SAFe® 5.0 in a Nutshell for Executives

Jan 10, 2020

While that statement may sound extreme, it emphasizes a current reality: digital disruption is changing the landscape of business. As Mik Kersten points out in his book Project to Product: “the tech giants that have mastered software at scale are expanding into traditional business…are mastering traditional businesses more quickly than the world’s established companies are mastering software delivery.

“Big wheels move slowly” is a saying often used as an excuse for slow delivery, yet the tech giants continue to grow AND move quickly. They look at business differently and don’t embrace all the structures and management practices from the past. They recognize that many of these constructs have now become impediments to remaining competitive in today’s market.

So what is different about these fast-moving behemoths that allows them to enter traditional markets and thrive? A casual observer might assume that tools and infrastructure are giving them the competitive advantage, but these are just byproducts of what really fuels the nimble giants: it’s a new way of working; it’s alignment in delivering solutions at scale; it’s business agility.

While Agile may have originated with small teams of software engineers, it’s grown to encompass teams of teams, delivering solutions that synthesize both digital and traditional. Essentially, Agile has matured and scaled so that the resulting practices and structures require alignment with the entire enterprise and impact other business areas. Traditional businesses need to transform so that they can remain competitive, and different Agile scaling frameworks have emerged to address this need.

Of the various frameworks, I believe that the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe) 5.0 is the one that best addresses the most common questions and solves the critical need to transform for today’s business environment. In this article, I’ll tell you what you need to know about SAFe 5.0 and why the Lean-Agile Leadership competency in particular is so crucial to maintaining a competitive advantage in an era of digital disruption.


SAFe® 5.0 and the 7 Core Competencies

SAFe 5.0 is a significant evolution over 2019’s SAFe 4.6 framework, casting a vision for business agility and defining it as: “the ability to compete and thrive in the digital age by quickly responding to market changes and emerging opportunities with innovative business solutions.” (© Scaled Agile, Inc.)

SAFe 5.0 is market-driven and centered on the customer. It identifies seven core competencies and the corresponding techniques to measure, prioritize and relentlessly improve. Not every organization is ready to immediately adopt all seven competencies, but understanding how these competencies impact the entire enterprise and having an implementation plan (such as the SAFe Implementation Roadmap) are essential to thriving in the new marketplace.

There are 3 tactical competencies in SAFe 5.0:

  1. Team and Technical Agility synchronizes high-performing, cross-functional Agile Teams, where business and technical teams collaborate to deliver quality business solutions that delight customers.
  2. Agile Product Delivery is a customer-centric discipline that uses Design Thinking and Lean DevOps practices to continuously explore, integrate, deploy and innovate with a predictable and aligned cadence.
  3. Enterprise Solution Delivery applies Lean System Engineering to build and continually evolve large systems that align with the full supply chain.

The next 3 core competencies in SAFe 5.0 are more strategic:

  1. Lean Portfolio Management is a nimble and lightweight governance model that aligns strategy, funding and execution to optimize operations across the portfolio.
  2. Organizational Agility fosters a Lean-Agile mindset across the enterprise so that business operations can respond quickly to opportunities and threats in a quick and Lean fashion.
  3. Continuous Learning Culture drives relentless improvement as everyone takes ownership to explore, innovate and learn while they continue to deliver value.

The 7th and foundational core competency of SAFe 5.0 is Lean-Agile Leadership. The tendency for many digital transformations is to start changing the teams, which is certainly important. However, transformations quickly hit a ceiling and often fizzle when the other competencies are ignored. There’s a proverb that says: “Without a vision, the people perish.” Leaders are the vision-casters, and it’s their active participation that connects vision with outcome. They help people see what the future reality looks like.


Why Lean-Agile Leadership is Your Priority

Leaders need to lead

A Lean-Agile Leader is not a finish-line critic, nor a side-line cheerleader. They lead by example, embracing and exemplifying the Mindset & Principles because the new way of working requires a new way of thinking. Lean-Agile Leaders actually lead change and proactively seek to help their people reach the vision. For example: a cheerleader may applaud a team’s results, but a Lean-Agile Leader will exemplify servant-leadership and ask, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Lean Leadership

Leaders need to understand

As a young naval officer, I learned that I was ultimately accountable for everything in my area of responsibility. If something didn’t make sense to me, then either I needed to ramp up quickly or work with others to quickly fix a flawed system. My experience as a consultant working with many different businesses has only solidified my belief that leaders must seek to understand. While they can delegate responsibility, they can’t delegate accountability.

As the Backwards Bicycle video by Destin Sandlin at Smarter Every Day illustrates, knowledge is not understanding. There’s a martial arts proverb: “Learn the way, then make your own way.” Taking a class or reading a book can give you knowledge, but having a mentor will take you farther faster. Having an experienced Agile Coach walk with you and your people will streamline your transformation.

The Cost of Transformation

Be aware that there is a personal cost to transformation: your active participation as an executive. You are the foundation of Lean-Agile Leadership. People need your vision, your commitment to understanding, your supportive leadership. You can be a good leader or you can be a bad leader, but either way you’re a leader. Be a good leader.

Looking for an experienced partner to assist in your SAFe 5.0 Transformation? Drop us a note and we’ll set you up with a free phone consultation with one of our SAFe Program Consultants.

Written by Mitch Malloy


Mitchell “Mitch” Malloy has 25+ years in the software industry. As a Coach and Mentor for 10+ years, he keeps a focus on value, an eye for excellence, and a passion for people. Since the 1990s, Mitch practiced Agile techniques while growing in his own Agile journey. He has led and participated in numerous Agile Transformations for companies of all sizes, where he has mentored others in Agile values, principles, and techniques.