SAFe Backlogs 1.2 - The Configurations

SAFe-Backlogs-graphic-1.2 Now, we're starting to get this wood stacked up nice and neat.
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Now that we've reviewed each of the four levels, let's dive into how the four configurations arranges them to achieve specific needs.

Essential SAFe 

Consisting of only the Team and Program levels, Essential SAFe is the core that everything else is built upon. In this configuration you have two levels of backlogs:

  1. The various Team backlogs with stories in them. These backlogs are managed by the Product Owners and every work item must be deliverable by a single team within a single iteration. The PO should be prioritizing these work items in order to achieve the team's business goals, which were set during PI planning.
  2. The Program backlog with features in it. These features are timeboxed to fit within a PI but will potentially span any or all teams on the ART. The Product Management group defines the features and uses WSJF to prioritize them for best effect. Prioritization and grooming of the features must precede the actual work by a full PI, as the PI boundary is the main entry-point for getting work in front of the teams.

Essential SAFe is designed to be utilized as the starting point for most SAFe implementations. With the Program level and features being the top of the food chain, this configuration is best suited for medium-sized companies where the executive branch is closer to the actual work. It also works well in larger organizations that are just starting their SAFe journey and want to 'kick the tires' before committing to a full-scale implementation. Additional levels can be added on top after SAFe has proven its value to the organization, or as needed.

Backlog management is pretty straightforward with the Product Management group managing requirement intake, feature curation and assisting PO's and teams with feature breakdown and iteration planning via PI timeboxes. At each PI planning session, teams will commit to delivering stories that have been decomposed from features in order to deliver business goals to the organization. 

Portfolio SAFe 

The next configuration takes Essential SAFe and adds the Portfolio level to the top of it. This level adds in epics as the top-level work item and a new method of curating those epics, the funnel we described above. The Lean Portfolio Management team is in charge of this backlog and uses the funnel to ensure that the company's value streams are being delivered to the customer. As stated before, epics continue to be elaborated until they fail the "pivot or persevere" decision that is part of the LPM team's duties.

Portfolio SAFe is the logical next step after an organization has experienced initial success with Essential SAFe. Alternatively, many companies simply start here and can immediately start to see full-stack benefits of large-scale work management.

Large Solution SAFe 

For all those times when your solution is just too big for a single ART! The Large Solution SAFe will be implementing Essential SAFe, but with a Large Solution level put in over the top of the Program level. In most every respect this level operates as a larger Program level, but with multiple Program backlogs rolling up into the Solution backlog. The work items, capabilities, are still timeboxed to a single PI, but now may decompose into features sitting in different ART's.

Why would you need multiple ART's? Well, obviously to service extremely large solutions, but also when your solution has hardware, software and/or firmware aspects. These various pieces of the product have intricate interdependencies, but the skills required to produce them are varying. In such cases, many organizations will organize a software ART, a hardware ART and maybe even a firmware ART. The Large Solution level is where cross-train dependencies are tracked and mitigated and where cross-domain planning occurs.

Full SAFe 

The whole enchilada, as it were. Full SAFe brings all four levels to bear on an organization's challenges. You'll have four backlogs:

  1. Team - holding stories, aimed at delivering business goals on a per-PI basis.
  2. Program - handling features for a single ART, these features fit within PI's, but are decomposed into stories.
  3. Large Solution - Manages capabilities, which look, act and feel like features, but span multiple ARTs and break down into the features that sit in single trains.
  4. Portfolio - Here, epics service value streams and break down into capabilities or features in whichever backlog level makes the most sense.

This level is definitely the big-leagues of agility at scale. Successful implementation requires the full, consistent and sustained attention of the entire organization. From PI to PI the company should see substantial progress towards epic completion with strong feedback into the critical "pivot or persevere" decision. Bi-weekly demos of working systems should serve as a real-world progress report of the uber-team's effectiveness.


This installment has been a big one. We've reviewed the distinctions between levels and configurations. We've also dove deeper into each level and then into each configuration. Along the way, we've reviewed how the backlogs feed into each other and how the work items support the organization in its efforts to satisfy customer needs.

I want to close this section with one of the most important points about this entire structure. At every level of SAFe the theories, values and principles defined in agile, Scrum, and even SAFe itself are all honored and practiced.

  • Work is iteratively planned by the teams doing the work
  • The state of the work is immediately transparent to all concerned
  • Feedback loops are critical to ensuring that we are building the right thing
  • Customer satisfaction is the primary goal
  • Nothing beats useful, working software
  • And so many more

The work items and backlogs are the mechanical representation of these theories, values and principles, but can never be successful without them.

Additional Posts in This Series:

SAFe Backlogs 1.1

​When I am working with a client who is new to the Scaled Agile framework, or I'm delivering a training course for soon-to-be agilists, there's always a large number of questions about how the SAFe backlogs and work items relate to each other. These questions are understandable when you look over the Big Picture and see all of the different element...

SAFe Backlogs 1.3

Introduction  Thanks for sticking with us through this three part series on SAFe backlogs! We've finally arrived at the final portion, where we'll be talking about the actual work items themselves. To date we've gotten a good look at the

SAFe Backlogs 1.3
SAFe Backlogs 1.1

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