struggles to give a single solution for finding a balance between Agile freedom and control that limits team autonomy. Part of this problem can be resolved by setting up common processes. Nevertheless, SAFe implementation will not be successful without a major cultural shift. But why it is so difficult to bring new values into a company? To answer this question, we may start with the definition of the word value. Cambridge dictionary defines value as “the importance or worth of something for someone14.” It means that values are certain ideas that are important to a certain group of people which is the reason they would stick to them.

Therefore, the more important certain values for people are, the more difficult and time-consuming the cultural shift will be. For example, in some traditional companies, the total support of the leader´s opinion and actions are a part of the corporate culture. People do not feel empowered to speak against and are afraid to show any problems in front of leaders. It results in gaps between expectations and reality. When we implement SAFe in such companies, we face a strictly formal attitude with iteration review functioning as a theatre play in front of stakeholders. Officially, these companies use SAFe, but the values of SAFe are not applied there. As a result, either goals are not reached, or they are reached but the reality has already gone far beyond them, and the products became outdated. Another struggle that we will face is the unwillingness of people to change the behaviour they are used to, due to the tendency to live a life in patterns. Such behaviour reduces the number of day-to-day decisions and brings a feeling of stability to life. Same route to work, same time for morning coffee, same processes to manage daily work. Here are the examples of typical behaviour that we face at the start of SAFe implementation: opaque culture, weak collaboration, adherence to reports or metrics, and other patterns.

How can companies cope with all above-mentioned problems and ensure a successful cultural shift? Firstly, we need to understand that the process will be time and resource-consuming. We need to explain new values and their benefits firstly, to show how they can be used in daily business and to motivate people to try them. The center of excellence should start this shift; leadership should drive it. It is also beneficial to find supportive team members to make them promoters of new values. Peer pressure by trusted and respected co-workers will be an immensely powerful tool for this cultural shift. To ensure progress, the values of transparency and accountability should be cultivated. It is possible only if people are not afraid to fail and if they have a strong feeling of adherence to the company and its values. In this case, they feel like a responsible entrepreneur. They are not afraid of deciding and taking responsibility for it, because they know that they can always be open about any risks and problems and will not be punished for it. It also allows people to focus on value rather than volume, for example, on the customer satisfaction rather than on the number of delivered features. 74% of "consistently Agile" employees see change as an integral part of the culture, at least in individual areas, compared to only 38% for classic project management. Understanding the struggle of change that people will have, it is necessary to make the transition path for them as easy as possible by making benefits understandable and reachable. Of course, there might be a situation of high resistance, and there is nothing one can do against human will.

However, assuming that most of our team members are “rational consumers”, it is expected that they evaluate benefits and will use tools to reach them if these tools are efficient. Therefore, the role here is to provide clear goals and all necessary “equipment” to reach them. By “Equipment”, we mean a set of skills and knowledge that empower people to achieve goals. This knowledge should be acquired as a part of the continuous learning process, driven by the Center of Excellence and leadership. Given that change in the cultural perception of employees is an inevitable condition of successful SAFe transformation, companies may consider it necessary to invest more resources into a valueshifting approach. The next section focuses on leaders, whose devotion to change plays the most significant role in the transformation process and setting up new values and corporate culture.

Elephant three – Leadership

In this section components of successful lean-Agile leadership for SAFe transformation will be
analysed. These components were broken down into three main ones: motivation, competence,
and responsibility.


Leadership possesses perspective and vision and drives the changes by being enthusiastic about transformation and having the power for implementing innovative approaches. In the example of a big enterprise with several entities, we can see that the success of changes had a direct correlation with the devotion of leaders of these companies to changes. For other entities, SAFe was an imposed conception that was used on top of all existing methods and mostly just for beautiful presentations in front of executives. Given that one of the main tasks for a leader is to motivate people, during transformation, the leader should be even stronger in his skills to drive the change.


Leadership has the competence to make decisions, and lack of this competence results in inconsistent transformation. While proposing and implementing changes, leadership should be persistent in their attitude. It is easier for people to work as they did it always, therefore, the incentive to come back to old processes is always high. A leader should possess knowledge not only in the professional field, but also in people management. And the more Agile and servant type of leadership we aim for, the more advanced these management skills should be. In SAFe it is also important to show the vision, namely, where to move, without prescribing how to move. It would teams to choose the best solutions for an enterprise16. Finally, leaders should also know and understand SAFe rules and values, as there is no opportunity for successful transformation without them.

To sum up, a great leader, who can successfully drive SAFe transformation, should possess the sum of the following competencies: professional field knowledge, people management and SAFe basics. And, of course, there is always a need to learn and adapt. For example, based on the results achieved in main control metrics: employee engagement, time to market, quality, and productivity.


Even if all corresponding processes are set up, the culture will not change in a day, and it will not change at all if the leader is not driving this change. If we set up an Agile culture with a focus on learning and incremental growth, leaders should behave correspondingly. They need to be ready to give the freedom of decision-making to teams. At the same time, the freedom of making mistakes should also be given. In some examples, leaders were very enthusiastic and supportive, but only until the moment of the first failure. If we do not provide consistent support for the transformation, even during its lower periods, we do not give employees the feeling of trust. Namely, this feeling is playing a pivotal role to give teams the courage to try, investigate innovative solutions, learn and, finally, progress.

A leader should take responsibility and be ready to defend the processes, even if there is no steady progress so far. Readiness to protect a project from driving back to standard patterns, when facing first difficulties, means readiness to fail, to learn from it and to implement actions to go further along the SAFe path. This readiness prescribes the leader to be more adaptive. In the situation of constant change, it is crucial to focus on strategic goals, while considering dozens of varied factors arising daily. For the implementation, the whole leadership team may be involved. This team will manage collaboration, dependencies, and progress metrics. Given that in SAFe there are a lot of teams involved in one delivery train, there is a constant need for alignment and adaptation to changes.

Therefore, the leader should be ready to take responsibility for making tough decisions, for accepting failures, for protection of project and teams. This behaviour empowers Agile teams to take responsibility by allowing them to make mistakes, which finally brings progress to the project.


In this blogpost we described three elephants of successful SAFe implementation: processes, values, and leadership. Properly set up processes are the first elephant of successful SAFe implementation and continuous learning is the key ingredient for working processes. Depending on the initial state of the organization, different challenges will apply and, therefore, it is needed to analyse and focus on the most crucial spheres.
The second elephant is values, more specifically - transparency and trust. Cultivation of these values will allow people to perform at the highest level and achieving best results for a company. Given that people struggle to change the behaviour they are used to, the need here is to make new values and benefits from these values clear for them. Moreover, all necessary knowledge and skills should be given to teams to empower them reaching set goals.
Leadership is the third elephant. To drive changes and to motivate people, a Lean-Agile leader should comprise professional skills, people management and SAFe knowledge. Having all processes in place and people willing to follow them, a leader who has all the above-mentioned qualities will be able to drive his organization successfully through the whole SAFe implementation path.
Like elephants that were supposed to hold the Earth, these three dimensions: processes, values and leadership hold SAFe implementation from failing. During this path, do not hesitate to resort to external support: there are plenty of best practices, experience and knowledge that could be applied to spare time, efforts, and resources in the SAFe implementation path.


Meet our authors

Reference items

Expert EN - Fabian Meyer

Fabian Meyer
Managing Partner

As Managing Partner at CORE, Fabian Meyer is responsible for the implementation of complex IT projects with a focus on digitalization projects in the banking industry. He has several years of consu...

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As Managing Partner at CORE, Fabian Meyer is responsible for the implementation of complex IT projects with a focus on digitalization projects in the banking industry. He has several years of consulting experience in the banking sector and in transformation engineering.

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Expert EN - Marian Matthies

Marian Matthies
Transformation Director

Marian Matthies is a Transformation Director at CORE. Marian has several years of experience with large-scale transformation projects in the automotive industry. He has lead multiple initiatives in...

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Marian Matthies is a Transformation Director at CORE. Marian has several years of experience with large-scale transformation projects in the automotive industry. He has lead multiple initiatives introducing agile ways of working.

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Expert EN - Anastasia Fedorova

Anastasia Fedorova
Transformation Manager

Anastasia Fedorova is Transformation Manager at CORE. With 10 years of experience in project management, Anastasia was driving various transformation projects in different countries. Her focus area...

Read more

Anastasia Fedorova is Transformation Manager at CORE. With 10 years of experience in project management, Anastasia was driving various transformation projects in different countries. Her focus areas are mobile applications, digitalisation, and Agile practices. As certified SAFe Agilist and OKR Master, Anastasia brings clients her expertise in successful implementation of Scaled Agile Framework.

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